If not for Aaron Rodgers’ reported dissatisfaction with the only NFL home he has ever known, the Green Bay Packers would enter the 2021 season as arguably the top Super Bowl contender in the NFC. The team has thrived since hiring Matt LaFleur as head coach in 2019, winning 26 regular-season games and reaching the NFC Championship Game twice. Furthermore, the Packers return nearly every major contributor from the offense that led the league in scoring last year and made significant changes on defense in order to push themselves over the hump.
Of course, the Rodgers situation looms over everything the Packers do, as few teams can afford to suddenly lose a superstar quarterback let alone the reigning MVP. The front office ostensibly began preparing for a post-Rodgers future a year ago with the selection of Jordan Love, but the 2020 first-round pick entered the league as a project and has yet to suit up for an NFL game. The organization might believe in Love, but it surely didn’t anticipate pushing him onto the field when this offseason began.
As such, the Packers face a fork in the road as training camp nears, and they might not get to make the decision on which path.
13-3, 1st in NFC North
Points: 23.2 points per game, rank 14th (tied with 1 team)
Yards: 5.5 yards per play, rank 13th (tied with 3 teams)
Football Outsiders ranking: 17th
Points: 31.5 points per game, rank 1st
Yards: 6.3 yards per play, rank 2nd (tied with 1 team)
Football Outsiders ranking: 1st
Super Bowl: +2000
AFC/NFC Champion: +900
NFC North: -125
Win Total: TBD
On the personnel side, the Packers somewhat surprisingly re-signed star running back Aaron Jones while also retaining tight end Robert Tonyan, wide receiver Allen Lazard, cornerback Kevin King, and slot corner Chandon Sullivan, all official or de facto starters from a season ago. However, the cap crunch that severely affected most of the NFL contributed to Green Bay losing All-Pro center Corey Linsley and key contributors Jamaal Williams, Raven Greene, and Christian Kirksey. Still, for the most part, the team looks fairly close to the one that went 13-3 the past two years.
The biggest changes occurred in the coaching staff, however. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine departs after two underwhelming seasons with former Los Angeles Rams assistant Joe Barry taking his place. Barry, a colleague of LaFleur during their time on the West Coast, has a lackluster track record in each of his previous two stints as a DC, including running the defense for the winless 2008 Detroit Lions. Still, if his Vic Fangio-derived system frees the Packers’ key defenders to play to their strengths, he can justify his hiring.
Biggest question entering training camp
The standoff between Rodgers and the Packers ranks as the biggest question around any team in the NFL as training camp approaches. If Rodgers changes his reported stance and returns to Green Bay, the Packers immediately elevate to the level of bona fide Super Bowl contenders. If he instead stays away, the fortunes of a franchise that has gone to back-to-back NFC Champion Games rest on the shoulders of an entirely unproven first-round pick, the aforementioned Love. Not even the Packers know how he will fare in that situation after spending his entire rookie season on the inactive list.
What needs to happen for the Packers to win the Super Bowl?
Nothing short of coaxing Rodgers back to Green Bay will result in the Packers hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in February. While the team has a quality roster on both sides of the ball and a chance for significant improvement on defense under a new coordinator, little else matters if the reigning MVP doesn’t return. Love, for whatever potential he offers, can’t realistically replicate Rodgers’ level of play this season.
Assuming Rodgers does play for the Packers again, the team looks well-positioned to repeat as NFC North champions and compete for the No. 1 seed. Green Bay’s schedule doesn’t look easy at the outset, especially considering the new 17th game comes on the road against Patrick Mahomes and the Kansas City Chiefs. Still, the Packers should enter most games favored with Rodgers at the helm of NFL’s premier offense from a season ago.