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Is this what Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers came back for?

Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers have had rocky starts to their seasons. (Don Wright/AP and John Fisher/Getty) (AP and Getty)
7 min

It tends to get messy at the end with old quarterbacks. Finding, or rediscovering, the perfect symmetry of scheme and personnel to fit with an aging first-ballot Hall of Famer is difficult, to say nothing of managing a banged-up body through a long season with fewer practice reps and the need for more rest.

For Aaron Rodgers, nearing his 39th birthday, and Tom Brady, 45, such late-career challenges are nothing new, nor are drama and palace intrigue. Brady in 2020 extricated himself from Bill Belichick in New England after a simmering cold war, and Rodgers contemplated his potential exodus from Green Bay on multiple occasions before finally agreeing to take another $101.5 million fully guaranteed from the Packers — even if it appeared he accepted it somewhat begrudgingly.

Now, both men find themselves around the one-third mark of a season they at various points considered not playing. They are firmly in Super Bowl or bust mode — and on teams that appear less than ready to meet that challenge. They are the leaders of offenses that seem to be going nowhere, for teams that are faring worse than almost anyone would have expected. They both enter Week 7 trying to shake off ugly upsets; for Rodgers, it’s now two weeks running. They are very much the center of leaguewide attention right now, for their uncharacteristic performances, their occasional outbursts (Brady publicly eviscerated his offensive line Sunday) and their propensity for mind games and passive-aggressive wordplay. (Rodgers said after Green Bay’s loss to the Jets, “It will be interesting to look at all the comments from all of our guys and coaches, and hopefully we stick together.”)

Gulp. Sounds a little ominous.

The soap operas surrounding these two superstars is captivating theater, and there are plenty of coaches and executives on other teams who believe this season has the potential to go off the rails in both Tampa Bay (3-3) and Green Bay (3-3). We have seen awkward final acts for even the best of the best: Ben Roethlisberger’s final contract restructure, Drew Brees sharing a backfield with Taysom Hill, a hobbled Peyton Manning losing his spot to Brock Osweiler for a spell, an ineffective Eli Manning briefly losing his to Geno Smith.

“It’s always tricky with quarterbacks like this,” said one high-ranking NFL front office official whose franchise has endured a situation like this, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not permitted to discuss other team’s personnel issues. “You almost always end up holding on to them a year or two too long. We did …. You’re dealing with a lot of ego and emotion. It gets complicated when they’re not what they used to be.”

Neither of these quarterbacks looks poised to flirt with an MVP award this year. And the situation in Green Bay, in particular, could explode. Scouts and executives who have watched the Packers maintain that Rodgers’s body language is worse than ever and he seems uninterested in even trying to push the ball down the field. (“They can’t get anything going on offense, and it almost looks like he doesn’t want to be there,” one evaluator, speaking on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss another team’s personnel, told me. “It’s like he’s almost too willing to give up on a play.”) Rodgers’s 7.19 air yards per attempt are among the lowest of his career — more than a yard below his career average, per TruMedia. He is completing just 26.7 percent of his passes of 20 yards or longer, and Green Bay is averaging just 17.8 points per game, the lowest-scoring six-game stretch of his career.

Trust in his young core of receivers seems in short supply. The offense looks lost without superstar wide receiver Davante Adams, dealt to the Raiders in the offseason. Rodgers has a pedestrian-by-his-standards quarterback rating of 94.2, he has been sacked 15 times already, and fissures may be growing.

Rodgers, who wanted more sway in personnel among his list demands to return to Green Bay before an eventual detente, is more empowered than ever to say whatever he feels, whenever he feels like it. His postgame remarks Sunday, echoing a repeated refrain to “simplify” the offense, were met around the league as a rebuff of head coach Matt LaFleur, who is dealing with real football tumult for the first time in his fourth season on the job. LaFleur seemed puzzled by the request — “I don’t know what that means,” he told reporters — but it’s probably not the last of his quarterback‘s cryptic comments.

“They created a monster,” said one general manager, speaking on the condition of anonymity to frankly discuss another team. “He’s got a voice in personnel now, or at least he thinks he does. The knives are about to come out there. That could get really ugly. They should have traded him when they had the chance, and they’re stuck with him now, whether he really wants to be there or not. [And this is] after everything they’ve gone through since they took Jordan Love, and that was when they were winning 13 games a year and he was playing like an MVP. They are in serious s--- now.”

At least Brady, who said this week that retirement is not on his mind, still has a competent defense to fall back on in what will undoubtedly be his final NFL season. However, with a gutted offensive line, the Bucs can’t move the ball on the ground (averaging 3.1 yards per carry, last in the NFL), and nothing has come easy in the passing game, either. Brady hasn’t been playing poorly, but the infrastructure is sagging.

The 5-1 Giants aren’t a fluke, and they aren’t going away

Brady’s familial issues have become an international story, which has to play on his mind, and, like Rodgers, he doesn’t seem to be having much fun playing football these days. And, as some salary cap execs pointed out, the Bucs’ cap and contract situation has them staring at a bleak 2023 offseason, with this their last hurrah. (“They’re all in to win now,” one cap specialist said, “and then it’s a total reboot next year.”)

“He’s still super smart, and he processes the game at an elite level,” said one personnel executive whose team has faced Brady this season. “He’s still a very good quarterback, but he’s starting to look old. I don’t think this is what he came back for. The scheme is off, too. [Offensive coordinator] Byron Leftwich has some work to do. I don’t think he’s putting him in position to succeed.”

With the Steelers really banged up at linebacker and throughout the secondary, some in that organization were shocked there were not more downfield passes in Tampa Bay’s game plan last week. (Brady’s 40 attempts produced an average gain of barely six yards, and he tossed just two passes that went even 20 yards in the air.) The images of Brady berating his linemen — during a week in which he missed some football work to attend the wedding of Patriots owner Robert Kraft — struck many as out of touch, as well.

Despite more than 20 years of coaching some of the best football players in the NFL as an assistant coach, Clarence Shelmon never got a chance at the top job. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Tampa Bay has been held to 21 points or less in five of its six games, and Brady is on pace for his fewest touchdown passes since 2003, despite the 17-game schedule. We’ve become accustomed to Brady’s Bucs getting better deep in the season and peaking in time for the playoffs. But this is already a very different season than Brady has ever experienced, and you have to wonder if he’s second-guessing ending his retirement before it really started.

“Football is hard,” Brady posted in a social media message this week. “We’re not playing like we are capable. We’re in it together. We’ll turn it around.”

If nothing else, the salvo implied at least some confidence that better days are ahead. That may be more than Rodgers seems capable of right now.