Anywhere else, the vibe would be eerie. Perhaps by the end of the season, it will feel that way. Not now. The Packers have won six straight games since their pitiful 38-3 season-opening clunker against New Orleans. During the streak, they haven’t been overpowering, but they have been balanced, with sound defense compensating for their slow offensive start. And when it matters, Rodgers is still Rodgers.
As much as the conversation about the Packers keeps veering toward his dissatisfaction, Rodgers compartmentalizes annoyance better than most. He arrived at training camp saying he was so frustrated that he considered retirement. But on the field, there is no doubt he remains committed to trying to win one more Super Bowl in Green Bay, even if turns out to be one for the road.
After a 24-10 victory over Washington on Sunday, Rodgers assessed a team finding ways to win. The Packers are winning, but they’re not hot. They are improving, though.
“I feel like we’re close,” said Rodgers, who has thrown 15 touchdown passes and just three interceptions in seven games. “We have to keep finding ways to get the ball to our guys in space, but when our defense is playing like they did today, we’re going to be tough to beat.”
With the schedule nearing midseason, it’s a good time for a thorough progress report. On Thursday night, the Packers visit the undefeated Arizona Cardinals in the most riveting matchup so far this season. The winner figures to be viewed as the favorite in an NFC that also features three other teams off to impressive starts: defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay (6-1), the Los Angeles Rams (6-1) and Dallas (5-1).
Green Bay enters the Arizona showdown grinding through injuries and a rash of positive coronavirus tests that includes all-pro wide receiver Davante Adams. The game won’t be the indicator that it was expected to be, but the Cardinals won’t be fooled into thinking they have a huge advantage over Rodgers. In the previous two seasons, Adams missed six games. The Packers won all six.
“Those guys like Aaron and Tom [Brady], when they don’t have their main weapons and it falls back on those guys, sometimes it helps them to play an even cleaner game,” Cardinals defensive coordinator Vance Joseph told reporters in Arizona. “He’s not forced to force the ball to Adams. When you have a guy like Adams who’s a volume pass-catcher, you can kind of trap him into throwing the ball to Adams some, but without Adams, it’s going to force Aaron to play a true game — and that’s sometimes dangerous for us.”
Adaptability belongs on the same level as accuracy when judging how elite quarterbacks separate themselves. Rodgers has made a career out of making the best of situations. Over 14 seasons as a starter, he has won 67 percent of his games because, though he is perturbed by the Packers’ steadfast belief in their classic team-building approach, his talent and pride are so great that he can cover for most roster imperfections.
The marriage of franchise and quarterback has lasted well into a second decade, and the Packers have missed the playoffs just three times. They have posted double-digit victories in nine seasons, and it would be a huge shock if they didn’t make it 10 this season. They won the Super Bowl after the 2010 season, but since then, they have lost in the NFC title game four times, including the past two years. And the year after the Super Bowl triumph, Green Bay had a 15-1 team that was upset in the divisional round.
With better luck, Rodgers could have multiple championship rings and an enviable number of Super Bowl appearances. The consolation has been remarkable consistency that often ends with heartbreak and bitterness that the franchise hasn’t done more to boost its title aspirations.
From a team perspective, the Packers have achieved a difficult kind of sustainability, turning the roster over several times without bottoming out and maximizing the team-carrying abilities of a quarterback they have awarded top-of-market compensation several times. From Rodgers’s perspective, success hasn’t been successful enough to fulfill his personal goals.
The symbolism of Thursday night’s game means as much as the outcome. Here comes Arizona, with young quarterback Kyler Murray and a host of big-name stars, poised to go from out of the playoffs last season to championship contender. The Cardinals are another threat to crawl out of the mud and climb higher than the Packers, who build in their gradual, meticulous manner. A year ago, Tampa Bay added Brady and stepped over Green Bay on the way to a title. Two years ago, San Francisco blew out the Packers in the NFC title game and went to the Super Bowl a season after it finished 4-12.
Throughout Rodgers’s career, many teams have flashed, experienced higher highs than his squad and then vanished from relevance. The Packers have been a model of consistency, but they weren’t the model because Brady and the New England Patriots had mastered the art of winning a lot, including the big one.
It would seem unfair if Green Bay and Rodgers, who turns 38 in December, don’t make another Super Bowl because another team swoops in after taking a shortcut. But that’s the game. It’s maddening, so much so that not even Rodgers can stay cool about it.
He keeps trying to, though. So do the Packers and their fan base, even though they’re annoyed by the drama. They have one more chance together, and it’s a good one — and going better than anticipated.
Despite their differences, the franchise and quarterback can agree on this: For the Packers, a promising start doesn’t mean much anymore. Everyone has an eye on the ending. In the calm of late October, you can still sense finality hovering.