Green Bay sits in second place in the NFC standings and finally gets the chance to rejuvenate.
Here are some takeaways three months into the season as we bide our time for a weekend without Packers football:
Trust him or not, Aaron Rodgers cares deeply about this team
Rodgers’ fall from MVP grace started when he was a no-show to team activities in the summer. The Packers prepared – willingly or not – for the worst-case scenario, that Rodgers would stay away from Titletown. The months-long standoff between superstar player and storied franchise ended when No. 12 reported with the rest of Packers veterans for the first day of training camp. The drama did not. It subsisted when Green Bay was embarrassed in Week 1 against New Orleans and Rodgers’ skeptics blamed his offseason absence for the dysfunctional offensive performance. And, reached a boiling point when Rodgers tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 3 and subsequently spent 10 days in isolation because as protocols revealed and he would later confirm … he is unvaccinated – a realization that contradicted the validity of his comments in August when he responded to a reporter’s question saying he was immunized. Semantics suggest what Rodgers said wasn’t a bold-faced lie, but nevertheless it was misleading, or at best, needlessly beating around the bush of a subject that others answered honestly. While training in quarantine, Rodgers fractured his pinkie toe … misconceptualized as “COVID toe.”
With the bad – or the dramatic, call it whatever you’d like – there’s been a whole lot to appreciate. For starters, Rodgers showed up (on his own terms), discussed at length what prompted his frustration – primarily he was bent out of shape by the front office’s willingness to part ways with past players he viewed to be integral to the leadership in the locker room and chemistry on the field – and went right back to work, determined to bring another championship to Green Bay. A day after rejoining the organization, the Packers traded an undisclosed draft pick to Houston for wide receiver Randall Cobb, whose mid-2010s rapport with Rodgers is remembered without introduction. Without Cobb, it’s almost a certainty that Green Bay, playing without its top-three receivers, loses to Arizona in Week 8. It’s not just his front-office savviness, or his smart decision-making that makes Rodgers irreplaceable right now. His competitiveness and his moxie are contagious, especially to a team that is missing several elite players. Despite the toe injury, Rodgers has played at an MVP level since returning from the reserve/COVID-19 list – he’s completed 74 of 115 passes (64%) for 984 yards and six touchdowns over the last three games.
Love him or hate him, respect him or envy him, Rodgers is making Green Bay great, and his unflappable attitude, football intelligence and tough spirit are all reasons that the Packers sit at 9-3 during their bye.
Joe Barry deserves major props …
Barry was the other scapegoat after a visually-corrected Jameis Winston rained five touchdown passes on Green Bay in the 38-3 Week 1 loss. What Barry’s unit has accomplished in the 11 weeks since – all without All-Pro outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith and eight without Pro Bowl cornerback Jaire Alexander – is commendable. The first-year Packers defensive coordinator steers a group which ranks eighth in points allowed (242) and tied for fifth in yards surrendered per play (5.3) and takeaways (19). Green Bay’s defense has held eight of its 12 opponents to 22 points or fewer and has more sacks (28) than 20 other teams. One big reason the Packers have been so tough to beat is their ability to make plays in space – their 60 missed tackles are the third fewest in the NFL (Denver: 50; Kansas City: 52).
So does Adam Stenavich
We can’t mention the miracle work that Barry has done with a short-handed defense without also praising the plug-and-play mindset that Stenavich has thoroughly instilled along the Green Bay offensive line. It just wouldn’t be fair. From left to right this is how the Packers lined up in Week 1: Elgton Jenkins, Lucas Patrick, Josh Myers, Royce Newman, Billy Turner. Against Los Angeles the shuffle up front looked like this: Yosh Nijman, Jon Runyan, Patrick, Newman, Turner. It’s sort of like a game of musical chairs. If you’re not already out, you’d better find a spot to sit your butt down. Statistically speaking, Green Bay’s offense isn’t going to blow anybody out of the water – partly because Stenavich’s group has been solid but unspectacular. For what it's worth, Green Bay does rank 5th in offensive DVOA (4th in weighted DVOA), which gauges a team's efficiency by comparing single-play success to the average around the league based on situation and opponent. On the flip side, the Packers have given up 23 sacks, which is right around the middle of the pack in the NFL this season. Their 4.1 yards per carry ranks in the bottom half of the league. The reality is you can’t define the work that Stenavich has done by numbers – unless you’re counting the five different starting combinations or the eight different hog mollies to take snaps on offense. Newman, one of two linemen to start each contest – Turner being the other – is a fourth-round rookie from Mississippi.
Paying a running back top dollar is not worth it
We’ll preface this section by, again, pointing out Green Bay’s jumbled offensive line. Neither of the Packers running backs have wowed with their numbers on the ground – there’s been just one 100+-yard rushing performance between Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon (Jones ran for 103 yards in Week 5) – but Dillon is playing on his rookie deal. Jones, on the other hand, is in year one of a four-year, $48 million extension that he signed in March, making him the highest-earning running back in terms of total cash for 2021. The contract is deceiving in the sense that Jones is making about the same as he would have had Green Bay opted to franchise tag him this year and in 2022, but the potential for the deal to blow up down the line – the Packers would be obligated to pay Jones a $7 million roster bonus in 2023, compounding a base salary that season of $8.1 million – almost guarantees that Jones won’t be a Packer beyond next season … simply because his performance this year hasn’t warranted that type of financial commitment. The Packers would save $12.75 million by ditching Jones after 2022 (or $16 million if they made it a post-June 1 cut) – and count $6.5 million in dead money. Oh, and did we mention that Dillon has looked just as capable if not more talented this season as a runner and has proven himself of late as a pass-catcher? In 11 games (11 starts), Jones has toted the rock 133 times for 564 yards. He has added 37 catches for 298 yards and scored seven total touchdowns. His backup, Dillon, has carried 128 times for 543 yards in 12 games (one start) and caught 27 passes for 261 yards with four touchdowns to his name. To further our original point, just take a gander at some of the highest-paid ball carriers in the NFL – Christian McCaffrey is done for the year; Ezekiel Elliott has been outplayed by Tony Pollard; Alvin Kamara has missed the past three games due to injury; Dalvin Cook has seemingly regressed; Derrick Henry is on IR and Nick Chubb shares the backfield with Kareem Hunt. Time to double down: it’s not wise to pay a running back top dollar in this league because their shelf life is perhaps the shortest of any position.
Green Bay should be the Super Bowl favorite if three key players return
Everybody can agree on this take, right? If Alexander, Smith and All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari rejoin the Pack at some point in the final five weeks of the regular season then Green Bay must be the betting favorite to hoist the Lombardi trophy on Feb. 13 at SoFi Stadium. How could anyone think otherwise? The Packers spoiled Arizona’s undefeated campaign on the road … down bad. How bad? Try without Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Davante Adams. Green Bay’s defense badgered Patrick Mahomes in a narrow loss to Kansas City at Arrowhead Stadium … playing without the reigning MVP. Most recently, the Rams fearsome front – piloted by Aaron Donald and Von Miller – was denied by a makeshift offensive line playing fresh off the loss of another unicorn left tackle in Jenkins. The Packers’ win before the bye week was a declaration that they’re legitimate contenders – adding three elite players back into the fold could … actually … would elevate them to scary good status.