The rift growing between the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers can’t be filled with first-round receivers. The more we learn about the antipathy between team and quarterback, the clearer it becomes that the reasons for it stem from miscommunications, half-communications, and a failure by the team to anticipate or mitigate the reaction from their star player to team roster moves. It’s possible nothing could have changed about the last few years except calling Rodgers a couple times before making certain moves.
Lumped into this criticism of the team — and there are plenty of worthy criticisms to level from failing to account for his frustrations years ago with a lack of input to not giving him a heads up on moves that impact him — comes this idea the team hasn’t sufficiently surrounded Rodgers with talent. The team should have gone more “all-in.”
The Jordan Love pick embodies that lack of urgency. At a moment when the team was a game away from the Super Bowl, the franchise decided to select Rodgers’ potential successor rather than a player, any player, who could help the team win while Rodgers is on it.
Inevitably, the example turns to the Saints. They engaged in roster shenanigans, contract chicanery, and made aggressive moves like trading up in the draft and giving up first-round picks to target specific players they see as able to have a high-impact. Here’s the problem: they weren’t any more successful than Green Bay taking the same approach with their superstar, future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Five playoff wins since 2009, four of them in the Wild Card round, and four 7-9 seasons in Brees’ prime speak to a team unable to hold onto any kind of consistency despite walking a salary cap tightrope and churning the roster with trades.
Since 2008, when the Packers moved on from Brett Favre in favor of Rodgers, the New Orleans Saints accumulated 11 players who went to Pro Bowls, accounting for a total of 31 Pro Bowl seasons. One of those was punter Thomas Morstead and another was returner Deonte Harris.
Their “all-in” free agent strategy netted them all of four Pro Bowl seasons, including one from kicker Will Lutz. The other three came from trading Jimmy Graham for Max Unger, signing Jared Cook (who Green Bay had signed the year before, when he missed half the year with injury) and Ben Grubbs.
That list also includes very good players in the draft like Akiem Hicks, who truly blossomed in Chicago; Malcolm Jenkins, who played his best football in Philadelphia; Brandin Cooks, who not only produced 1,000-yard seasons for them and ultimately netted a first-round pick; Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, one of the most versatile pass defenders in the league; and Ryan Ramczyk, who has been an All-Pro but not a Pro Bowl player (David Bakhtiari approves).
Those players certainly count, but in the case of Hicks and Jenkins, for example, they don’t benefit from those players reaching their peaks elsewhere. They were quality picks, but not useful to the Saints’ cause.
By contrast, the Packers drafted a whopping 16 players who made Pro Bowls since 2008, accounting for 28 Pro Bowl seasons. That includes a handful of years where Bakhtiari made the All-Pro team but not the Pro Bowl and Corey Linsley’s 2020 season where that also happened. Green Bay managed to draft more quality players, whereas the Saints derived sustained quality. Excluding special teamers, the total seasons are basically even.
Such wildly different approaches must have led to commensurately disparate outcomes right? Since 2008, the Saints are 133-75, a 64% win, with eight playoff appearances. That’s pretty good in a vacuum, but it also features four losing seasons. Over that same time period, the Packers are 132-74-2, a shade over 63% with 10 playoff appearances. That’s with Rodgers missing half of two seasons. One head coach got fired and another missed a year because his team was trying to injure opponents, so let’s call that a wash.
Green Bay has more NFC Championship Game appearances in the two years with Matt LaFleur than the Saints have since ‘09. What’s more, the Packers have more playoff wins after Wild Card weekend in just the last two years than the Saints managed since that Super Bowl win. Green Bay’s four conference championship game appearances the last decade are the most in the NFC. And that doesn’t even count the Super Bowl from ‘10.
By any measure, this has been the most consistent franchise in the NFC since Rodgers arrived. To be sure, Rodgers drives the car that makes that possible. But the car offers all sorts of amenities as well. Five skill players earned Pro Bowl nods since 2008 for the Packers. Four for the Saints. Even doing the thing the Packers have struggled the most to successfully do—put defenses around Rodgers—they’ve actually done more successfully than the Saints in that time period.
None of this is to say Ted Thompson or Brian Gutekunst’s approach has been perfect. Certainly the communication errors by Gutey turned out to be toxic to the relationship with the star quarterback. Thompson’s refusal to engage at all with free agency, coupled with a dry spell of drafting, doomed this team to goodness over greatness. In retrospect, 2014 was the aberration amidst a post-Super Bowl decline when they were never clearly the best team in the conference but always one of the best.
Contrary to some fans’ beliefs, that’s not the goal for the Packers. They want to win Super Bowls. Gutekunst brought a far more aggressive approach once he took over, but the front office, under a restructured administrative system thanks to Mark Murphy, have made interpersonal mistakes, not personnel mistakes.
That’s the irony of the current standoff between QB1 and GM: Gutekunst actually did many of the things Mike McCarthy and Rodgers wished Ted Thompson did for years as the team perpetually came up short and never took big swings in the draft or free agency to remedy it. Another solid draft to fill key holes at cornerback and offensive line (plus a receiver!) speak to how well Gutekunt has managed the roster.
But he, along with Murphy, failed to manage the most important player on their roster. Sean Payton would take Drew Brees off the field in big moments to play a backup tight end/special teams player at quarterback, and yet their relationship never soured anywhere near this level. Following the Saints’ lead on roster building likely wouldn’t have netted different results, but taking their lead on handling a superstar quarterback could have avoided a lot of heartache.