The Green Bay Packers have frittered away Aaron Rodgers’ prime. Sat at 2-2-1, second in the NFC North, Rodgers is facing the prospect of another season in which he shoulders the burden of an entire organization.
Rodgers will turn 35 this season, and is arguably the most talented quarterback of all time. And yet, he has been to fewer Super Bowls than the likes of Eli Manning and Kurt Warner, talented enough players but well below Rodgers in the pecking order. Indeed, since Green Bay won the Super Bowl in 2011, the team has surrounded Rodgers with a grab bag of mediocrity: weapons, scheme, coaching, and a less than complementary defense. Changes were made upstairs this offseason in an attempt to kickstart a mini-revolution. But the club’s philosophy stayed the same, relying on developing young players, despite calls for the team to be more aggressive in pursuing proven, veteran talent.
Head coach Mike McCarthy and company have shown some willingness to adapt on offense but they are hardly innovators. Predictability can be OK, provided the team has the talent to consistently win one-on-one match-ups: for example, everyone knows what Rob Gronkowski is going to run and they still can’t stop him. But Green Bay have a batch of receivers who are wholly reliant on play design to spring them open, or Rodgers dancing around and creating some magic – something that often opens him up to the risk of injury.
Not all of this is McCarthy’s fault. Rodgers deserves some portion of the schematic blame. It’s difficulties to marry a scheme to his skillset. The art of the broken play should be a secondary option, not the primary. All too often Rodgers is happy to pass up a rhythm throw to play some backyard football. It’s where he’s at his most dazzling best, but the entire offense can fall off-script.
It’s been much the same on the opposite side of the ball. Since the 2011 title, the Packers defense has been in a steady decline. The group has averaged out as the 17th most efficient in the league, peaking at eighth in 2012 and slumping as low as 31st in 2013. They’re 17th so far this season.
The much-promised shift towards an “aggressive” offseason, in which the team would recruit talented veterans, didn’t really materialize. The team is once again relying on rookies and sophomores to play well beyond their years. It’s hard to understand Green Bay’s long-term plan. They espouse the “draft-and-develop” philosophy that sees them sit out free-agency under the guise of acting responsibly, but then don’t follow up on it. If that’s the plan, once their players have developed, they should be retained.
In consecutive years, they’ve lost Casey Heyward, Micah Hyde, TJ Lang, Josh Sitton, JC Tretter and traded Demarious Randall. Losing a couple of established players is fine. But losing their replacements, the players who have been groomed to take over — Hyde and Tretter — makes little sense.
What happens after players leave Green Bay doesn’t say much for the Packers’ coaching either. Hyde has developed into one of the most valuable defensive backs anywhere in the league in Buffalo. Heyward has been posting career years with the Chargers. Tretter, Lang, and Sitton have all been invaluable contributors at their new spots.
The Randall move may hurt most of all. The team’s 2015 first-round draft pick switched organizations and positions this offseason, traded to the Browns in exchange for backup quarterback DeShone Kizer. Both changes have done Randall the world of good. He’s changed from a mistake-prone corner in Green Bay to a high-level middle of the field safety for the Browns, gobbling up everything in front of him.
This isn’t anything new. Since his early days, the Packers have consistently failed to surround Rodgers with skill-position talent at the peak of their powers. Instead, they’ve invested resources elsewhere, saddling Rodgers with creaking former stars and a raft of young pups just trying to keep their heads above water. Why weren’t the Pack in for Josh Gordon? Of course, Bill Belichick got Tom Brady some extra help.
It’s reminiscent of a fellow superstar, a transformational athlete wedded to an incompetent organization: LeBron James. Remember James’s first go around with the Cavs? The team stunk, top to bottom and James had to escape the torment, skedaddling to Miami. He returned to the Cavs only because of further incompetence. The Cavaliers wound up with the first pick in the draft three of the four years he was patrolling South Beach and one of those picks – Kyrie Irving – was crucial in eventually delivering James a title on his return to Cleveland.
The difference with Rodgers, is that the Packers aren’t bad enough to pick up that many No1 picks and he isn’t leaving Green Bay anytime soon – he recently signed a four-year extension worth $134m, with $80m guaranteed. The legacy implications attached to these next four years are massive.
Sure, people can tell the next generation all about his unmatched efficiency metrics. How he threw the ball with a combination of flair, and power, and grace, the likes of which are matched only by Steve Young (and, perhaps, Patrick Mahomes). They will be greeted with scoffs. How could the most talented guy at the most important position in sports win only one championship in two decades, they’ll say – even if Super Bowl wins are a crude method of valuing a player’s worth.
You can tell Rodgers is feeling it. Since inking his new deal, he’s been more willing to show his teeth: criticizing the team’s effort in practice, his coaches’ play-calling, and branding his receivers “piss poor”.
He knows the idea of organizational self-sabotage won’t live long in people’s memories. No one will remember who his third receiver was. Blame will be laid at his door, challenging his mental toughness or whatever intangible gift is ascribed to the likes of Tom Brady and Joe Montana. Those two, along with Peyton Manning, will live in a post-career tier of their own. Rodgers knows he belongs with those guys but time is running out on his chance to rack up titles. Follow the Brady path, and Rodgers has six years left at the top. At some point, Rodgers’s mobility, a key asset, will decline. He’ll need some help.
More than likely, barring another injury, he’ll find a way to guide Green Bay back to the post-season this year. But does anyone expect them to put up much of a fight in a loaded NFC? Getting there alone will be a slog in a stacked North – every team has at least two wins so far.
Something needs to change. Failing to get back to the Super Bowl in the last seven tries isn’t good enough for a team with a once-in-a-lifetime talent at the most critical position in sports. Rodgers has been betrayed by his organization for too long: sweeping moves should come to Green Bay this offseason, if not sooner.