You’ve probably received a lot of Aaron Rodgers push notifications this year. In just the three months since the NFL season began, Rodgers has ...
- Screamed “ALL MY FUCKING LIFE, I’VE OWNED YOU” at Bears fans.
- Dressed as John Wick for a Halloween party (elite costume, 9/10).
- Posted an Instagram video promoting purchasing bitcoin on Cash App while dressed as John Wick.
- Tested positive for COVID-19 (shortly after attending that Halloween party).
- Consulted with Joe Rogan about medical advice for treating coronavirus.
- Acknowledged that he might have “misled” people about his vaccination status by telling reporters he was “immunized” in August rather than admitting he was unvaccinated.
- Got dropped by a local health care sponsor for his “immunization” comment and resulting explanation.
- Was wrongly identified in a photo by the Daily Mail, which prompted Rodgers’s fiancee, Shailene Woodley, to write in an Instagram post that the photo in question could not be of Rodgers because “his feet, ahem and no offense to this rando dude, are a LOT bigger. ;)”
- Held up his bare foot in a press conference to insist he had a fractured toe, not “COVID toe” as had been reported (this was completely unrelated to the previous foot comments from his fiancee).
There have been so many Rodgers-related news cycles that you can be forgiven for forgetting the original one of 2021: that Rodgers has been upset with the Green Bay Packers. This story line has faded away because, well, did you see how wild all those other stories were?
Another, simpler reason Rodgers’s discontent has faded from public view is that Green Bay is winning. This weekend, the 9-3 Packers come off their bye to host the (Rodgers-owned) Chicago Bears on Sunday Night Football. If the Packers win (they’re favored by 12.5) and the Cardinals lose to the Rams (Arizona is favored by 2.5), Green Bay will rise to the no. 1 seed in the NFC. The Packers’ success has come despite a slew of devastating injuries that would have melted most other teams. But Green Bay remains a top-tier Super Bowl contender largely because of savvy moves made by its front office—the same front office that drove Rodgers to consider retiring this offseason.
Few NFL figures were criticized this offseason more than Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst. After all, Gutekunst alienated Rodgers, one of the game’s elite quarterbacks, so much that he considered retiring this offseason. That seems like malpractice in a sport in which a half dozen teams are desperate for mere quarterback competency. Rodgers’s complaints essentially boiled down to feeling like important players (including himself) were unappreciated. He was also frustrated that he was not consulted enough in personnel matters. He is one of the longest-tenured employees at the company—nearly 17 years in Green Bay!—but is not involved in basic decisions affecting his job, like which receivers the team cuts. He doesn’t get cc’d on offseason agendas, so he can’t help recruit free agents. (“Green Bay isn’t a huge vacation destination,” Rodgers said this summer. “People are coming here to play with me.”) Meanwhile, Tom Brady’s Bucs defeated the Packers in the NFC championship game; Brady was heavily involved in recruiting Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown, and Leonard Fournette to join the Bucs prior to last season. All three of those players scored in the Super Bowl.
Rodgers also felt Green Bay’s front office disrespected several valuable veteran players over the years with lowball contract offers. In the spring, Rodgers privately referred to Gutekunst in group text messages as Jerry Krause, the former GM of the Chicago Bulls who built the Michael Jordan–era Bulls but also destroyed them by clashing with Jordan. It wasn’t a passing metaphor. Months later, Rodgers and receiver Davante Adams posted matching Instagram stories of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen to their Instagram accounts in an obvious reference to ESPN’s The Last Dance, a documentary miniseries on the Bulls dynasty, which was viewed as a vague suggestion that the 2021 season might be Rodgers’s last year with the team. In May, Rodgers seemingly made another Last Dance reference in an interview with Kenny Mayne on SportsCenter. “The people make an organization,” Rodgers said. “People make a business and sometimes that gets forgotten.”
Gutekunst and Green Bay’s front office stayed mostly mum during Rodgers’s offseason of airing grievances, but Gutekunst must be enjoying some vindication—if not relief—because of the Packers’ initial success. Gutekunst’s moves have kept Green Bay afloat during an absurdly injury-marred season. Of Green Bay’s five returning All-Pro players last year, three have barely been on the field. Star cornerback Jaire Alexander hasn’t played since Week 4, top pass rusher Za’Darius Smith hasn’t played since Week 1, and left tackle David Bakhtiari—perhaps the best blindside protector in football—hasn’t played at all. Bakhtiari’s replacement, left guard Elgton Jenkins, tore his ACL two weeks ago. As if that wasn’t enough reshuffling, the Packers replaced All-Pro center Corey Linsley this offseason with rookie center Josh Myers, and then Myers went to injured reserve with a knee injury in mid-October.
The pass catchers haven’t fared much better. Starting tight end Robert Tonyan Jr. is also out for the year with a torn ACL, wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling missed October with a hamstring injury, and running back Aaron Jones is dealing with an MCL sprain. According to the injury tracking website Man Games Lost, the Packers are tied alongside the Ravens as the most injured team in the NFL this season in terms of games missed by high-impact players.
And yet the Packers are 9-3 and in line to win the NFC North for the third year in a row, primarily because Rodgers is once again an MVP candidate, but also because of the depth added by Gutekunst. Jones has been aptly replaced by AJ Dillon, Gutekunst’s much-maligned second-round pick in 2020. Dillon has become a human wrecking ball for Green Bay. A big, bruising running back succeeding in cold playoff games at Lambeau Field is common sense, but Dillon’s contributions are also supported by advanced math. He leads all running backs in success rate, per Football Outsiders (minimum 100 carries). Dillon and Jones are poised to become an elite playoff tandem.
Gutekunst has also provided duct tape for offensive line coach Adam Stenavich to repair Green Bay’s Humpty Dumpty line. Jon Runyan Jr., a 2020 sixth-round pick, has started 11 games at left guard this year. Billy Turner, a former guard Gutekunst signed in 2019, has replaced Bryan Bulaga at right tackle. With a motley crew missing three Pro Bowlers from 2020 and just one player appearing in the same spot as last year, the offensive line ranks eighth in pass blocking grade, according to Pro Football Focus. Considering the circumstances—and that Rodgers’s mobility is limited by his toe injury—that is pretty good.
But the defense is where Green Bay’s reinforcements have truly shined. Ask a Packers fan about the team’s defense in the Rodgers era and they’ll make the same face someone makes when they smell milk to decide whether it’s gone bad or not. For a decade under defensive coordinator Dom Capers and then Mike Pettine, Green Bay had a bend-don’t-break defense that, well, usually broke (or at least had stretch marks). This season, first-year defensive coordinator Joe Barry’s unit has held up Rodgers and the offense instead of the other way around.
In October, the defense forced three turnovers against the Cardinals, including a walk-off interception. They recently held Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs to 13 points. The following week, they shut out the Seahawks for the first time in Russell Wilson’s career (he was returning from a finger injury, but still). Green Bay ranks fifth in points allowed and sixth in yards allowed this season, both of which would be the team’s best ranking since the 2010-11 season when it won the Super Bowl.
Despite its defensive injuries, Green Bay has accomplished this because unheralded players have stepped up. Linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, signed as an afterthought in June, has been a revelation. Campbell has brought physicality and athleticism back to the middle of the Packers defense. He leads all linebackers in coverage in terms of expected points added per play through the first three months of the season. Pro Football Focus grades Campbell as a top-five linebacker in coverage and against the run. That’s a helluva value considering Campbell’s $1.2 million cap hit doesn’t even crack the 40 most expensive inside linebackers this season. Considering his impact—he was named NFC Defensive Player of the Month in October—Campbell might be the best signing of the offseason.
Green Bay has found value at cornerback, too. Jaire Alexander and Kevin King have combined to miss 14 games, which means first-rounder Eric Stokes has played the most snaps of any Packers cornerback this season, and he’s held his own. Chandon Sullivan and Rasul Douglas have also contributed: Sullivan had a bad first month, but he’s rebounded and been one of the best slot cornerbacks in the NFL this season. Since Week 4, Sullivan is tied for being the least targeted slot cornerback in the NFL on a per-snap basis, according to PFF. In Week 7, Sullivan picked off Washington QB Taylor Heinicke in the fourth quarter to seal a Packers win. Douglas was plucked off the Cardinals practice squad in early October. Three weeks later, on Thursday Night Football against the Cardinals, Douglas secured a walk-off interception to beat his old team. Last week against the Rams, Douglas had another interception—this one a pick-six—and was named Defensive Player of the Week.
This group of ragtag replacements on offense and defense has held the line just long enough for the cavalry to appear on the horizon. Bakhtiari, Alexander, and Smith could all be nearing returns soon. Jones will likely be further recovered from his knee injury after last week’s bye. The timing is perfect for the Packers’ playoff push. They have a four-game lead over the Vikings in the NFC North with six weeks to play, giving them a 99 percent chance to win the division, according to FiveThirtyEight. Considering Green Bay’s schedule is much easier than Arizona’s and that it holds the tiebreaker over Arizona and Tampa Bay, the Packers will likely claim the top seed in the NFC if they win out—an even more important distinction with just one bye in each conference under expanded playoff rules.
Winning out may seem daunting, but the Packers have done it two years in a row under head coach Matt LaFleur. In 2019, the team finished 5-0 to go 13-3. Last year, the Packers finished 6-0 to go 13-3. A 5-0 finish this year would put them at … 14-3 (weird, lol). That 14-3 record (still weird) would likely give them the top seed in the conference.
It would also give the Packers home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, forcing the NFC’s other warm-weather contenders—Arizona, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, and Dallas—to come to Lambeau Field on the road to the Super Bowl. Home-field advantage in the playoffs has been a huge priority for Rodgers after losing three NFC championship games on the road in a six-year span.
Rodgers has heavily implied this season is his last with the Packers. But after starting 9-3 despite all these injuries and now having three All-Pro-caliber players returning soon, this season might be proof that Gutekunst has made Green Bay the place for Rodgers to stay even if the team doesn’t win the Super Bowl this season. The Packers will probably win their third consecutive division title. LaFleur has won 80 percent of his games as a head coach, which, if he retired tomorrow, would rank no. 1 all time.
Most importantly, the Packers front office led by Gutekunst and his boss, team president Mark Murphy, has taken steps to appease Rodgers, like trading for his friend Randall Cobb. Green Bay’s front office found the pieces to patch together a 9-3 start despite an injury-ravaged team. And it renegotiated Rodgers’s deal to allow him to hit free agency in the spring of 2023—and, of course, his agent could pursue a trade this coming offseason. But would Denver, San Francisco, Las Vegas, or another team really provide a better place for Rodgers to pursue a title? If Rodgers can’t get it done in Green Bay, what exactly is he looking for? Gutekunst’s Packers may not be exactly what Rodgers wants, but they seem to have what he needs.
In his press conference after last season, Rodgers said his future was “a beautiful mystery.” That quote that kick-started the Rodgers circus in the months to come. Perhaps this year—win or lose—the best thing Rodgers could do when the season is done is to stay on brand and quote John Wick.
“People keep asking if I’m back,” Wick says in the first movie. “And I haven’t really had an answer. But now yeah, I’m thinking I’m back.”