2022 NFL Preview: Packers still trying to get back to a Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers
The Green Bay Packers have won a Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers, and that's something we all need to keep in mind. It's not easy to win even one, even with an all-time great quarterback.
But as the years go on, the Packers' story is set on repeat: They're great in the regular season, then lose a playoff game in a crushing way and hear all about their failures as an organization for winning only one title with Rodgers.
The loss to the San Francisco 49ers in last season's divisional round, after Green Bay had the No. 1 seed and a bye, was a stunning blow. The offense was MIA. The special teams were awful, and a blocked punt in the fourth quarter was the biggest play in the game. Aaron Rodgers walked off Lambeau Field on a cold, dark night in Green Bay and nobody knew if that was the end of an era. It felt like a funeral.
"We truly had a Super Bowl-caliber team," Rodgers said after the game, according to Packers.com. "In other years, it feels like sometimes you need things to go your way, but that didn't feel like this season."
Rodgers will after another round of offseason drama, but the Packers aren't the same. It doesn't mean they're worse, but it will look different without receiver Davante Adams. Rodgers signed a new deal on March 8 to come back, ending a couple months of speculation. Then 10 days later, the Packers shocked the NFL by trading Adams to the Las Vegas Raiders. It seemed to catch Rodgers off guard too.
"It was a little surprising with Davante — obviously when I made my decision, I was still thinking he was going to come back," Rodgers said on "The Pat McAfee Show," via ESPN.
That leaves the 2022 Packers in an interesting spot. They have a quarterback who has won NFL MVP two years in a row, surrounded by a roster that is built to grind it out with the running game and play great defense. It's not how most teams draw it up, but Green Bay seemingly wanted that roster build.
The Packers' strategy at receiver has been debated for years, and this season's receiver group is much worse without Adams. The Packers had two first-round picks this year and passed on receivers to draft defensive lineman Devonte Wyatt and linebacker Quay Walker, both from Georgia's national title team. They did take receiver Christian Watson in the second round and Romeo Doubs in the fourth, and perhaps one or both fills a big void right away.
But it is a huge void for a team that desperately wants to get back to a Super Bowl. But maybe it doesn't matter.
The optimistic view of the Packers is this: Rodgers will lift up any receiver that he's throwing to, and the passing game will be fine because the quarterback is that good. Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon might be the best running back tandem in the NFL. The defense could be fantastic. Plenty of teams have made deep playoff runs, and even won championships, running it well and playing good defense. In some ways, the Packers could follow the model of the 1997-98 Denver Broncos, a run-first team that had John Elway in their back pocket when a big play was needed.
Even if the formula is fine, it doesn't mean the Packers will make a Super Bowl. Random variance stinks in a league that has relatively short careers and a single-game elimination tournament. It was easy for social media to pile on Rodgers after the Packers lost to the 49ers, but anyone who thinks about football rationally knows Rodgers isn't the problem. Yes, the offense failed through the 49ers loss. Rodgers had 4:41 left in a tie game and the Packers went three-and-out. That's disappointing. It doesn't mean Rodgers can't win it all anymore. It just hasn't happened.
It might never happen again. Losing Adams, one of the best players in the NFL, is a really big deal. Maybe the defense won't be as good as it looks on paper. Or, everything comes together and the Packers still lose a close playoff game like they have multiple times before. That's football.
The Packers convinced their quarterback to return, and that's the biggest piece. Maybe before Rodgers is done, all those regular-season wins will finally pay off with another championship.
You get a feeling that a cap-denying team like the Los Angeles Rams or New Orleans Saints would have figured out the Davante Adams situation and he'd still be on the roster, chasing a Super Bowl. The Packers got a first-round pick (No. 22 overall) and a second-round pick (No. 53 overall) for Adams, but it's hard to be too excited about a Super Bowl hopeful moving on from a player who now has the NFL's fourth-largest annual salary among non-quarterbacks. Adams was tremendously valuable and the Packers' plan to replace him was questionable. Receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling, pass rusher Za'Darius Smith and guard Lucas Patrick left too. The Packers signed Aaron Rodgers to a three-year, $150.8 million extension, and afterward didn't sign an outside free agent worth more than $2 million per year. And the biggest deal went to punter Pat O'Donnell. Receiver Sammy Watkins was a low-cost signing but he's unreliable. The Packers' draft brought first-round picks Quay Walker, a linebacker, and defensive tackle Devonte Wyatt. Receiver Christian Watson, taken in the second round, is a big, fast and intriguing prospect. The offseason will be defined by the Adams trade and the fallout from it.
Aaron Rodgers said he's retiring as a Packer. We'll see, but for now that should end the interminable speculation about his future. Everyone, except maybe Rodgers and Pat McAfee, was sick of it.
However, retirement can't be that far away. Rodgers said after winning his fourth MVP award in February that he isn't scared of the end of his football career. Maybe he ends up playing well into his 40s like Tom Brady, but he isn't giving off that vibe.
“I think about (retirement) all the time,” Rodgers said in June, via A to Z Sports. “When you commit, you’re 100 percent. But the older you get, the interests change, and the grind, I think, wears on you a little more.”
Rodgers will turn 39 this season, and not many quarterbacks other than Brady have had great success at age 39 and beyond. Rodgers is an outlier in many ways, but we could see a significant decline soon. That's what has happened with practically every other quarterback who played into his late 30s. It's probably an issue for further down the road, unless Rodgers walks away before that decline happens.
The Packers went 13-4 but they weren't a favorite in the analytics crowd. Their Football Outsiders' DVOA ranked them No. 8 in the NFL. The Packers profiled as about a 10.5-win team according to point differential and DVOA. A 5-1 record in games decided by three points or less accounts for the difference. That's why the Packers, coming off a 13-win season, have a win total of 10.5 at BetMGM. The over seems like the right play, but beware of regression. The Packers are a -165 favorite to win the NFC North and while I'll be picking them to win the division, I don't like them at those odds. I'll be steering clear of any Packers future bets this season.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "I understand A.J. Dillon is talented and he saw plenty of work in the second half of the year. But consider how the Packers handled their playoff game — Aaron Jones received 21 touches for 170 total yards, while Dillon saw seven carries for 25 yards. Jones is still the primary option here, and a terrific pass catcher. I'll boil this down to simplest terms — Jones is a perfect second-round pick in most fantasy drafts. He's one of my favorite proactive picks."
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Allen Lazard has been in the NFL four seasons. His career highs for a season are 40 catches and 513 yards. Aaron Rodgers has signed off on Lazard being the team's No. 1 receiver, but it's a big step up. The problem is there's nobody else to fill that role, unless you believe Sammy Watkins finally moves past the inconsistency and injuries that have held him back. Or perhaps rookie Christian Watson makes a huge jump from North Dakota State to the NFL and is a star right away. He'll have to earn Rodgers' trust first. Rodgers leaned heavily on Davante Adams, and whoever fills the No. 1 receiver role is very unlikely to match Adams' production. More passes will go to Aaron Jones or tight end Robert Tonyan, who is coming back from a torn ACL. But it's a curious experiment, seeing if Rodgers can win a third straight MVP with one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL.
Who is the most important player on defense?
The Packers have a lot of talented players on defense. Jaire Alexander is a top cornerback. Rasul Douglas played like a top cornerback last season and the Packers resigned him, though there should be some concern if he can repeat his surprising career year. Edge rusher Preston Smith has been a good addition and is coming off a nine-sack season. Linebacker De'Vondre Campbell had a fantastic 2021 season. Others like defensive lineman Kenny Clark and safety Adrian Amos are very good. But the most important player could be Rashan Gary. Gary was a 2019 first-round pick but he got off to a slow start, rarely starting and getting just seven sacks through two seasons. Then last season he looked like a different player and posted 9.5 sacks. Gary could become a Pro Bowl player and one of the best edge defenders in the NFL if he builds on last season's breakout. If he ascends to that level, the Packers could be a top-five defense. He's a big key to the Packers' season.
This can work. Aaron Rodgers can make any receiver better so maybe the Davante Adams loss won't be a big deal. Having a pair of stud running backs helps. The Packers are an easy NFC North favorite for a reason. Perhaps a run-heavy offense/strong defense combination is a better formula for January anyway. Rodgers could absolutely follow the John Elway path and ride a really good team to another Super Bowl. If you keep giving yourself an opportunity as a high seed in the playoffs, eventually you'll break through.
A few factors should be scary for the Packers. They're due for some regression. Aaron Rodgers is at an age in which his play can fall off a cliff without much warning. The Packers also might not be able to replace Davante Adams, who has been putting up Hall of Fame-level numbers. The NFL is a passing league and maybe the Packers' passing game won't be as good as you'd hope with a quarterback like Rodgers. The Packers defense wasn't great last season and the special teams might have been the worst in the league (new special teams coach Rich Bisaccia, off a great run as Las Vegas Raiders' interim coach, was hired to fix that). For a team ranked this high, there's a realistic scenario in which Green Bay falls pretty hard. That's not great for a franchise that will be unhappy with anything less than a Super Bowl appearance.
I don't think Aaron Rodgers will win another MVP, but he'll be fine. The Packers will win another NFC North title. Matt LaFleur has become an underrated coach — seriously, quit acting like the Packers' success is entirely about Rodgers and has nothing to do with the coach — and he'll have the Packers back in contention. However, it feels like the Packers' best chances to make it back to the Super Bowl passed when they failed as a No. 1 seed the past two seasons. Those opportunities are hard to come by. So it'll be a similar story, with the Packers making the playoffs and being hopeful this is the year they hit all the green lights on the way to a Super Bowl, but falling short and wondering if their window with Rodgers is closed.
32. Houston Texans
31. Atlanta Falcons
30. New York Giants
29. Jacksonville Jaguars
28. Chicago Bears
27. New York Jets
26. Seattle Seahawks
25. Detroit Lions
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14. Indianapolis Colts
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9. New England Patriots
8. Los Angeles Chargers
7. Baltimore Ravens