Has there been a more drama-filled offseason than that of the Green Bay Packers?
Coming off a season where the Cheeseheads recorded their second straight 13-win season, expectations continue to be lofty in Wisconsin despite the Packers once again being on the wrong end of a crushing loss in the NFC Championship game.
If the fans weren’t devastated enough by that loss to the eventual champion Buccaneers, their anxiety grew exponentially as news emerged of the breakdown in relations between MVP Aaron Rodgers and the Packers front office.
The first stories to come out stated that Rodgers had demanded a trade and made it abundantly clear that he would never play for the team again. What followed was a series of cryptic comments from the star quarterback, along with relentless rumours around the draft of teams looking to trade for him – most notably the 49ers and Broncos.
Then, a “will he, won’t he” saga ensued regarding whether or not Rodgers would report to training camp. Despite the disappointing endings to Matt LaFleur’s first two seasons as head coach, it can’t be disputed that the Packers remain in the Super Bowl window. To lose Rodgers though, would surely put an end to that.
Alas, Rodgers reported to training camp on time and “resolved” his differences with the team.
Whether that means 12 will be the incumbent QB in Green Bay for the rest of his career or just one more year – time will tell.
Press conference drama
In a stunning press conference upon his return to the setup, Rodgers laid bare his frustrations with the franchise. It was a remarkably measured outburst from Rodgers, stating point by point his annoyance at how past veteran players such as Charles Woodson, Micah Hyde, Julius Peppers and Jordy Nelson had been treated by the team on their way out. He also confirmed that all he has ever wanted is to be afforded the same respect and control that other great quarterbacks with his resumè have been given.
Jake Kumerow, a favourite WR of Rodgers, was released by the Packers last season and Rodgers confirmed that he wasn’t happy about it: “If you’re going to release a guy who was our second best receiver in training camp last year, maybe run it by me.”
So, where do the Packers go from here?
The team reportedly made Rodgers an offer that would make him the highest paid player in NFL history, an offer that was turned down. This does marry up with Rodgers’ gripes – it isn’t about money. They did however make a trade for an old fan favourite, Randall Cobb, a move clearly designed to appease Rodgers. On offence, RB Aaron Jones and LT David Bakhtiari are both locked up on long term deals, Amari Rodgers was drafted out of Clemson to beef up a stacked WR room and tight end Robert Tonyan is coming off a breakout 2020 season where he led all tight ends in TDs with 11.
However, another cause of concern for Packers fans is the still unresolved future of star wideout Davante Adams. Adams was named a first team All Pro for the first time in 2020, producing a spectacular season in which he confirmed himself as a legitimate claimant of the title of best WR in the league. Talks between the two sides are currently at a standstill, as Adams – somewhat channeling his quarterback’s bluntness – asked “in what industry would you accept a deal less than you have earned?”.
It is hard, nigh on impossible, to dispute that assertion. Brian Gutekunst, the beleaguered GM, has attempted to calm the situation by stating “this will be a long process. This is another big contract with an elite player. It will take some time.”
To Gutekunst’s credit, he did get monster deals over the line with Bakhtiari and Jones eventually.
Defense needs help
Whilst the Packers offence ranked as the best in the NFL in 2020, the defense proved its undoing again. Nothing summed that up more than the inexplicable playcall that allowed the Bucs to score with just seconds remaining in the first half of the Championship game, playing man coverage rather than a standard “prevent” defence.
This came only a year after the Packers had given up 285 yards rushing to the 49ers. As a result, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine lost his job and is replaced by Joe Barry. There is plenty of talent on this unit for Barry to work with, represented by the excellent Jaire Alexander at corner, Za’Darius Smith, Adrian Amos and Kenny Clark – all players among the best at their position in the league.
The defence did actually improve in the three seasons Pettine was in charge, but it could be argued that improvement was due to signings in free agency – not coaching.
It is up to Barry now to elevate this group from “pretty good” to “elite”. If he can do that, this Packers team has a shot at going all the way.
Some very uncomfortable questions remain for Packers fans, notably that of the future of Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams. Rodgers has said that he is “all in” for this season, but how much will the furore surrounding his future impact his performance?
As much as we won’t know the answers for some time yet, it must be acknowledged that elite athletes have an almost unparalleled ability to shut out distractions and continue to produce. Rodgers is proof of that. Despite swathes of celebrity girlfriends, a stint hosting a tv quiz show and a somewhat spiky relationship with the media, Rodgers has repeatedly proven himself as one of the greatest to ever do it.
As much as this may well be “the last dance” (Rodgers and Adams posted the same Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen picture to Instagram just last month) for the legendary Packers signal caller, there is cause for optimism for the Lambeau faithful.
Although there will be anxiety caused by the thought of Rodgers leaving at season’s end, Packers fans should savour one more year from a player who will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the greatest in the franchises storied history. Whilst he is still in place under centre at Lambeau, the window for Super Bowl success is still open.