“Aaron Rodgers has played in only one Super Bowl.” It’s a common refrain about the Packers quarterback, and it means different things to different people. To some, it’s proof that, while talented, Rodgers doesn’t belong in the conversation with Tom Brady and Peyton Manning as the best passers of this generation. To others, though, Green Bay’s recent lack of championship success is an indictment of the front office and head coach Mike McCarthy, who’s been in place for Rodgers’s 11-year tenure as the team’s starter.
Rodgers is 34 years old, and in August the Packers signed him to the richest contract in NFL history, a four-year, $134 million deal that will presumably be his last in Green Bay. The expectation with a deal of that magnitude is that Rodgers would just continue to lift the Packers to the postseason by virtue of little more than his own singular greatness. But following Sunday’s ugly 31-23 loss to the Lions, Rodgers and the Pack are now 2-2-1, and their once-dominant offense looks dormant. As Rodgers and McCarthy continue their slog through another potentially underwhelming season, it’s become impossible to ignore the crime against football that’s been perpetrated in Wisconsin over the past half-decade: The Packers have squandered the prime of the most gifted quarterback of the past 25 years.
Rodgers has done his best to explain away recent comments that could be construed as shots against McCarthy and his staff, but it’s obvious that he’s frustrated with the state of the offense. Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports reported Sunday night that tensions have started to mount in Green Bay. Rodgers apparently didn’t appreciate his position coach and confidant Alex Van Pelt becoming a scapegoat for the offense’s struggles last season (Van Pelt, along with several other offensive assistants, was let go in January), and he didn’t enjoy seeing his friend Jordy Nelson get unceremoniously shown the door this past spring. Allowing a QB to dictate a franchise’s decisions is dicey territory, but there are plenty of areas where Rodgers’s dissatisfaction is more than warranted.
McCarthy made a big show this offseason of saying the offensive scheme would see sweeping changes in 2018. “Everything was open for discussion: every definition, every formation,” McCarthy said at the NFL owners meeting this spring. “So we’ve taken a scrub-brush approach to the whole system, whether we’re talking about formation, defensive identification, at the line putting the ball in play, all those different areas that you tend to gloss over year to year, particularly when you’re in the same offense for so long.” And then, while crowing about how the team was turning over a new leaf on that side of the ball, McCarthy reclaimed play-caller duties and brought back Joe Philbin, who was with the team from 2003 to 2011, as the offensive coordinator—decisions that certainly didn’t indicate the dawn of a new era.
And nothing has changed. The offense has stagnated through five games this season, averaging just 23 points per game and showing little schematic creativity in the process, and Rodgers has more than enough reasons to be miffed. Late last month, Rodgers openly lobbied for running back Aaron Jones to get more carries (Jones is currently averaging 6.1 yards per carry). A couple of weeks later, Jones was out-snapped by Jamaal Williams and Ty Montgomery. Some of that had to do with a pass-happy game script, but save the argument that Williams is such a great pass protector that it’s impossible to keep him off the field. Playing Williams over Jones because he’s superior in pass protection is akin to going to a Michelin-star restaurant because you like the mints in the bathroom. Even if it’s not intentional, it sure feels like McCarthy is antagonizing one of the best quarterbacks ever for no reason—and to his own detriment.
How the Packers devolved into this is a complicated and multifaceted story. Ted Thompson, the former Packers GM who was transitioned out of the role in January, and his staff refused to supplement the roster with free agents, even as teams like the Seahawks and Broncos showed that that strategy could lead to Super Bowl victories in the modern NFL. The leaguewide desire to stockpile cheap rookie contracts created a pool of valuable middle class players, which the Packers decided to completely ignore. They’ve loosened the purse strings slightly in recent years, especially this past offseason, but on the rare occasions that they have splurged on outside talent, the results have been underwhelming. As Rodgers watches tight end Jimmy Graham—and his $11 million guaranteed—plod around the field, he’s probably wondering, “Why couldn’t we keep Jordy, again?”
Still, the combination of Rodgers and excellent drafting had been enough to keep Green Bay’s offense near the top of the league—even though the defense hasn’t held up its end of the bargain. Recently, though, Rodgers’s unit has taken a drastic fall from the scoreboard-exploding groups the Packers have fielded in years past. While creativity and ingenuity have started driving the best offenses in the NFL, neither of those can be found in Green Bay’s approach. A scheme that demands its receivers rely solely on their own ability to get open can work when the receivers are overly talented, but aside from Davante Adams, this group isn’t. And as Sean McVay and Andy Reid scheme wide-open throws into existence for Jared Goff and Patrick Mahomes II, respectively, Rodgers is forced to conjure his own miracles. Reid is six years McCarthy’s senior. He’s been a head coach in the NFL for seven more seasons. This isn’t a matter of age or a veteran coach getting left behind in the advent of new systems. Reid has made tireless efforts to stave off extinction and remain on the cutting edge of play design in the NFL. McCarthy has not.
The Packers’ static approach has become even more frustrating as innovative coaches around the league turn over every rock in the football world, trying to find new ways to make the game easier on their players. Many of Reid’s more forward-thinking concepts are pulled straight from college football, and if the Packers truly want to get as far from McCarthy philosophically as they can, college might be the place to look. The thought of Rodgers playing in an offense devised by Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley is genuinely terrifying.
At this point the concern is whether McCarthy and Rodgers can “coexist” in Green Bay, but it’s not entirely clear why they have to. As Rodgers barrels toward his late 30s, every lost season—hell, every lost game—is that much more distressing, and McCarthy has gotten his fair share of chances to right the ship. Firing a head coach means that plenty of others lose their jobs and get uprooted. It’s never an easy choice, but in the Packers’ case, it might be the only way out of this swoon.
Rebuilding your front office, staff, and playbook doesn’t matter when the guiding force and overarching philosophy don’t change, too. With McCarthy at the helm this season, the Packers offense looks just as stale and broken as it has over the past few years. In seasons past, that hasn’t mattered: Rodgers rose from the ashes, strapped the Packers offense to his back, and soared into the postseason. But it just shouldn’t have to be that hard. Sure, if Mason Crosby makes a couple of field goals Sunday, the Packers likely beat the Lions, and the systemic issues get downplayed for another week. But watching an offense led by Rodgers shouldn’t be a chore. Proclamations about “running the table” and decrees to “relax” shouldn’t be necessary in the first place. Every time Rodgers carries Green Bay to another winning season, the rotting foundation of the Packers offense is forgotten. But that doesn’t mean it’s stopped deteriorating. And maybe this is the year when the situation becomes just dire enough to inspire real change.