Aaron Rodgers needs to rebound from mediocre season
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Aaron Rodgers will embark upon his 12th season with one Super Bowl appearance on his résumé and coming off his worst year at the helm of the Green Bay Packers.
For all his marvelous regular-season performances and statistical achievements, Rodgers bears his share of responsibility for the five-year championship drought in the NFL's smallest city.
Rodgers is the face of the franchise, one with a stable front office and coaching staff unified in providing him with everything needed to sustain a prolific offense and win titles.
Again, the Packers are one of the Super Bowl favorites. This will be the eighth straight season they've had the wherewithal to win it all, and the mere presence of Rodgers is a major reason why.
Clearly, however, it would require the return of Rodgers to his form of 2008-'14, when his passer rating never ranked lower than sixth, and not of 2015, when his career-low mark of 92.7 ranked an unsightly 15th.
"Not up to his standards," quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said. "Obviously, we've targeted improvement areas, and he's on board."
Van Pelt's nine-year career as a backup quarterback for the Buffalo Bills ended with his retirement after the 2003 season. He was 33, and recalls how his physical skills declined late in his career.
When Van Pelt was asked if he had fears Rodgers, who will turn 33 in December, might also slip physically, he replied, "None."
He added: "He's probably in the best shape he's been in. His weight's probably down (215)."
Rodgers underwent arthroscopic knee surgery two days after the NFC divisional playoff overtime defeat in Arizona to clean up what he called an old injury. His injuries over the years include a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament in high school, a fractured foot in 2006, two concussions in '10, a broken collarbone in '13 and a pair of calf injuries in '14.
In a May podcast with former teammate A.J. Hawk, Rodgers expressed hope of being able to play well for six or seven more years.
"I feel like I'm playing my best football, and I have been for a number of years now," said Rodgers. "I don't feel like there's an end in the near future to me playing at a really high level."
The many rules changes designed to protect quarterbacks have lengthened careers. Peyton Manning played 18 seasons, Tom Brady is ready for his 17th and Drew Brees will be entering No. 16. Indestructible Brett Favre reached an even 20.
Still, football longevity can never be guaranteed.
Troy Aikman was 31 in 1997 when he played 16 games for the last time. His record was 18-18 over his final three seasons.
Jim Kelly's last big year came in 1991 at age 31. Over his final five seasons he threw almost as many interceptions (86) as touchdown passes (99).
Ken Anderson played until 1986 but his last big season was '82 when he was 33.
Rodgers has a burning desire to be remembered as the greatest ever to play his position. In 2010, his third season as the starter, he played magnificently through the playoffs and into the Super Bowl, where he was voted MVP with an all-time performance.
The Packers, however, have never made it back to the big game.
In 2011 and '14, Rodgers followed an MVP regular season with weak performances in playoff defeats against the Giants and Seahawks. He was outplayed by the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick in the Packers' playoff ousters in 2012 and '13, and in January was outgunned in the end by Arizona's Carson Palmer.
Year after year, Rodgers and the Packers repeatedly have blown out foes before the fourth quarter. As a result just 26 of his 132 starts, including playoffs, have been decided by four points or fewer. His record in those 26 tight games is 8-18.
Last year, Rodgers' mediocrity was partially obscured by his wondrous Hail Mary pass of 61 yards to Richard Rodgers that beat Detroit as time expired and another of 41 yards to Jeff Janis that forced overtime in the Cardinals playoff game.
Otherwise, the numbers for a Rodgers-led offense almost defied belief: 23rd in total yards, tied for 25th in passing yards, 28th on third down, 31st on first down.
The level of futility in some categories stretched back more than a generation to the coaching regimes of Forrest Gregg and Lindy Infante.
"I want you to understand our mind-set," offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. "What happened last year, we get it. We're not sweeping anything under the rug.
"Some of the things he's been able to accomplish are phenomenal. The standards that he holds himself to, they're set. (Rodgers) is a big part of that. He's one of the most competitive guys I've ever seen."
After a tremendous six-game start, it was shocking to see six straight opposing quarterbacks post a higher rating than Rodgers. Besides rating, he had career lows in completion percentage (60.7%), average per attempt (6.7) and fumbles lost (five).
The best part of Rodgers' game in 2016 was durability. He took a beating and kept coming back for more.
At the same time, his deep-ball accuracy went south, he too often bolted the pocket prematurely and, at times, he glared and gestured at teammates when the situation called out for him to inspire the troops.
"I'm sure Aaron wanted to play better," said Tom Clements, the associate head coach who called the plays for the first 12 games. "He still did a lot of great things.
"When you lose a guy like (Jordy), and periodically we had injuries at key positions throughout the year, everyone else has to pick up their game."
Rodgers didn't, and Van Pelt said the quarterback has owned up to his shortcomings in private.
"Yeah, you'd like to see him be more productive," said Van Pelt. "You can't hang it all on him, either. There's 11 guys. As great as he is at times, we have to support him as well."
Other than the inaccuracy downfield, Van Pelt hopes that the delicate balance between quarterback and receiver can be regained with the return of Nelson and improvement by younger wideouts.
"He makes great decisions," said Van Pelt. "The bad ones are few and far between. He doesn't turn down things in fear of throwing interceptions."
The decision in March to let Scott Tolzien, the cerebral and experienced No. 2, depart to Indianapolis as an unrestricted free agent was made because of Brett Hundley's impressive first season.
After a shaky first week of training camp, Hundley improved by leaps and bounds to rank as the Packers' finest rookie quarterback in years. He made gigantic strides in footwork, accuracy and reading defenses.
"Very talented but still learning the system," Van Pelt said. "You see some of the mistakes a young player will make, but he works very hard to correct them."
Six times in coach Mike McCarthy's 10 seasons the Packers kept just two quarterbacks on their opening-day roster. If they keep three, Wesley (Del.) College's Joe Callahan has the inside track.
Said Van Pelt: "He had 129 touchdowns. You just don't fall out of bed doing that.
"He has a big arm. Spins it well. Not a real big guy but he's strong and athletic. He's made big strides in his time here."
McGinn also writes for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, part of the USA TODAY NETWORK.