There are few things in sport much better than a classic “fuck you” game. Combine that with a vintage Aaron Rodgers performance, and Week 1 of the NFL got off to a fun start. The Green Bay Packers beat the Vikings, 43-34, behind a Rodgers stat line that looks like it could have happened in 2011: 32-of-44 for 364 yards, four touchdowns, and zero picks. He didn’t even take a sack.
Rodgers did not have such a great start to 2020. It began in January with a blowout loss to the 49ers in the NFC championship game, and continued with the Packers drafting Utah QB Jordan Love with the no. 26 overall pick in the draft. That pick launched Green Bay’s replacement plan for the 36-year-old QB in a similar way to how the franchise took Rodgers to eventually replace Brett Favre 15 years ago. That decision—in a draft that was historically deep at the wide receiver position, when Green Bay clearly needed pass-catching help—raised questions about whether the Packers have ever invested much draft capital in helping their future Hall of Fame quarterback. But it also brought increased scrutiny on Rodgers’s slow decline in the past few seasons, and how the perception of him as one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks no longer matches reality.
If you haven’t taken a close look at Rodgers’s play in the past five seasons or so, the gist of the argument is this: Rodgers hasn’t consistently been the world-destroying, MVP-level force he was early in his career since at least 2016, if not 2014. Statistically, he’s performed like a slightly above-average starter. Last season, Rodgers finished 11th in adjusted net yards per attempt, 20th in QBR, 28th in completion percentage above expectation, and eighth in Pro Football Focus grading. Mediocre by some metrics, top 10 in others—but elite at none. Rodgers may still be a good quarterback, but there is shrinking evidence that points to him as a great one.
But you wouldn’t have known that on Sunday. Rodgers lit up the Vikings. Crucially, he looked like the Rodgers of old while doing it. He cracked the game open with a dart to Davante Adams near the end of the second quarter:
Update: Aaron Rodgers can still do this— #RingerNFL (@ringernfl) September 13, 2020
(via @NFL) pic.twitter.com/Ct590UZCOG
Kirk Cousins threw an interception seconds later, and Rodgers squeezed in another strike before the end of the half:
Aaron Rodgers looking as SHARP as ever in YEAR 16 (via @NFL)pic.twitter.com/QQifGYFQKv— Overtime (@overtime) September 13, 2020
Both of these throws were improbable achievements, and both also showed everything Rodgers used to regularly do with ease. First, he rolls out to his right (though he probably could have stuck around in that pristine pocket for a bit longer) before flicking his wrist and lasering a football to the edge of the end zone, where Adams had just enough room to snag the ball out of the air and tap his toes for the all-too-easy score. On the second play, he sky-scrapers a ball directly into Marquez Valdes-Scantling’s bread basket to give the third-year pro his first score of the season.
The Packers need a second wideout to develop behind Adams, whether that’s Valdes-Scantling or another option.. Rodgers found Allen Lazard for a touchdown in the fourth quarter by patiently waiting for the wideout to become open before flicking the football to him in the end zone:
That Rodgers to Lazard connection.— GBP Daily (@GBPdaily) September 13, 2020
Maybe this was the Packers’ galaxy-brained strategy all along: draft a quarterback in the first round to light a fire under Rodgers’s ass to get him back to being the player he was in his prime. Maybe Rodgers will play with something to prove all season long, determined to show up the haters—and his own front office—with every perfectly placed dime. Maybe Rodgers is back.
Of course, it’s too soon to say if that’s the case. Rodgers has shown flashes like this before: Last season, he had a five-touchdown, 429-yard game against the Raiders in Week 7, and followed that up a month later with a four-touchdown performance against the Giants in Week 13. But football is always more fun when Rodgers is at his best, and he certainly was that on Sunday.