As a Packers fan, I have the optimistic view that Aaron Rodgers’ struggles this year were attributable to the knee injury he sustained Week 1, the depleted roster after several years of bad Ted Thompson drafts, and a stale relationship with Mike McCarthy. I hold out belief that he has more great seasons left in his career. Nevertheless, he also missed many throws and reads that we’re accustomed to seeing him execute and at age 35 it is a reasonable and terrifying question as to whether he is on a steep decline with three guaranteed big money seasons left on his deal.
This season, Rodgers ranks 28th in completion percentage, 19th in yards per attempt, 14th in QB rating, 17th in total QBR, and 13th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. It would be unfair to say that Rodgers has been a bad quarterback. Nobody is calling him Nathan Peterman or even Eli Manning. Lots of fanbases would sign up for this version of Rodgers in a second, and as we said before there are factors beyond his control that have contributed to his slide. But if he’s going to rebound from it and have MVP-caliber seasons again, he should be careful what he wishes for from the front office this offseason.
The best case scenario is that the Packers bring in a new head coach with legitimate bona fides — John Harbaugh or Nick Saban come to mind — or someone like Lincoln Riley or Chiefs OC Eric Bieniemy who is clearly an offensive mind on the upswing. The nightmare is that nobody with serious clout wants to work for the muddled Packers front office where the coach and general manager Brian Gutekunst both report to team president Mark Murphy, and that Murphy won’t back off this odd structure to seal the deal. (Josh McDaniels has also been floated as a candidate by multiple reporters and I’ve struggled to form a strong opinion one way or the other about that idea; whatever happens with head coach I would be a staunch advocate in bringing Mike Pettine back to run the defense.)
Just by observing Rodgers, it seems to me like his choice would be to make Joe Philbin the permanent head coach. Before Sunday’s Bears game, ESPN’s Dianna Russini tweeted, “Talk[ed] to a bunch of people on the sidelines today at this Packers Bears game and many people pointing out how happy Aaron Rodgers has been over the last week.” Hmm, why would that be?
Unfortunately, however, his happiness was not a positive indicator that he’d be able to complete deep balls to open receivers Randall Cobb and Marquez Valdes-Scantling on back-to-back plays in the fourth quarter of a game tied 14-14. (I’m aware that facing Khalil Mack and the ferocious Bears defense with a depleted offensive line is an unenviable task with a high degree of difficulty, but by the same token the Packers’ season was on the line and Rodgers is the highest paid player in the history of the league.)
After the game, Rodgers was a staunch advocate of playing in the final two games of the season, after they’ve been eliminated from playoff contention. The obvious risk here is that he gets hurt. The less obvious calculation is that if they go 2-0, they’ll have finished 3-1 with Philbin as interim head coach. While this would have undermined the team’s draft position, it would provide the front office the plausible opportunity to keep a guy who won’t ruffle their or Rodgers’ feathers.
Rodgers also gave effusive praise to Randall Cobb after the game. “When Randall is healthy, I think our offense has been different,” Rodgers said, via USA Today’s Packers Wire, “because we have a true slot guy that can make plays in the slot consistently … Having a slot guy like that guy who can legitimately get open time after time, he’s what we need.”
Was this a sign to the front office to get a deal done with the looming free agent? Cobb has been a very solid player in his time with the Packers, but over the past three years he’s averaged 45 receiving yards per game. He’s going to be 29 next season. I get that Rodgers is comfortable with his routes in a way that he’s not with rookies Valdes-Scantling and Equanimeous St. Brown, but he’s putting the Packers in a position where he will be unhappy if they move on like they did from Jordy Nelson and QB coach Alex Van Pelt, or commit resources to a receiver who a) is accustomed to making $10 million a year, b) missed six games this year due to injury and c) has had replaceable numbers when healthy.
Rodgers needs to be very careful about what he wishes for this offseason. If he advocates for Philbin and Cobb and they remain with the team, in my opinion that does not give them the best possible chance to improve, with the goal being not just to make the playoffs but to contend for the Super Bowl. Rodgers needs a strong head coach with whom there will be healthy friction, and the team needs to design routes that aren’t so complicated for wide receivers that the only ones Rodgers feels comfortable with are aging. It would also be nice if he could get through a whole season healthy.
Looking on the bright side of things, aided by new rules that protect them, QBs like Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Philip Rivers, and to a slightly lesser extent Ben Roethlisberger have been able to defy the conventional wisdom of NFL actuarial tables. Rodgers ain’t dead yet. But when teams like the Chiefs, Rams, and Bears have quarterbacks making a quarter of what Rodgers is and can stock their team with talent elsewhere, he’s going to have to play a lot better than he did this year in order to ever make or win a Super Bowl again.