With his star fading, Aaron Rodgers flips the script
By Mike Tanier
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has a reputation as someone who always wishes to speak to the manager.
To the public, he is the beer snob who turns up his nose at all 500 brewpub taps, the fault-finding coworker whose arrival prompts everyone to politely excuse themselves from the break room with their lunches half-eaten. No pass route is ever run precisely enough for Rodgers, no game plan creative enough for his talents, and dissatisfaction radiates from him with the passive-aggressive fury of a million failed marriages.
Nevertheless, Rodgers’ 2020 season is off to an excellent start. The Packers are 3-0 after a 37-30 victory in Sunday night’s duel with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Rodgers is tied for third in the NFL with nine touchdown passes, ranks sixth with 887 passing yards and third with a 121.1 efficiency rating.
His success should be unsurprising for an eight-time Pro Bowl selection and former Super Bowl champion, except that 2020 was supposed to be the year that the perpetually disgruntled 36-year-old Rodgers earned his comeuppance at the hand of a rookie heir apparent, Jordan Love.
So much for that storyline.
Much of Rodgers’ dyspeptic reputation was earned in the years that followed the Packers’ Super Bowl victory in the 2010 season and his MVP Awards in 2011 and 2014. He then fell into incremental decline. Rodgers missed portions of three seasons with shoulder and knee injuries.
His favorite receivers faded, most of their replacements were less accomplished and his former coach Mike McCarthy’s game plans shrank to the size of a children’s menu. Rodgers’ statistical excellence eroded, but his salary kept increasing — he signed a reported four-year, $134 million extension in the 2018 offseason — trapping the Packers in a cycle of diminishing returns.
Rodgers wasn’t shy about expressing his disenchantment. On the field, he scrambled and gestured to receivers like a sandlot quarterback and scowled at his coaches when he did not like a play call. Off the field, he publicly grumbled about the team’s decisions and privately feuded with McCarthy.
By the time McCarthy was fired during a 6-9-1 Packers season in 2018, Rodgers had established a reputation as an aging action hero who could no longer do many of his own stunts but still demanded script and casting approval; the Packers, by extension, had fallen from perennial contenders to a straight-to-streaming “Taken” sequel.
Matt LaFleur became the Packers’ coach for the 2019 season and installed a variation on the trendy offense that propelled the Los Angeles Rams to the previous season’s Super Bowl: heavy on balanced rushing and tightly scripted passing, light on quarterback guitar solos. The Packers went 13-3 and reached the NFC championship game, but Rodgers produced his second-lowest efficiency rating as a starter and appeared as enthusiastic when executing LaFleur’s intricate play designs as he would be to scrub the locker room showers.
The friction between Rodgers and the organization appeared to reach a tipping point when the Packers traded up to select Love from Utah State in the first round of April’s draft. Love, who mixed Patrick Mahomes-like collegiate highlights with stretches where he played as if his game-day breakfast was laced with peyote, posed no immediate threat to Rodgers’ starting job. But Love’s arrival sent an obvious signal that the franchise was weary of Rodgers’ declining production, huge salary and slow-boil hostility, probably in reverse order.
Rodgers signaled back in a July interview with The Ringer: He said he poured himself four fingers of tequila when he learned the Packers selected Love, offered an exhaustive list of rookie wide receivers he would have preferred and generally sounded like someone venting about a spouse’s text messages to the au pair.
In the wake of so much melodrama, this Packers season was expected to be part “All About Eve” and part “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with a dash of “Sunset Boulevard.” But Rodgers has proved that he is still ready for his close-up.
He is also playing nicely with others: With his favorite receiver, Davante Adams, hobbled, Rodgers has been connecting with his secondary targets instead of heaving the ball out of bounds and lamenting his lack of weapons in postgame interviews. Rodgers is even operating comfortably within LaFleur’s system, distributing short tosses while waiting for ideal opportunities to unleash his (still magnificent) deep ball.
Perhaps Rodgers has become a model employee out of sheer spite, though if Rodgers were truly motivated by spite, he might have conquered the world by now. Perhaps it took a rookie’s arrival to persuade both sides — Rodgers and the coaching staff — to work things out for the sake of a Super Bowl instead of plunging the team into free agency and a rebuilding era. Or, just maybe, Rodgers’ churlish reputation is somewhat overblown, as were observations about his deteriorating skills.
Whatever the cause of Rodgers’ resurgence, it has caught NFL talk-show dramatists without a narrative arc for him. He is not yet a venerable warrior like Brees or Tom Brady. He’s certainly not a young hero like Mahomes or Lamar Jackson. He never fell far enough for comeback player of the year redemption and he won too many accolades to join Russell Wilson on a quest for validation. And he refuses to play the role of arrogant heel as cast. He is just a future Hall of Famer on the inside track toward a return to the Super Bowl.