Aaron Rodgers, looking grizzled with flecks of white in his bushy beard, stepped to the podium after another disappointing playoff exit and compared the Green Bay Packers’ 2019 run to the embarrassment of the 2016 NFC Championship Game. This felt different, he said. Though the gap between the Packers and 49ers looks big, it’s not, he insisted, pointing to leadership as one of the driving factors. Then again, your two-time MVP quarterback can’t exactly say, “Well, we need to figure out what to do with Bryan Bulaga, upgrade the defensive line, add speed and linebacker, and for chrissakes, get me a receiver who can run.”
Maybe the Packers are closer to the 49ers than it appears. Who are you going to believe, Rodgers or your lying eyes? The answer, it turns out, doesn’t really matter, but rather reflects an unfortunate truth about a consistent theme of the Rodgers era: they’re rarely the better team.
Fans, and media analysis slap the “underachiever” label on the Packers in the Rodgers era, but is that based on the quality of the team or the individual talents of the team’s virtuoso quarterback? If anything, Rodgers pushed the Packers above their heads consistently, particularly in the postseason.
The Super Bowl run included four wins away from Lambeau Field, all as underdogs. Green Bay went to San Francisco, Seattle, and Atlanta for three NFC Championship Games, all of which featured them as serious dogs. Losing those games does not reflect failure on the part of Rodgers, though he deserves blame for failing to score points in the first halves of each of the last two conference championships.
Better teams tend to win.
In fact, the only time the Packers lost in the playoffs to the “better” team came in 2011 to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants. There’s a case for 2013 as well, but the Packers squeaked into the playoffs thanks to an epic Lions collapse and some Week 17 Rodgers heroics. Not to mention, if Micah Hyde catches a walk-in pick-six, the Packers win that game at home. Even so, that 49ers team played better, won more games in the regular season, and executed a better game plan at Lambeau Field that day.
To wit, when was the last time the Packers came into the season as the favorite? When were they considered clearly the best team, or even not-so-clearly? There’s a case for the 2017 season, coming off Run the Table, but the Packers went back to Atlanta early that season and again struggled. Quinten Rollins and Damarious Randall never developed the way the team hoped, and by the end of the season, with Rodgers hurt, the cracks in the personnel looked more like craters. Rodgers’ absence revealed the flaws for what they were.
After an offseason of defensive reconstruction, a coaching change and culture reset, and a new offensive scheme, the Packers turned 6-9-1 into 13-3, but played more like a nine or 10-win team. They finished 10th in DVOA, and while the defense got better, the offense remained stuck in neutral. Neither the talent on this team nor the play on the field pointed to one of two best teams in the NFC. Green Bay hasn’t finished as one of the two best NFC teams by DVOA since 2014 and even then they were clearly second fiddle to the Seahawks.
The NFC’s dominant force beats down the Packers, but Green Bay manages to find its way into a rematch for a chance to go the Super Bowl; 2019 echoes 2014 in that way, though that NFC Championship Game, as painful as it was to endure, reflected the kind of gap Rodgers insists currently exists between this team and the 49ers.
Remember too, the Saints were supposedly the “better” team and they lost at home to a Vikings team (also widely considered better than the Packers) that Green Bay stomped twice. Two of Rodgers’ most iconic playoff performances came at the expense of so-called better teams, on the road against top-seeded Dallas in 2016 and Atlanta back in 2010. The Packers can no longer rely solely on the estimable ability of Rodgers’ right arm. That much has been clear for years.
In an embarrassing loss to the 49ers back in 2012, Colin Kaepernick and Greg Roman pulled down Dom Capers’ pants on national television. Conservatism cost the Packers a chance to pull away against the Seahawks, and the Packers coached once again came up short in the playoffs on Sunday. One could excuse first-year coach Matt LaFleur, but not his veteran defensive coordinator. Mike Pettine endured through the Mike McCarthy chopping block specifically to avoid the kind of performances we saw against the 49ers, where Raheem Mostert wracked up over 140 before contact.
That’s scheme, run fits, and personnel.
Kenny Clark can’t hold the point of attack alone, which would be slightly less problematic if the Packers had one linebacker who could run as well as any of the three on the field for the 49ers. Speed in the 49ers back end stymied the sub-standard athletes on the Packers — outside of Davante Adams, who was once again brilliant. Green Bay’s stars can still shine, but the rest of their night sky remain too cloaked in darkness.
Would Kris Richard or Wade Phillips be a better fit for a team looking to contend again next year? How far can LaFleur push this offense, considering they didn’t even have time or the personnel to run hurry-up (as Rodgers noted after the loss)? Those are questions LaFleur must answer this offseason for the Packers to compete with the conference elites. LaFleur’s emboldening of his players created an atmosphere this team loves. The next step, much like his predecessor in Green Bay, involves his evolution as a schemer of offense, not just a culture-setter.
Brian Gutekunst faces his own task of bolstering this roster. To be sure, he’s excelled in the draft and free agency at identifying talent and finding value. Draft trades for Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage look inspired, as do the deals for the Smith Brothers. With plenty of money to spend, Gutekunst has the chance to patch holes at receiver, defensive line and linebacker where the team desperately needs speed and playmaking. Luckily this draft features a historic talent crop at receiver, and athletic linebackers are the only kind capable of playing in college these days, deepening the talent pool for the Packers.
They may have been 13-3 this season, but the Packers weren’t the best team, not the most talented, nor the best coached. That’s not a prerequisite for a Super Bowl and Rodgers and Co. proved that, but Green Bay will only get so many opportunities with their future Hall of Fame quarterback. Whether Rodgers is right about being close to the 49ers is immaterial because it’s clear they’re not as good as San Francisco. The degree to which that is true doesn’t matter. The Packers have to get better to avoid once again losing to the “better” team.
There’s no shame in losing to the better team, but there’s no honor or glory in it either.