Aaron Rodgers Was Just Named the Best Player in the NFL by His Peers. What is His Ceiling?
Wednesday night, NFL Network’s 100 Best Players in the NFL–as voted by players–concluded with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers being named #1. (In related news, water is wet, fish swim, the sky is blue, and the Cubs won’t win the World Series this year.) While NFL Network didn’t disclose it, it’s safe bet that Rodgers won in a landslide, perhaps approaching his domination of the 2011 MVP award where he received 48 of 50 first-place votes.
Rodgers had a historically brilliant season, completing 68.3% of his passes for 4,643 yards, 45 touchdowns, and just six interceptions; his 122.5 QB rating was the best single season passer rating of all-time. And the statistics don’t even do him justice. When he steps into a pass in the pocket, it is genuinely shocking if it falls incomplete. He throws on the run better than any quarterback I’ve ever seen and there isn’t a close second. 50-yard passes float effortlessly through the air and fall straight into his receivers’ hands. Several times a game, when the defense does everything right to stop him and has all of his targets blanketed, Rodgers will break contain and rush for a first down. He has an unflappably calm, cool, and collected demeanor that oozes through his teammates and inspires confidence in Packers players and fans that the team will always find a way to win. Like the Lombardi Packers, this team does not lose games, it runs out of time.
In summarizing Rodgers’ recipiency, Gregg Rosenthal wrote:
Greg Cosell of NFL Films said something during the 2011 season that stuck with me. He couldn’t remember any quarterback playing at a higher level consistently because no other quarterback does as many different things at such an elite level. Rodgers is a joy to watch.
Nobody is better at compartmentalizing personal slights and manufacturing them into motivation than Aaron Rodgers. For much of his life, these insults were real, not perceived. To quickly recap the oft-told narrative, Rodgers began his college career at Butte Community College, a small junior college 15 miles southeast of his hometown of Chico, CA before transferring to Cal. He endured the infamous, interminable stint in the NFL Draft green room before finally getting picked 24th overall by the Packers, sat behind Brett Favre for three seasons and three will-he-or-won’t-he offseasons before finally getting his chance to start.
Many Packers fans were not happy to have Rodgers as starter in 2008 when Brett Favre came out of his first “retirement” before getting traded to the Jets–I went to a game at Lambeau that season and more people were wearing Favre Jets jerseys than that of any current Packer. Read Phil Hanrahan’s Life After Favre to be reminded of the undeserved vitriol directed at Rodgers, Ted Thompson, and Mike McCarthy. Rodgers handled all of this with unfathomable grace.
It was not until Favre made his way to the Vikings in 2009 that Packers fans truly embraced Rodgers and not until the Packers beat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV that he got the props he deserved nationally. Even after winning the championship, many pundits questioned his not holding team workouts during the NFL Lockout, a slight that helped propel him and the Packers to a 15-1 regular season.
While Rodgers is 28 years old, he’s only been a starter for four seasons; in the violent NFL, attrition takes more of a toll on players’ bodies than the physiological aging process. Is it possible that his best football is still to come? Barring injury, how many more Super Bowls could this Packers nucleus win?
Some of Rodgers’ weapons are approaching the ends of their contracts: Greg Jennings and Donald Driver (whose great career is soon coming to an end) are only signed through this season while Jermichael Finley and James Jones’ contracts run up after the 2013 season; Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb are signed through 2014. While it would be great if the Packers get solid production out of 2nd-year running back Alex Green, an effective ground game is a luxury, not a necessity.
With Rodgers at quarterback and Mike McCarthy calling plays, the specific weapons are comparatively fungible; the Packers offense should be fine for the foreseeable future. To establish a dynasty, though, the Packers will need better showings from their defense than last season. The Packers D gave up the most yards in the NFL in 2011. While this was partially due to ineffectiveness, it was kind of by design–the team led the league with 31 interceptions, eight more than the second-best Patriots (who also gave up gobs of yards). Despite the takeaways, though, the Packers defense regressed last season, struggling to generate a pass rush as Packers fans grew accustomed to seeing the backs of our secondary’s jerseys.
The best case scenario for Green Bay is that first-round pick Nick Perry is a formidable passrushing force opposite Clay Matthews, nose tackle BJ Raji and cornerbacks Sam Shields and Tramon Williams return to their 2010–and, especially that season’s playoff–forms, and 35-year old Charles Woodson defies Father Time for a season or two, re-inventing himself as a freelancing safety. On the flip side, perhaps Perry does not pan out, Shields and Raji never play as well as they did two seasons ago, Tramon Williams does not fully recover from offseason shoulder surgery, and Woodson has nothing left in the tank.
The Packers front office faces some difficult decisions in the next two years. As previously mentioned, Greg Jennings’ contract is up at the end of the season and Jermichael Finley’s expires after next year. Clay Matthews and BJ Raji are also unsigned past 2013. With salary cap constraints, the Packers can’t keep all of them and it is going to be difficult to replace some of this elite talent through the draft if Green Bay keeps finding itself picking at the end of the first round.
Finally, Aaron Rodgers still has three seasons left on his immensely below-market deal. When it’s time for him to re-up, will he give the Packers a relative discount that enables the team to optimize the players around him or will Green Bay be forced to break the bank? This is perhaps the greatest variable in regards to the franchise’s long-term sustainability.
Taking everything into consideration, though, these are the best types of problems for a team to have. Assuming a healthy Aaron Rodgers, the Packers should be contenders for the better part of the next decade. Conservatively, I would set the over/under for future Rodgers/Packers Super Bowl titles at 1.5. It almost sounds spoiled and entitled to say with one already in the bank but anything less would be a disappointment for Packers fans. Anything more and Rodgers, Mike McCarthy, and Ted Thompson will be revered in Green Bay like Bart Starr, Paul Hornung, and Vince Lombardi. Because these figures are larger-than-life deities, there is literally no ceiling.
As a word of caution, though, remember this: Following the 1997-98 season, Brett Favre had won three consecutive MVPs, won a Super Bowl, and narrowly lost another. Favre’s 1995 and 1996 seasons may have been better than Rodgers’ past two. An eerily similar column to this one could have been written at the time. Mike Holmgren bolted to Seattle while Favre played another 10 seasons for the Packers but they never again reached the Super Bowl.
Anyone else ready for some football?