After Aaron Rodgers spent much of the offseason in a power struggle with Green Bay Packers management, he suggested his play this fall would make all the drama worthwhile. Packers fans had many clues indicating he could skip OTAs (or organized team activities), sit all preseason and still make big plays while avoiding mistakes: For the past 16 seasons, he’s been in a category by himself.
Between Rodgers’s return, Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones signing a four-year extension and general manager Brian Gutekunst drafting a well-regarded rookie class, the Packers’ roster was a potpourri of talent, perfect for what could be Rodgers’ final year in Titletown. How much had Gutekunst wagered on his quarterback’s ability to capitalize? Everything.
Instead, on the day he surpassed Bart Starr and Brett Favre as the longest-tenured quarterback in Green Bay Packers history, it looked like Aaron Rodgers’s time was up.
His passer rating was 36.8. His total QBR was 13.4. The NFL’s all-time leader in interception rate, he threw two picks, and despite being the eighth-ranked all-time passer in touchdown rate, he didn’t get it in the end zone. The thousands of Packers fans present for the away game had to be reaching for the potent potables. Rodgers has only been less efficient twice in his career:1 Once was in 2014, when the Packers went on the road to Buffalo in December in wet, windy, 38-degree weather. The other was Week 6 of last season, in a road loss to the eventual Super Bowl champs.
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On Sunday, there were no excuses. Thanks to Hurricane Ida, he was playing in front of a thin, neutral-site Jacksonville crowd. It was 86 degrees on the TIAA Bank Stadium grass. He was playing against a New Orleans Saints team that had lost multiple key contributors at every level of the defense, accounting for 33 percent of their defensive starts in 2020. And yet, Rodgers has never been less effective:2
Rodgers completed just 54 percent of his passes and averaged just 4.75 yards per attempt on Sunday. He earned Pro Football Focus’s second-worst Week 1 quarterback grade, 43.3 out of 100. Randall Cobb, who was reacquired by the team because Rodgers wanted him back, had one catch on one target.3
Last year, Rodgers was named MVP partially on the strength of his red-zone play; the Packers’ 80 percent touchdown rate inside the 20-yard line was the highest mark since the NFL began tracking the statistic in 1999. Sunday, Rodgers’s red-zone interception to open the second half largely killed the Packers’ chances of getting back into the game.
After one week, the Packers rank dead last in the NFL in points scored, yards gained, and offensive expected points added. Defensively, they’re 30th in points allowed, 24th in yards allowed, and 29th in expected points added. They’re 32nd in Football Outsiders’ total Defense-adjusted Value Over Average (DVOA), with a stunning -94.6 percent rate — as in, they produced 94.6 percent less value than the average NFL team in Week 1. As in, they produced almost zero value.4 Rodgers and the Packers not only failed to establish themselves as the team to beat in the NFC on Sunday, they played like they couldn’t beat anybody in the NFL.
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All these answers prompt us to buzz in with the question: Who is Aaron Rodgers?
Recent history has taught us that when NFL quarterbacks who have defied Father Time for years finally lose that fight, they tend to lose it all at once. See Peyton Manning getting benched for Brock Osweiler in 2015, or Favre’s injury-ravaged, 69.9-rated 2010 finale in Minnesota. Even FiveThirtyEight’s 2017 attempt to model who will hold the all-time NFL passing crown by 2025 predicted that Rodgers would have retired by now.
But unlike Manning, Rodgers hasn’t visibly lost his fastball, nor is he staggering around the field between plays like Favre did. Whatever was wrong with Rodgers in Week 1, his resume suggests he’s more likely to light up the Detroit Lions during Week 2’s Monday Night Football than double Sunday’s awful performance. Rodgers followed up that 2014 Buffalo stinker by going 31-of-40 for 318 yards and a score in a 20-3 stomping of Tampa Bay. The Bucs were also involved in the only other game Rodgers has played anywhere near this badly: last year’s Week 6 drubbing. But of course, Rodgers responded by earning the Packers a playoff rematch.
Statistical models augur well for Rodgers, before and after Week 1. Football Outsiders’ DAVE metric, which is DVOA that builds in preseason expectations over the seasons’ early weeks, still has Green Bay as the eighth-most efficient team, at +8.2 percent. FiveThirtyEight’s own Elo projections still rank them the sixth-strongest NFC team; they forecast a 9-8 finish, with better-than-even odds to make the playoffs.
But for a team that hosted the NFC Championship Game in 2020, and is facing the end of a 14-year Rodgers Era with just one Super Bowl appearance, just sneaking into the playoffs isn’t good enough.
In August, Rodgers admitted it’s “championship or disappointment” for himself and the Packers. But after starting the year with the worst game of his life, what was supposed to be his last dance has turned into his final jeopardy.
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