GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers is undecided about his future. The Green Bay Packers have a huge salary-cap problem. The Denver Broncos just hired Rodgers’ offensive coordinator to be head coach and might want his quarterbacks coach to run the offense.
Those three sentences don’t mean Rodgers is going to push general manager Brian Gutekunst to trade him to Denver. But it’s at least a possibility worth considering after the Packers just fell short in the playoffs for the third consecutive year.
While Rodgers’ favorite receiver, Davante Adams, is headed toward free agency, the Broncos signed receivers Courtland Sutton and Tim Patrick to extensions this season and have Jerry Jeudy for at least two more seasons on his rookie deal. While Green Bay’s defense was strong this season, surprise stars De’Vondre Campbell and Rasul Douglas are headed toward free agency, as well. Denver’s defense finished third in points allowed and should return mostly intact.
It’s true; Green Bay won 39 games the past three seasons compared to 19 for the Broncos. However, given the specter of key personnel losses, one team’s window of championship opportunity could be closing while another team’s window could be opening.
If only there were a quarterback who knew Nathaniel Hackett’s offense. If only there were a quarterback who guided the Packers to No. 1 in the NFL in scoring in 2020 and No. 10 in 2021 to help a team that has finished 22nd or worse in scoring the past six seasons.
It's still striking that the Broncos, with the ninth pick of last year’s draft, could have selected Justin Fields or Mac Jones to lift what was otherwise a solid team but instead drafted a cornerback. It’s noteworthy that, with the pick of the coaching candidates, they interviewed two members of Green Bay’s staff and hired Hackett. It’s interesting they could be targeting the other, quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy, or offensive line coach Adam Stenavich for offensive coordinator.
Maybe there’s neither smoke nor fire here. But you’ve got to figure, when Hackett picks up the phone and gets the congratulatory phone call from Rodgers, Hackett has to make a pitch, right? Or, at least with a wink and a nod, mention he could use a quarterback.
Hackett sees sunshine on a cloudy day. The glass is never half-empty. Or even three-quarters empty. When starter after starter went down with injuries, Hackett enthusiastically said he loved the challenge and the opportunity for other players to step up. He’s an energetic, enthusiastic and persuasive man.
You can practically hear his sales pitch.
With an excellent defense, a solid offensive line, an electric rookie running back and a quality stable of players to catch passes, Rodgers would push the Broncos from mediocre to very good. And what about joining Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, the Chargers’ Justin Herbert and the Raiders’ Derek Carr to create a super-division of superb quarterbacks? Sure, the path to the division title wouldn’t be so easy as in the NFC North, but what about the challenge?
Oh, and with more than $30 million of cap space, the Broncos would have the ability to bring Adams along for the ride. An offense with Adams and some combination of Jeudy, Sutton and Patrick at receiver, Noah Fant at tight end and Javonte Williams (and perhaps Melvin Gordon, who will be a free agent) at running back could be as dominant as the record-setting Packers offense of 2011, which was so good that Randall Cobb was seventh in receptions. Even without Adams, that’s got the makings of a high-quality offense.
There is precedent that Rodgers no doubt knows. In 2012, the Broncos added former Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. They went from No. 25 in scoring in 2011 to No. 2 in 2012, No. 1 in 2013 and No. 2 in 2014. The Broncos lost the Super Bowl in 2013 but won it in 2015. And, of course, Tom Brady went from a sliding Patriots team in 2019 to Super Bowl champion with Tampa Bay in 2020.
Ultimately, how will Rodgers weigh the potential of the 2022 Packers vs. the potential of the 2022 Broncos? How will he balance his legacy as a one-team-only quarterback with the opportunity to make Mile High magic?
Perhaps this quote from 2020, days before the Packers were set to host the Jacksonville Jaguars – Hackett’s previous coordinating position – is worth noting. Asked about Hackett, Rodgers said:
“There’s nobody in the building that brings me more joy or is more fun to be around than Nathaniel Hackett. I just knew Hack and I were going to bond. He’s become such a close confidant and friend besides a fantastic coach. I just really, really can’t express enough how important he is to our team in so many ways. He’s incredible in front of the room. He brings a lot of great energy that’s really important to meetings that can sometimes without the energy he infuses maybe get long at times. Never feels that way with him in front of the room.
“Hack has been a really important part of our culture change and a part of our success on offense. I love him. Hope he doesn’t go anywhere. Unless I do.”
Ranking Aaron Rodgers’ Playoff Losses
No. 10 – 2012: 45-31 at San Francisco 49ers (divisional)
Colin Kaepnerick single-handedly ended the Packers season with 444 total yards and four total touchdowns. The quarterback, who had 415 rushing yards all season, ran for 181 of the 49ers’ 323 rushing yards.
Kaepernick’s spectacular performance – or Green Bay’s horrendous defensive performance, depending on your perspective – overshadowed the start of the game. Sam Shields’ 52-yard pick-six put the Packers in front 7-0, DeJuan Harris put the Packers back on top 14-7 and James Jones had a 20-yard touchdown catch late in the first half to tie the game at 21.
In fact, the game was tied 24-24 midway through the third quarter. The game turned for good on Kaepernick’s 57-yard run on a zone-read. Green Bay’s offense failed to respond, and San Francisco capitalized with a 93-yard scoring drive highlighted by a 44-yard pass to Vernon Davis.
No. 9 – 2016: 44-21 at Atlanta Falcons (NFC Championship)
On paper, this was a colossal mismatch. The reality matched the paper.
The Packers were gutted by injuries throughout the season and didn’t have a prayer against the high-flying Falcons and MVP quarterback Matt Ryan. With Eddie Lacy and James Starks on injured reserve, receiver Ty Montgomery morphed into a running back. He did a good job, too, but suffered broken ribs on his third carry. Thus, the longest run by a back belonged to fullback Aaron Ripkowski – a 12-yarder that ended with a key fumble. At receiver, Jordy Nelson played through broken ribs and Davante Adams was largely ineffective with an ankle injury. The offensive line was so thin that defensive tackle Letroy Guion finished the game at guard.
Oh, because the secondary had been riddled by injuries, Ladarius Gunter went one-on-one with Julio Jones with predictable results – nine catches for 180 yards and two touchdowns.
No. 8 – 2015: 26-20 (OT) at Arizona Cardinals (divisional)
This was a wild game, on par with the Chiefs-Bills classic from Sunday night. The Cardinals took the lead on a fluke touchdown but the Packers forced overtime with what was essentially a pair of Hail Marys from Aaron Rodgers. Jeff Janis, forced into action with Jordy Nelson out with a torn ACL and Randall Cobb in a hospital with a punctured lung, caught them both, including a 41-yarder in front of All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson as time expired.
On the first play of overtime, the defense inexplicably dropped the coverage on Larry Fitzgerald, who caught a short pass, broke four tackles and gained 75 yards to set up the winning touchdown.
No. 7 – 2019: 37-20 at San Francisco 49ers (NFC Championship)
After a two-year hiatus, the Packers were back in the playoffs under first-year coach Matt LaFleur. After edging Seattle in the divisional round, it was a return trip to San Francisco for a rematch against the 49ers, who crushed the Packers 37-8 in Week 12. In that game, the 49ers led 23-0 at halftime. In this game, the Niners led 27-0 at halftime. It was a humiliating smackdown. In the first half, San Francisco’s Raheem Mostert had 160 rushing yards and three touchdowns while Aaron Rodgers had two turnovers.
By game’s end, Mostert had 220 rushing yards and four scores against a Green Bay defense that appeared to quit, and Rodgers finished with the most meaningless 326 passing yards in the history of mankind.
No. 6 – 2009: 51-45 (OT) at Arizona Cardinals (wild card)
This was low-key one of the Packers’ best teams of the past 30 years. Green Bay recovered from a 4-4 start by winning seven of its final eight games.
The Cardinals led 17-0 in the first quarter and 31-10 in the third quarter before the Packers stormed back into the game. In a span of about 10 1/2 minutes, Aaron Rodgers threw touchdown passes of 6 yards to Greg Jennings, 11 yards to Jordy Nelson and 30 yards to James Jones, and John Kuhn scored on a 1-yard run to tie the game at 38. With Arizona leading 45-38, of course Rodgers tied the game with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Spencer Havner with 1:52 to play.
The game went to overtime when Neil Rackers missed a 34-yard field goal. The Packers won the toss and got the ball, setting them up to win the game. On third-and-6, Rodgers was sacked and stripped by Michael Adams with a tug of Rodgers’ facemask. Karlos Dansby returned the loose ball 17 yards for the touchdown.
No. 5 – 2013: 23-20 vs. San Francisco 49ers (wild card)
The Packers got into the playoffs when Aaron Rodgers returned from a broken collarbone and beat the Bears on his late bomb to Randall Cobb. So, the Packers had a team-of-destiny vibe when they welcomed the previous season’s nemesis, Colin Kaepernick, on a miserably cold night.
John Kuhn’s 1-yard touchdown run gave Green Bay a 17-13 lead in the fourth quarter but Vernon Davis’ 28-yard scoring strike from Kaepernick made it 20-17 with 10:31 to play. The Packers had a first-and-goal at the 9 but managed only a game-tying field goal.
In a parallel to Saturday, the 49ers faced a third-and-long from just outside field goal range on the final drive. On Saturday, Deebo Samuel ran for 9 on third-and-7 to set up the winning field goal. In this game, Kaepernick – who had been largely bottled up – ran for 11 on third-and-8. Four runs by Frank Gore later, the Niners’ Phil Dawson made a 33-yard field goal at the gun.
No. 4 – 2011: 37-20 vs. N.Y. Giants (divisional)
The defending Super Bowl champions went 15-1 during a spectacular regular season. In a 13-0 start, eight games were decided by more than one score and the offense scored 33-plus points eight times, as well. But there were signs of trouble. In Week 15, the Packers were stunned 19-14 at Kansas City, which was 5-8 and had lost five of its last six games.
The defense finished 32nd in yards allowed, 32nd in passing yards allowed, 32nd in sack percentage and 29th in yards per passing play. The defense depended on takeaways – not exactly a great recipe for success in the playoffs against teams that take care of the football.
Coming off a first-round bye and following the passing of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin’s son, the Packers were shocked by Eli Manning and Co. Hakeem Nicks put the Giants in front 10-3 with a 66-yard touchdown catch in which he bounced off safety Charlie Peprah. The Giants pulled ahead 13-10 late in the first half, the Packers couldn’t move the ball – Michael Boley had a third-down sack and did Aaron Rodgers’ “championship belt” celebration – and Manning hit Nicks for a 37-yard score on a Hail Mary in front of Charles Woodson to end the first half.
The Packers had a chance to start the second half but, just as Rodgers was ready to throw the ball to Greg Jennings for what might have been a 70-yard touchdown, Osi Umenyiora beat Chad Clifton for a sack/strip/turnover.
No. 3 – 2021: 13-10 vs. San Francisco 49ers (divisional)
After falling short in the NFC Championship Game the past two seasons, the Packers had a golden opportunity to get back to the Super Bowl for the first time since 2010. They had the No. 1 seed, meaning a first-round bye and home games in front of a full house and in inhospitable weather. And if that wasn’t enough, they were incredibly healthy.
None of it mattered. The Packers raced to a 7-0 lead and were on their way to more points when venerable tight end Marcedes Lewis was stripped by Fred Warner. That one play changed the game and the season. Aside from a 75-yard completion to Aaron Jones late in the first half, the Packers averaged less than 2.5 yards per play the rest of the game.
Still, the defense was good enough to win the game. Rashan Gary and Co. were spectacular. But the special teams gave up a blocked field goal late in the first half, a 50-yard kickoff return to start the second half and a blocked punt that produced the game-tying touchdown late in the game. Those three plays produced a 13-point swing.
Aaron Rodgers, who missed a wide-open Allen Lazard on the ensuing drive, fell to 0-4 against the 49ers in playoff games when Robbie Gould hit a walk-off field goal. For the fifth time, Rodgers lost a playoff game on the final play.
No. 2 – 2020: 31-26 vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (NFC Championship)
The Packers lost NFC Championship Games at Seattle in 2014, Atlanta in 2016 and San Francisco in 2019. Finally, Aaron Rodgers had that game on the home turf against the legendary Tom Brady.
The result was a bitter disappointment. Kevin King gave up a 15-yard touchdown pass to Mike Evans to start the game and a 39-yard touchdown pass to Scotty Miller to end the first half. Still, a 21-10 deficit wasn’t the end of the world with the offense set to get the ball to open the second half. On third-and-5 from the 30, Rodgers threw the ball into the flat to running back Aaron Jones, who was hammered by safety Jordan Whitehead. The Bucs recovered the fumble and scored on the next play, and Jones’ day was over with a broken rib.
Green Bay pulled within 28-17 on the ensuing drive, then intercepted Brady on three consecutive possessions. Rodgers turned the first into a touchdown to Davante Adams to make it 28-23 but the next two were three-and-out punts.
Trailing 31-23, the Packers had a first-and-goal at the 8. On fourth-and-goal from the 8, coach Matt LaFleur opted for a field goal, which put all the eggs in the basket of coordinator Mike Pettine’s defense. On third-and-4, King was flagged for pass interference and the game was over.
No. 1 – 2014: 28-22 at Seattle Seahawks in OT (NFC Championship)
After getting destroyed by the Saints before the bye, the Packers moved Clay Matthews to inside linebacker and the season flipped. Green Bay closed the regular season with seven wins in eight games, then edged Dallas in the divisional round to set the stage for a showdown against the defending Super Bowl champions.
Everyone knows about the epic collapse. There were two colossal special-teams blunders – a touchdown on a fake field goal late in the third quarter and Brandon Bostick’s botched onside kick with sure-handed Jordy Nelson stationed behind him with 2 minutes to go. The game ended with Russell Wilson’s 35-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse in overtime.
It never should have gotten to any of that, though. It should have been a massacre at halftime with Green Bay forcing four turnovers. HaHa Clinton-Dix’s interception gave the Packers the ball at the Seahawks’ 19. John Kuhn and Eddie Lacy were stuffed at the 1 and Mason Crosby kicked a 19-yard field goal. Next, Brad Jones forced a fumble that Morgan Burnett recovered at Seattle’s 23. On third-and-goal from the 6, Randall Cobb was tackled at the 1 and Crosby kicked another 19-yard field goal.
With a 16-0 lead, Clinton-Dix picked off Wilson again; a couple plays later, Aaron Rodgers was intercepted. Sam Shields answered with an interception of his own but the offense went nowhere and punted.
Of course, the Packers added a fifth takeaway midway through the fourth quarter – an interception by Morgan Burnett in which Julius Peppers instructed Burnett to slide to the turf at Green Bay’s 43. The Packers punted, setting the stage for perhaps the worst loss in NFL history.