Aaron Rodgers is entering 2020 with much to prove, and little time in which to do it.
As Aaron Rodgers goes, so too, generally, do the Green Bay Packers.
That’s not only true in the most obvious sense—when Rodgers plays lights-out, the Packers win—though of course that’s part of it.
But in recent years, Rodgers’ mind-set—his answers in press conferences, body language in camp, and overall demeanor—have been remarkably accurate predictors of how the team will do that season. With Rodgers and the Packers, those who follow the team closely have noticed an almost preternatural cause-and-effect relationship.
Consider: in late Sept. 2014, the Packers were in the midst of a 1-2 start for the third consecutive season. Fans online had worked themselves into a tizzy, wondering why this team took so long each year to go from zero to 60—or why it couldn’t set the cruise control when it did get there.
Then, the dulcet tones of Rodgers’ voice on ESPN Radio: “R-E-L-A-X. Relax.”
Like magic, the Packers went on to win 11 of their last 13 games, securing the NFC North title and a first-round playoff bye. Rodgers finished the season with 38 touchdowns, his third-most since becoming a starter seven seasons earlier, and five interceptions, his lowest to that point.
“It’s kind of my personality,” Rodgers would tell reporters at his locker the following January. “I’d like to think that being relaxed and laid back is a positive trait as far as my leadership and kind of my demeanor.”
Now, obviously, Rodgers cannot guide the Packers to wins at will. The Packers would have hoisted the Lombardi Trophy an unprecedented 12 straight times if that were the case. But when there is discord between Rodgers and the organization—be it at the highest level with general manager Brian Gutekunst, the coaching level with Mike McCarthy, or the field level with his teammates—it tends to play out in his performance.
The stat sheet paints a rosy picture of Rodgers’ 2018 season: an interception rate of 0.3 (25 TDs, 2 INTs), his lowest as a starter; 4,442 total yards and 277.6 per game, his second-most ever. And yet, even rejecting wins as a QB stat, a 6-9-1 record and missing the playoffs for the second straight year was not a measure of success by any standards.
Eventually, reports of Rodgers’ and McCarthy’s problems began to pile up, with the quarterback frequently changing the coach’s calls at the line of scrimmage—beyond his reportedly already free rein—or the two jawing at each other after a fruitless play.
We know the rest of the story: McCarthy fired before the season was over, a division of GM duties between Gutekunst and Russ Ball, and, eventually, Matt LaFleur hired to right the ship.
So what does all this mean for 2020?
Fans have been holding their breath since the Packers boldly traded up four spots to draft Jordan Love, whom they hope will be their third lighting strike in as many attempts. Would the move serve as a chip on Rodgers’ shoulder, as so many other circumstances in his career have? Would it motivate him to show the team why it must keep him around for the entirety of his contract, which expires in 2024 but which, crucially, has a team-friendly out in 2022?
Or would it create so much tension that, as with the final gasps of the McCarthy era, Rodgers’ play on the field and confidence in the team’s prospects would be tainted by the turmoil inside Lambeau?
So far, words like tension and turmoil don’t seem to have a place in the relaxed and often jocular atmosphere at Ray Nitschke Field, the Don Hutson Center, or Lambeau Field as the Packers progress through training camp.
There is Rodgers, giving Love some pointers during a throwing drill. Love misses the net target; Rodgers steps up, murmurs some feedback to the rookie, and then flawlessly executes the drill himself, nothing but net.
There is Rodgers, sitting atop the Lambeau Leap wall with David Bakhtiari and Preston Smith, laughing, relaxing.
There is Rodgers, telling the media how much he appreciated the text LaFleur sent him late one night with some “fantastic” play ideas and how successful they were the next day in practice.
If strife seekers are looking for a disgruntled veteran staring daggers at his heir apparent in practice, they won’t find one in Green Bay this offseason.
What can Packers fans expect from Rodgers in 2020? To hear it from the quarterback himself, something like his 2010 vintage is on the table.
In late August, Rodgers told media he was watching some film from 2010 and noticed something had changed in his play from then until now.
“I know it was 10 years ago, but the next day I went out to practice and started working on what I saw on the film, and the last couple of days kind of happened,” Rodgers said.
The “last couple of days” referring, of course, to his hot streak in camp where it seemed like he could will the ball wherever he wanted: a third-down post route to Allen Lazard for 33 yards; another third-down end zone corner route to Davante Adams for 18 yards; 50- and 45-yard touchdowns to Adams and Jake Kumerow on back-to-back snaps in 11-on-11s.
Exactly what change Rodgers implemented we may never know, though astute observers at training camp coincidentally (?) have noticed him targeting the middle of the field at an increased rate.
Rcon14 at Acme Packing Company pulled some data and created a simple methodology to discover how frequently quarterbacks targeted the middle of the field on short-to-intermediate throws in 2019. Rodgers came in dead last, at 24.6% (compared to Matt Ryan at 49.4%, the highest usage). Moreover, the Packers threw to the most difficult part of the field, the sideline, the third-most of any team in the league last season.
Lacking a top-notch tight end or a Randall Cobb surely influences Rodgers’ aversion to the middle of the field, but personnel only goes so far; the signal-caller must be willing to change his spots.
The player LaFleur lined up in the slot most in 2019 was Geronimo Allison (82% of snaps, per the 2020 Football Outsiders Almanac). Since that obviously won’t be the case this season, the hope this season is that Allen Lazard (72% in 2019) can be the big slot body Rodgers needs, with Jace Sternberger helping make up the 351 slot targets Jimmy Graham saw in 2019.
Meanwhile, the continued development of backs Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams and the draft addition of AJ Dillon and his enormous legs will allow LaFleur, in Year 2, to run a more effective version of his West Coast-evolved offense, which aims, above all, to marry the pass and the run. By extension, that should allow for one of Rodgers’ most effective seasons to date, if not his most statistically remarkable.
When we think about Rodgers’ 2010 form, we think about surgical play on the field—in his return from concussion in Week 16, the season on the line at 8-6, Rodgers lit up the New York Giants for his best regular season outing to that point, completing 67.6 percent of his passes for 404 yards, four touchdowns and a 139.9 rating.
But we also think about pure, unadulterated confidence. Green Bay needed to win its final two games of the 2010 season to keep its playoff hopes alive. Of course, not only did the Packers win those matchups, they won it all.
When Rodgers truly believes in the team’s potential in a given season—and accepts whatever role he needs to play to enhance that potential—he is at his best. When he suits up in a few weeks’ time, he will by all accounts be carrying that confidence into the season.
“The window is open for us, and that’s the exciting thing,” Rodgers told reporters after the Packers fell 37-20 to the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game seven months ago. “I think we’re gonna be on the right side of one of these real soon.”
Rodgers said the 2019 season was special “because it became fun again.” “I wouldn’t say this was our most talented team,” Rodgers added, “but neither was 2010. And we just found a way.”
As Dr. Ian Malcolm would say, “Life, uh, finds a way.”
When he has genuine confidence in his team, so, too, does Aaron Rodgers.