Dougherty: Aaron Rodgers couldn't have asked for a better shot at going out on top
GREEN BAY - If this is Aaron Rodgers’ last dance with the Green Bay Packers, he couldn’t have asked for a better shot at taking his leave on top.
Yes, this is the most talented Packers team in what has been a decade of close championship calls.
The last time the Packers’ prospects looked this promising going into Week 1 was 2011, when they went 15-1 only to flame out in the divisional round of the playoffs.
That was also the season Rodgers emerged as a playmaker extraordinaire. He won his first MVP and started a 10-year run in which the Packers had the second-most wins in the NFL but failed to bring home another Lombardi trophy. This is looking very much like the last chance for Rodgers and the Packers to get that done.
I’d put the odds on Rodgers playing elsewhere next year in the 80-20, 90-10 range. He’s very likely gone. But never say never in the NFL, where seasons are like dog years. Who knows what might happen over the next six months to change his mind? For that matter, contrary to a national report last month, the Packers haven’t promised to trade him next year if he asks. They’ve only agreed to revisit the issue, though if he still wants out that might be their most attractive option anyway.
Regardless, for all the carping at general manager Brian Gutekunst for the Rodgers rupture, there’s no denying he’s putting a quality team on the field. Seven players in ESPN’s top-100 list, six in NFL Network’s. Only Tampa Bay had more on either list, with eight on both.
These Packers’ chances are as good as anybody’s. Their odds for winning the Super Bowl (12-to-1, according to FanDuel) tie them with Buffalo for third-best, behind only Kansas City (5-to-1) and Tampa Bay (11-to-2).
For all the handwringing from April through July, the Packers’ offseason Rodgers crisis did not carry over into training camp, and for one reason above all: He showed up on time. That one I didn’t see coming. I thought he’d skip at least a couple of days, if not more, despite the hefty mandatory fines ($50,000 a day). Drive home his point and try to rework his contract to cover the cost.
“I was shocked by that,” said a front-office executive for another team. “My thought was this guy can’t hem and haw all offseason and then show up on time like it’s all for nothing. And he did.”
Not exactly for nothing. Rodgers did get the Packers to shave a year off his deal, which makes 2022 his final season on paper. That improves the odds of a reckoning next February or March. The Packers won’t have to trade him if he asks, but short of a Rodgers contract extension Gutekunst will have to decide whether to get as much as he can in a trade, or hold on for a final run in ’22 and then lose Rodgers in free agency for only a compensatory third-round pick.
Either way, Rodgers’ on-time arrival defused everything, at least up to now. The guess here is if he’d shown up late, fan sentiment would have been against him. But that first day there was nary a boo or catcall at the quarterback from the stands, and that’s the way it stayed all camp. For now, everyone seems to be honoring a truce.
You never know what’s going on behind closed doors, but this camp looked just like any other. Rodgers appeared fully engaged and seemed happy enough. As far as his play, I’ve covered all his training camps and don’t remember him looking sharper.
At age 37 he’s not the mobile playmaker he was a decade ago, but his arm talent is as good as ever, and his command Year 3 in Matt LaFleur’s offense is supreme.
In comparing this team to 2011, yes, the Packers’ receivers corps of a decade ago was better. That team was explosive as it gets. Its average of 35 points a game ranks sixth in NFL history.
But can we finally dispense with the nonsense that Rodgers is somehow saddled with his current corps? The group in ’11 (Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Donald Driver, rookie Randall Cobb and tight end Jermichael Finley) was deeper. But 2021 Davante Adams is the best of them all, Marquez Valdes-Scantling is still ascending and one of the best deep threats in the game, and tight end Robert Tonyan looks even better this year than last. Rodgers has his share of weapons.
And there’s no comparison between the 2011 run game and now. Aaron Jones blows away Ryan Grant and James Starks as a runner and receiver. For all we know, AJ Dillon and even rookie Kylin Hill are better, too. LaFleur’s run game is Rodgers’ best friend. This team might not be as purely explosive as in ’11, but it should be tough to stop.
The Packers have plenty of talent on defense, too, even if they finished No. 13 in points and passer rating allowed last year. Jaire Alexander, Za’Darius Smith and Kenny Clark are standouts, and a couple of promising players (Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage) are hitting their primes. Preston Smith has looked lighter and better in camp, too.
So what could derail this team besides injuries? It all starts with the quarterback. If Rodgers’ disdain for the front office doesn’t spill into his play, all should be fine there. And really, why would it? Michael Jordan’s contempt for GM Jerry Krause didn’t hurt “The Last Dance” Chicago Bulls.
What about Adams’ stalled contract talks? Could that create locker-room problems down the road? Maybe, but it’s worth remembering two things. One, David Bakhtiari didn’t get his deal done until November last year, so you never know when Adams’ talks might come together. And no one on this team is hungrier for a Super Bowl than Adams, who’s been to, and lost, four NFC championship games.
“This is about finishing it now,” Adams said this past week.
In fact, this year’s Packers are more like 1996 than 2011 in that way. In the '90s they climbed the ladder year by year until they broke through in ’96 to get to and win the Super Bowl.
Likewise, LaFleur’s Packers have gone from getting blown out in the NFC title game to losing an eminently winnable one. Can Rodgers finally get over them top this season?
As for what that might mean for the future, maybe a Super Bowl win would help change Rodgers’ mind about the franchise. Maybe all would be forgiven, and he’d want to return for more.
Or maybe he’d see it as the perfect send-off for the people he likes in the organization, and the perfect kiss-off for those he deplores.
Either way, it’s time to settle this on the last-dance floor.