It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
Green Bay had already righted the ship, after all. The drama around Aaron Rodgers’ future, following the surprise draft pick of Jordan Love to be the quarterback of the future – which failed because Love wasn’t good enough, and because Rodgers hated the assumption he was washed – was cleared up.
Rodgers won back-to-back MVPs. The Packers had back-to-back-to-back 13-win regular seasons. And sure, they flopped in the playoffs each time, but that’s just bad luck and bad match-ups; in a weak NFC North they were surely going to repeat as champions and get another shot at Rodgers’ second ring.
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Then came Week 1, and a blowout loss to divisional rivals Minnesota. And everyone went, ‘well, that’s OK, they got blown out in Week 1 last year to the Saints and they still finished 13-4’.
Then came a loss to the Giants in London, after which cornerback Jaire Alexander declared: “I ain’t worried, but if we lose next week (to the Jets), then I’ll be worried.”
Then came a loss to the Jets, who were 3-2 but only having beaten three backup quarterbacks.
Topping it all off was Monday’s loss to Washington, a team using a backup quarterback who can’t displace one of the worst starters in the league, in a decrepit stadium, with a fanbase that spends most of its time fuming at their awful owner.
On their first three-game losing streak since 2018, the Packers aren’t just out of form. They’re downright bad.
The defence, talked up all off-season as finally fixed, still stinks – in particular they simply cannot stop the run, which is a big problem when they’re trailing a lot more often this year. Any unit that has lost to Daniel Jones, Zach Wilson and Taylor Heinicke deserves no praise.
But now the other side of the ball is a major problem too. Rodgers looks nothing like an MVP candidate; and in the least surprising development possible to literally every human who has ever seen an NFL game except the Green Bay front office, their receivers are terrible.
Again, it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Rodgers signed a $US150.8 million contract extension back in March, after proving to the team he was worth committing their future to.
In effect it allowed the Packers to smooth out Rodgers’ current salary cap hit, at the expense of some potentially brutal years down the road.
But if they’re not winning now they could be reaching a cliff, where they’re locked into a pedestrian, or even bad, version of Rodgers – and a bad team around him.
WHERE IT’S GOING WRONG
Pretty much everywhere.
After blowing an 11-point lead to the terrible Commanders on Monday, The Athletic’s Matt Schneidman wrote about how members of the Packers front office walked out of the press box before the game even ended.
“The game wasn’t even technically over — the Packers actually came fairly close to pulling off a miracle game-winning lateral sequence — but those who run the organisation didn’t seem to care that their team still had a sliver of hope, likely because of how disgusted they were in what they had watched the prior three hours,” Schneidman wrote.
“Executive vice president Russ Ball, who’s in charge of managing the team’s salary cap, stayed behind for another minute. Perhaps he needed just a little more time to ponder how the team he has helped construct, one that is stacked on paper, has fallen apart.”
As ESPN’s Rob Demovsky explained, misfortune and mistakes are taking place up and down this team.
The Packers are “averaging just 18.3 points per game, which would be the Packers’ worst since 2006.
“(They) went 0-for-6 on third downs, the first time the Packers went an entire game without a conversion since 1999, when Brett Favre was quarterback and Rodgers was 15 years old.”
Without former superstar Davante Adams, who was traded to Las Vegas this off-season, and amid offensive line injuries the offence just can’t get going.
“Green Bay had planned an offensive line shake-up but couldn’t use it in full because left tackle David Bakhtiari’s knee acted up and rendered him inactive. And outside of Allen Lazard (7 catches for 55 yards before a shoulder injury knocked him out) and Aaron Jones (76 total yards and 2 touchdowns), the Packers got little production,” Demovsky wrote.
Rodgers told reporters: “I think outside of those two guys, there’s too many mental mistakes.
“I talked about simplification last week. I don’t really know where to go when it comes to that. There has to be something inside that has the accountability for performance where we’re just having way too many detail mistakes. It’s just not winning football.”
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For years fans and experts have called for the Packers to invest more in their receiving corps – one of the most important position groups in the modern, pass-happy NFL.
Yet they failed to do so even after trading Adams. Second-round receiver Christian Watson has done little amid injury issues; fourth-round receiver Romeo Doubs has shown flashes but also made plenty of mistakes.
Rodgers is left relying on Allen Lazard – a good second receiver and a great third option, but not a No.1 – or uninspiring veterans Randall Cobb, who is now injured, and Sammy Watkins, who just came back from an injury.
The Packers have never been a team that is willing to invest big in mid-season trades, and rarely in free agency either, but it’s frankly embarrassing that a theoretical Super Bowl contender has gotten to this point with its offence. They are simply wasting the final years of Rodgers; not that he’s playing out of his skin either.
“Sound the alarms in Green Bay. That is, if they weren’t already blaring,” Yahoo’s Jason Owens wrote.
“This is not the Rodgers known for his exceptional ability to throw downfield. He took over the Packers’ offence in 2008 as a less mistake-prone version of Brett Favre, a big-armed gunslinger without his predecessor’s downside. Rodgers has never thrown for more than eight interceptions in a season.
“He is still avoiding the game-crushing mistakes. But the big plays are a thing of the past. And there’s no reason to expect them to return with this roster and Rodgers’ age.”
And while Green Bay fans will continue to agitate for a trade, the problems are so widespread that one addition doesn’t feel like it’ll fix things.
“Forget all the talk about the Packers needing a wide receiver such as Chase Claypool or Jerry Jeudy or Odell Beckham Jr. This offence looks beyond repair,” Schneidman wrote.
“One receiver isn’t going to change much, if anything, not like it might have in years past under LaFleur.
“Time will tell, but it will take a lot of changes to put out the seemingly uncontrollable dumpster fire that has engulfed the Packers’ season.”
One tweet sums it up nicely.
During Monday’s loss to Washington, former NFL tight end Jace Sternberger tweeted: “I can’t believe the packers didn’t draft (Terry) McLaurin”, the star Commanders wide receiver.
McLaurin was the 76th pick of the 2019 NFL Draft. The Packers took Sternberger one pick earlier.
The Packers’ schedule doesn’t exactly get any easier from here, thanks to their first-place finish last season.
A Sunday night showdown with the Bills, who look like the best team in the league, is up next meaning a 3-5 start seems certain.
And from there the Packers still have games against the Cowboys, Titans, Eagles, Rams and Dolphins, plus four more divisional match-ups (where they’re 1-1, with a loss to the Vikings and a win over the awful Bears).
If a 10 or 11-win season was the minimum expectation for this group in 2022, it’s hard to see them reaching that bar, never mind clambering over it and contending, even in a weak NFC.
SO HOW DO THEY FIX IT?
Clearly the Green Bay brains trust is going to give Matt LaFleur time to try and sort things out. They’re already a conservative franchise and he’s averaged 13 wins a season since taking over as coach.
On the field the hope is that it’s a quick fix, especially once they get healthy. That’s up to the coaching staff, and to be fair, this is a weird season where a bunch of teams are underperforming, so this is not an issue limited to the Packers.
The medium to long-term question is much trickier.
It would appear the Packers are in win-now mode following the three-year commitment to Rodgers. He is locked in for that period, unless they’re willing to accept a mammoth hit to their salary cap.
And that’s what made the Davante Adams trade so odd, because the superstar receiver suited their timeline much better than the picks they got for him.
Broadly it suggests the team is still thinking long-term – post-Rodgers. But at the same time it’s not possible for the team to have a long-term plan until they replace the man himself.
Green Bay had the ultimate fortune of replacing one legendary quarterback with another when they drafted Rodgers at the end of Brett Favre’s tenure. It was a risk that paid off remarkably well.
They then tried to repeat it with Jordan Love. The problem was two-fold; Love is not Rodgers, and Rodgers took it about as well as Favre did.
In Favre’s case, after announcing his retirement and being effectively forced out, he returned to the NFL and joined the Jets, before two seasons at Minnesota. It was less than ideal for both parties; the Packers watching him take a great rival to the NFC title game, Favre clouding what was effectively a legendary one-team career (even if he technically started as a Falcon).
Rodgers was similarly disgruntled but had the advantage of still being an MVP-level talent, while Love did not show enough to force the Packers to again demote or dump their franchise player.
But at some point, after kicking the can down the road (and to be fair it’s a can that keeps winning 13 games), the Packers will indeed have to replace Rodgers.
That means drafting a quarterback, and this could be a good year to do that.
The Packers would currently hold the 15th pick in the draft; it’s hard to imagine their pick getting too much worse, because that’d involve making the playoffs (pick 19 and onwards are playoff teams). You’d like to be in the top 10 to nab a superstar QB prospect but they could always attempt to trade up and do that.
There are two clear gun prospects in the college ranks right now – Alabama’s Bryce Young, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner as the best player in the country, and Ohio State’s CJ Stroud.
Both are leading their teams to another successful season – Stroud’s Buckeyes are likely the best team in the country and the best offence, while Young’s Crimson Tide have wobbled but are always thereabouts – with ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay ranking them No.3 and No.4 in the overall draft class last month.
McShay had a third QB, Kentucky’s Will Levis, at No.7 overall. He is more of a draftnik favourite than an obvious superstar talent but clearly has the tools to be successful.
It’s a reasonable drop down to the fourth-best prospect – Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker is emerging though he’s helped by his offensive system, while Florida’s Anthony Richardson has huge talent but needs serious refinement, almost in the style of Tennessee draftee Malik Willis from this past year’s class.
If the Packers can get access to Stroud or Young they would be foolish not to take them, even while Rodgers is on the books for another two seasons. In the modern NFL rookie QBs are a hugely valuable commodity, so they’d be losing some of that value if whoever they draft sits on the bench behind Rodgers for a year or more, but Stroud and Young are just too damn good.
Realistically it would take a serious collapse, or a massive trade, for the Packers to get either of those prospects. Currently the top three of the draft would be Detroit, Houston and then Carolina; three teams that desperately need a gun rookie QB.
If the Packers are therefore in the bottom half of the top 10, and considering whether to take a prospect like Levis, it’d be a much tougher call.
But it’s one that needs to be made at some point, even if it means frustrating Rodgers. Because after years of dealing with his idiosyncrasies, the end of the road appears near.