Aaron Rodgers would fix everything. It could have been the title of the Packers 2018 offseason, or the headline for the last five years of the organization’s team-building philosophy under Ted Thompson. When a collarbone injury spoiled a promising start for Green Bay in 2017, Brett Hundley and Co. managed just enough wins to keep the Packers in the playoff hunt for Rodgers’ way-too-soon return.
Mike McCarthy finally, mercifully, made a change at defensive coordinator, bringing in the pedigreed Mike Pettine to replace the anachronistic Dom Capers. Mark Murphy slid Thompson a step closer to retirement, installing Brian Gutekunst as general manger, and all was right in the world.
Or so many thought.
An organizational shakeup, a gut check season, and the return of the best football player on God’s green (and gold) earth would bring this team back to Titletown glory. Until it didn’t. An injury in Week 1 to Rodgers robbed him of his ability to move, improvise and break down defenses, exposing the lack of creativity long prevalent in McCarthy’s offense. Injuries to Geronimo Allison and Randall Cobb proved just how valuable Jordy Nelson was to this offense even if he had lost a step or three. And despite improvements to defensive personnel, injuries tore through that side of the ball, undercutting any strides made by Gutekunst in using the draft and free agency (quelle surprise) in the spring.
If winning is a habit, so is complacency. The last two seasons in Green Bay proved how deeply rooted that little monster became.
The Packers haven’t used a top-100 draft pick on a skill position player since Davante Adams in 2014. Their idea of solidifying the offensive line was to show T.J. Lang and Josh Sitton the door with no obvious replacements, and while Lane Taylor has emerged as a solid guard, the right side remains an utter black hole.
What’s more, McCarthy proved either incapable of unwilling to make changes to his offense to the point he lost his team. Watching the Packers this season, I kept going back to something Robert Mays wrote for the Ringer in early fall:
At this point, we expect Rodgers to be a cure-all, a real-life superhero who masks the Packers’ other woes. But it’s becoming easier to see the extent to which Green Bay’s scheme caps his otherworldy ceiling with each passing season. As the Rams and Chiefs devise systems to rain down fire on opposing defenses, the Packers keep trudging through the schematic muck under head coach Mike McCarthy. Rodgers is still Rodgers, albeit a hampered version as he deals with a lingering knee injury. But this could really be the year that the Packers’ inability to keep pace with the rest of the NFL bars them from the playoffs even with Rodgers on the field for all 16 games.
The last line perfectly encapsulates the 2018 season. The Packers haven’t been keeping pace, not schematically, not philosophically, and not culturally. Draft-and-develop works when you’re hitting on picks, but Thompson missed myriad opportunities to improve this team on the margins with mid-level and lever lower-level free agents. McCarthy’s schematic stagnation has been well-documented and it’s clear the players on the team no longer trusted him to design and call an offense. And while the rest of the league was pouring resources into edge rushers, the Packer shrugged and walked away whistling with their hands in their pockets.
Rodgers himself must also stand tall to face the slings and arrows here as well. There’s an old saying in the NFL that a great quarterback never gets a coach fired. Rodgers may not have openly attempted to get McCarthy fired, but his subversion of the head coach, flatly dismissing playcalls, and inconsistent play helped torpedo him just the same. The quarterback we saw in 2014 has only been seen for brief glimpses since then thanks to a mixture of lack of confidence in the offense and lack of discipline within it. The time for dick measuring is over; the quarterback won. Now go play like the MVP and best player in the game again.
After this season, it should be clear Rodgers needed this reset as much as anyone. When your quarterback is openly admitting on ESPN to being bored in practice, the writing should have been on the wall. McCarthy no longer engaged him, challenged him, coached him. Matt Nagy is always on the sidelines talking to Mitch Trubisky while the Bears defense was on the field. When was the last time we saw McCarthy do that? He needs someone to get him re-focused, re-engaged, and back playing more rhythm football than backyard football.
Rodgers knows what’s being said about him — the whispers about his undermining of McCarthy, the questions about his leadership. It’s not a coincidence he insisted on playing the final two weeks of the season despite myriad injuries in order to show just what kind of leader he is. In Week 16 in the comeback against the Jets, he reminded the fans, the team and the organization about why he is such a special player. A player famous for carrying slights with him, there’s no doubt Rodgers will shoulder the takes, the criticisms and the doubters.
In a post-Run the Table world, coming off a 2017 where it was clear how badly the Packers needed Rodgers, a season in which Rodgers finally had to admit he needed some help too could return the equilibrium to this team.
The failures of 2018 started much sooner and are structural, institutional shortcomings stemming from the Ted Thompson era and a spoiling through success. The collapse of that culture, both good and bad, come as a necessary reckoning for a team on the precipice. In all likelihood, the Packers are due for a wandering in the wilderness period in a post-Rodgers world. Teams don’t luck into HOF quarterbacks twice, much less three times. Mark Murphy and Brian Gutekunst have to get this right in order to maximize what is left of Rodgers’ prime before the metaphoric winter comes. It’s up to them to decide if these two seasons signal the beginning of the end, or demarcate a momentous change in course toward recapturing success.