The 2018-19 NFL season is in the books.
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Death, taxes and Aaron Rodgers breathing dragon flames on Sunday – those have been America’s three certainties for the better part of a decade.
Forget the stats and the accolades (although they help), Rodgers might be the most purely gifted, rounded quarterback we’ve ever seen. He is the perfect man behind centre.
His arm is a leather whip, slinging passes with unnatural power and precision. He’s fleet-footed and elusive, treating defensive linemen like aimless bulls running towards his green and yellow cape. He carves you up inside the pocket with poise and timing, and he kills you outside of it with athleticism and creativity.
The quarterback position is more important to American football than virtually any position is to any other sport. If you don’t have a quarterback, you don’t have a team, which anyone in Cleveland or Buffalo can tell you all too well.
Occasionally a Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson or Rex Grossman will make the Super Bowl, but those players were all propped up by greatness around them. Unless you have transcendent talent everywhere else, you can’t win if you’re getting mediocrity from the quarterback position.
The more interesting question is, can you win with a transcendent quarterback and very little around him? The Green Bay Packers have spent their season trying to answer this question.
Outside of Rodgers, the Packers aren’t a terrible team. The defence ranges from very good to excellent, having entered Week 17 as the ninth-ranked unit in DVOA. Led by Julius Peppers, Green Bay have a strong defensive line that generates pressure. They’re third in the league in terms of stuffing the run at the line of scrimmage, although they struggle once running backs break to the second level and the open field. But the defence is fine.
The problem, for the first time since Rodgers became a starter in 2008, has been the offence.
Losing Jordy Nelson, one of the game’s handful of best wide receivers, in the preseason to a torn ACL crippled the Packers’ attack. In Nelson’s wake, Randall Cobb, Davante Adams and Richard Rodgers were all expected to step up and fill the void, but all three have disappointed. James Jones has been a nice pick-up, but he’s no Nelson.
The highly touted Eddie Lacy continues to underwhelm, finishing the season with just three touchdowns and only eclipsing 100 yards rushing in two games. Add in an injury-ravaged offensive line and the Packers, despite having the game’s pre-eminent signal caller, finished the season with the league’s 23rd ranked offence.
The per play numbers are less damning, as Green Bay entered Week 17 with the 11th ranked offence in DVOA. But those numbers are skewed by a now distant 6-0 start, and the Packers’ offensive ranking collapses to 21st in weighted DVOA.
Rodgers isn’t without culpability himself. He finished the season with career lows in completion percentage (60.7%), passer rating (92.7) and yards per attempt (6.88). For the year, his statistical profile looks remarkably like that of Ryan Fitzpatrick and Derek Carr, comparisons which aren’t becoming of the game’s best quarterback of the past decade.
His career passer rating is 104.4, but he hasn’t touched 100 in the past ten games. He’s looked unusually out of sorts this year, at times flummoxed by the awful defences of San Diego and Chicago.
But this season isn’t an indictment on Rodgers. His offensive line (23rd in DVOA for pass protection) can’t keep him upright, watching him get sacked nine times by Arizona a week ago. His receivers can’t create separation, allowing defences to sit back in man coverage. His alleged star running back can’t carry the weight of the offence, possibly because of the unhealthy amount of bodyweight he seems to be carrying himself.
We’ve known for a while that a great quarterback isn’t enough to make a great team. Drew Brees has spent many years in the NFL wilderness of 7-9 because of atrocious defences. But this Packers season has confirmed that a great quarterback isn’t even enough for a good offence.
There is some historical evidence that goes against this, such as the 2006 Patriots who went 12-4 and were one throw from the Super Bowl with Reche Caldwell as their number one receiver. But there is also historical evidence that Bill Belichick is a warlock, and everything that he does should be considered an outlier.
The Packers are still a feared team entering the playoffs. The spectre of Aaron Rodgers, Super Bowl MVP and quarterback God, will always loom large. But this year his spectre is just an empty shadow, with nothing to make it corporeal.
The reality is that the Packers have played three elite teams in the past ten weeks – Denver, Carolina and Arizona – and lost all three games by a combined score of 104-47. They’ve lost to the woeful Lions and Bears at home, and couldn’t scrape out a win at Lambeau against a Vikings team that had Teddy Bridgewater throw for under 100 yards and Adrian Peterson average just 3.5 yards per rushing attempt.
For all their flaws and the general lifelessness that has enveloped this team for the past three months, there is something deeply reassuring about the 2015 Packers. They’re positive reinforcement for the idea that football truly is a team sport that requires widespread contributors, not just one man’s genius.
After all, there is something magical about the game’s best quarterback in his prime being an underdog in the playoffs against a team with the league’s 20th ranked defence and Kirk Cousins at quarterback.