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Dougherty: Hard to blame fans for wondering if Aaron Rodgers is all-in with Packers


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GREEN BAY - Maybe the hardest thing to square with the Green Bay Packers’ abysmal play against New Orleans last Sunday was Aaron Rodgers’ performance in training camp.

Put it this way: This might not have been his best camp, but it’s hard to remember one where he was sharper. Yet, he opened the season with one of the worst games of his career.

After the game, and again on Pat McAfee’s radio show this week, Rodgers gave off the same feeling he did in November 2016, when the Packers were 4-6 and he wasn’t playing particularly well (96.0 rating to that point). You might remember that’s when he made his famous “run the table” playoff prediction, which he then fulfilled by playing some of the best football of his career.

"Right now we’re taking it on the chin, which we should," Rodgers told McAfee. "Pretty soon it will be flipped. I’m confident and happy and excited and love these guys. I’m a competitor. Frustrated by myself and our performance. This game is about how you respond to the negativity usually more than how you’re hailed for your successes."

Rodgers’ performance Sunday (36.8 rating, fourth-lowest of his career as a starter) opens him up to questions about his commitment to the team, and that’s only fair. After all, he tried hard to get the Packers to trade him in the offseason, and he waited until just before the start of camp to agree to show up, with a year shaved off his contract to boot.

Hard to blame anybody who might wonder whether his heart is in it with this organization. When news broke last offseason that he badly wanted out, I initially thought the Packers would have to trade him for that reason. After all, who wants a quarterback who’s not all-in? That position is way too important to have anything else.

It took me several months to realize this isn’t 2018, when Rodgers had just signed a huge contract extension and held little faith in former coach Mike McCarthy’s offense. Rodgers has more at stake now because he’s three years closer to the end of his career. He surely wants a second Super Bowl win to bolster his standing among the game’s all-time greats and knows this year’s Packers give him a real chance. And if he wants out next year, he needs to show prospective teams he still has plenty of good football left in him.

Really, what if last Sunday was simply a case of the full-of-themselves Packers facing a team that has the ingredients that have always had the best chance of beating Rodgers?

Going all the way back to when Rodgers emerged as an elite player, teams most successful against the Packers have had three qualities: a pass rush that can consistently get pressure with four guys, enough depth at cornerback where there’s not a weak link Rodgers can exploit on key downs, and a quarterback good enough to put up some points.

That was the New York Giants in the 2011 playoffs, all the way through the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. And it was the Saints last week, though many of us didn’t realize that going in.

The Saints have two excellent pass rushers in Cameron Jordan (94½ career sacks) and Marcus Davenport, whom you might remember as the guy the Saints targeted when they traded into the Packers’ No. 14 spot in the 2018 draft. He keeps getting hurt, but when healthy Davenport is a talented player who against the Packers had a sack, a quarterback hit and two tackles for a loss.

The Saints are solid at cornerback, where they have Marshon Lattimore, he of the brand new $96.5 million contract; Paulson Adebo, a third-round rookie who had an interception and pass breakup; and C.J.  Gardner-Johnson, a sound nickel cornerback in his third year in the NFL.

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They also have a very talented if flawed quarterback in Jameis Winston, who looked much more patient playing for Saints coach Sean Payton than in his previous stint with Tampa Bay. Bad on Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry for not pressuring Winston into an interception or two. Good on Winston for playing an efficient game (130.8 rating, no turnovers).

That might be a blueprint for beating Rodgers, but not many teams have all three of those things.

That’s why it’s hard not to consider the Packers among the favorites in the NFC despite their horrendous opener. They still have plenty of talent at key positions, and Rodgers showed no sign of decline as a passer in camp even though he’s not the athlete he was five years ago or even three.

“I think you saw last year when I can play on time in the pocket obviously I can be really accurate and we can get humming on offense,” Rodgers said. “That’s the goal. ... I like to stay in the pocket as much as possible. It just comes down to footwork. When I’m throwing the ball on time and in rhythm, we’re pretty effective. So I just have to find that rhythm and timing this week that we didn’t have last week.”

If Rodgers feels ambivalent about returning to the Packers, he has hidden it well since he showed up at camp. His at-peace vibe in interviews is the same as last year, when he came off as happy and committed regardless of what we’ve come to find he felt deep down for the team’s front office. His comments since the Saints debacle are consistent with how he was when the team struggled in the past — “R-E-L-A-X” after a 1-2 start in 2014, “run the table” in ’16.

“If we’re starting to freak out after one week, we’re in big trouble,” Rodgers told local reporters Thursday.

After the performance he and his teammates put up in the opener, their play against the Lions on Monday night will say a lot about this team.

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