It’s fitting that scientists may have found the explanation behind the Bermuda Triangle this week, because that moves Aaron Rodgers drop-off as the world’s greatest unsolved mystery. If hexagonal clouds creating “air bombs” are capable of bringing down aircraft and sinking ships, where have all the “air bombs” gone in the Packers offense that used to bring down opposing defenses?
While we are prone to overreaction, knee-jerking, and hyperbole in 2016, the Rodgers Recession is real. Before last Thursday’s game against the Bears, it was jarring to read Brian Hoyer actually had better passing numbers over their last 12 games. The win over Chicago quieted some of the noise as Rodgers threw for 326 yards, 3 TDs and 0 INTs, but it was incredibly his first 300-yard effort since November ’15, or his last 15 games (although he did have two 290+ yard efforts in that span). Did you ever think you’d see the best quarterback in the league go nearly the length of an entire season without a 300-yard day?
To be fair, the Packers have won plenty of games in that time frame. Green Bay went 10-6 last season, won a playoff game, and is 4-2 right now. But CBS analyst Bart Scott has recently told me he no longer considers Rodgers a top 5 quarterback and thinks the Packers will miss the playoffs. Rodgers may very well use Thursday night as a trampoline to the next level, and the Pack only trail the division by a game. But it’s impossible not to look at the Packers offense and wonder what exactly happened? How did the self-assured, supremely confident, dynamic Rodgers lose his mojo like Austin Powers?
The easy answer is this is just a blip on the radar. Brett Favre says it’s a small sample size and Rodgers is so good he’ll eventually break out of it. But there has been a parade of negative press aimed at #12 as well. Rodgers may have called Favre “grandpa” when they were first introduced, setting off the Green Bay Cold War. Ex-teammate Greg Jennings says Rodgers was put on a pedestal by the media, and his wideouts did more to make him great than people realized. Donald Driver called out Rodgers too, saying he didn’t always take the responsibility of a team leader.
Let’s take the shots from Jennings with a grain of salt because Rodgers was infamously cold to him after the wideout signed with the rival Vikings, so there likely is still bad blood. But there’s also been the Olivia Munn cloud, which some Packers fans have equated to Yoko Ono derailing the brilliance of the Beatles. The Hollywood actress blasted back last year, dismissing the idea she could be to blame (which meant more hot coals around Rodgers). There’s Eddie Lacy getting fat, a potentially strained relationship with Mike McCarthy, and the emergence of the Vikings as the bully of the NFC North. There’s also Jennings taking another swipe at Rodgers, calling him sensitive and arrogant. Cheeseheads are spinning in Wisconsin. Is it any of these reasons? All of these reasons? Some of these reasons?
The unfortunate but honest answer is it’s the biggest mystery in sports. It’s the Bigfoot of football, Loch Ness of the NFL, Area 51 of #12. There’s no easy explanation. From ’08-’14, Rodgers essentially topped the 4,000 yard plateau every year he played a full season (he came 78 yards short in 15 games one year). In that span he won a Super Bowl, made the playoffs 6 straight seasons, had a 15-1 regular season, and watched his defense and special teams kick away a late lead in the NFC Championship Game. He’s only 32 years old, a full 7 years younger than Tom Brady. There’s no way his physical tools are leaving him yet. The coach didn’t change. The supporting cast hasn’t changed dramatically. It’s just that Rodgers is no longer consistently breathtaking.
And maybe that’s it. Maybe we put the bar at such an amazingly high level, but his good is still elite. For all the hand-wringing over last year he still threw for 3,821 yards, 31 TDs and 8 INTs. The Packers won 10 contests, made the playoffs and won a Wild Card game (and nearly pulled off the miracle in Arizona on the Hail Mary). This season he’s still on pace for 3,800 yards and 30 TDs. If the Green Bay defense doesn’t give up the huge, crazy play to Larry Fitzgerald in OT, and the Packers make the NFC Title Game or even the Super Bowl last year, are we still wondering what’s wrong with Rodgers?
I personally believe Rodgers is highly analytical and impatient, and therefore sensitive to time and margins of success. The sand has been falling through the hourglass in his career, and winning the championship 7 seasons ago feels like forever. Every year is another round of caterwauling from fans and media about “wasting his prime” by only winning one Super Bowl (a problem the Browns, Lions, and Chargers would love to have). Losing Jordy and having a middling ground game, plus an inconsistent offensive line, has motivated him to try to do more on every play. It becomes a vicious cycle because every poor game creates questions about his slump, affects him emotionally, for which he responds by trying to do even more. For Rodgers, one Super Bowl title will not be enough. Passing Favre’s total is paramount to him, not only because it’s the franchise’s recent benchmark, but because Rodgers believes his destiny is multiple championships. He believes he’s good enough, deserving enough, and had plenty of time in his career since he won his first in his mid-20s. I believe he’s right.
But that’s what makes this so difficult to figure. It’s a bucket of unknowables, not any facts or obvious football reasons we can easily point to. There’s no way for Jon Gruden or Chris Collinsworth to sit in front of a green screen and point to breakdowns in the offense or a hitch in his delivery. The reality is the changes to get Rodgers back on track will be subtle, things that we can’t pick up on from game-to-game, week-to-week. And maybe the short passing game of last week (and ensuing results) will be the first building blocks. If not, the greatest mystery in sports will continue.
D.A. hosts 6-10pm ET on the CBS Sports Radio Network. He has hosted The D.A. Show (aka “The Mothership”) in Boston, Miami, Kansas City and Ft. Myers, FL. You can often catch him on the NFL Network’s series “Top 10.” D.A. graduated from Syracuse University in ’01, and began looking for ways to make a sports radio show into a quirky 1970’s sci-fi television series. Follow D.A. on Twitter and check out the show’s Facebook page. D.A. lives in NYC, and is a native of Warwick, NY.