GREEN BAY, Wis. – Poof.
Just like that, with everything aligned and the road to the Super Bowl going through Lambeau Field, the Green Bay Packers’ 2021 season is kaput.
And suddenly, unexpectedly early, the franchise-shifting decisions of the 2022 offseason are on the Packers and Aaron Rodgers.
There is plenty of responsibility to go around for the Packers’ stunning 13-10 loss to San Francisco in the divisional round of the playoffs Saturday night. The special teams that had been a disaster all season will deservedly get much of the blame, though they hardly stand alone.
The truth is, the NFL’s presumptive MVP has to shoulder the bulk of responsibility for this defeat. Putting up only 10 points in a playoff game at home was stunning enough. But the real killer was that with the Packers’ season on the line and the chance to engineer a game-winning drive in the final 4½ minutes, Rodgers went three-and-out. Those are the moments he has to lift his team, and instead, the Packers’ season in essence ended when Rodgers chucked a hopeless deep ball to double-covered Davante Adams on third down.
NFL PLAYOFF WINNERS, LOSERS: Heartbreak for Aaron Rodgers, Packers
So now the Packers and Rodgers have some tough questions to ask themselves and each other as they decide whether it’s the time to part ways. The way the season endwas always going to be a factor in that decision, and after this stunning bomb out in their playoff opener, both sides have to be wondering if a Super Bowl is just not happening with them paired.
Going into this week, I was thinking the decision would end up being Rodgers’ more than the team’s — of course they’d want him back after an MVP season, especially if they won or even reached the Super Bowl. But after back-to-back washouts at Lambeau in the playoffs, the team has to have its doubts too.
Really, will things ever be set up better for a Super Bowl run than they were for the Packers this season? General manager Brian Gutekunst put together a talented roster that earned the NFC’s top seeding despite playing almost all season without three blue-chip players (Jaire Alexander, Za’Darius Smith and David Bakhtiari). The Packers had home-field advantage for a second straight season, plus Alexander and Smith returning just when the money was on the line.
To have another season end with a dud performance — “I definitely take my fair share of blame tonight,” Rodgers said after the game — makes it hard not to wonder if this has run its course.
On Rodgers’ end, maybe this early playoff exit pushes him toward wanting to finish his career elsewhere, or even retire, as he hinted after the game. But it’s also possible this game will convince Gutekunst and team CEO Mark Murphy that this offseason is the best time to get as much as they can for Rodgers in a trade. Then, armed with extra draft picks, give Jordan Love his crack at being a franchise quarterback.
When asked if the way the season ended could affect his thinking, Rodgers said: “Of course it does. But there’s obviously a lot of decisions to be made, there’s a lot of players whose futures are up in the air. Definitely will be interesting to see which way some of those decisions go. But I’ll have the conversation with Brian (Gutekunst) in the next week or so and get a little bit more clarity and think about my own future and how much longer I want to keep doing this.”
Rodgers sent plenty of mixed messages about his thinking after the game. Though he obliquely referred to possibly retiring, he at another point talked about how his competitive fire still burns and that he’s still playing really good football. When asked if his decision is only about retirement, or if the possibility of playing for another team remains on the table, he didn’t dismiss the possibility of playing elsewhere.
“It’s tough to say at this point,” Rodgers said. “I don’t think it’s fair to anybody or myself to really go down those paths at this point. It’s disappointing, sad and fresh. I’ll have the conversations in the next week or so and start to contemplate after that.”
The Packers have serious salary-cap issues in 2022, and the conventional thinking seems to be that the Packers won’t be true contenders next year even with Rodgers. I’m not sure I buy that.
If the Packers retain Rodgers and Davante Adams there will be serious roster bloodletting, for sure. But the Packers still will have a solid core of talent to go with those two on both sides of the ball — starting with Aaron Jones, AJ Dillon and a solid line on offense, and Kenny Clark, Rashan Gary, Jaire Alexander and Eric Stokes on defense.
A draft as good as this year’s plus a young player or two blossoming, and the Packers still could be real contenders.
But if Rodgers doesn’t see it that way, he sounds like he’ll want to move on. And with the Packers’ salary-cap issues, he has some leverage to push for a trade, because they can’t lower his prohibitive $46.4 million cap number without him agreeing to a restructure or extension.
“I don’t want to be a part of a rebuild if’ I’m going to keep playing,” Rodgers said. “A lot of decisions in the next couple weeks.”
If Rodgers still harbors resentment toward Gutekunst, he is hiding it well. He spoke after the game of Gutekunst’s earnest efforts to improve their communication, and that he felt his opinion on some in-season personnel moves mattered to the GM.
“(Gutekunst) put together a really nice team, a team that could have won a Super Bowl,” Rodgers said. “He deserves a lot of credit for some of the moves he made. Disappointed we couldn’t put it together for him and the organization tonight.”
Both sides should take a little time before deciding what to do. Emotions are running too high to make a smart call right now.
But watching the Packers flame out of the playoffs for the third straight year after three straight great regular seasons, it’s hard not to wonder if it just ain’t happening. Maybe it’s time for both sides to move on.