After an offseason apart, the Packers and Aaron Rodgers looked lost together

·5-min read

It turns out Green Bay is more of a vacation destination than a championship factory after all — for a week, anyway.

As starts to an NFL season go, this wouldn’t be categorized as merely suboptimal or less than perfect for the Green Bay Packers. It also wasn’t just a few missed opportunities or miscues for Aaron Rodgers. And the defense, which is very much the same as last season’s imperfect unit, wasn’t just struggling.

It was all sideways. Top to bottom, with little-to-no silver lining. Worst-loss-of-Rodgers’-career awful.

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“We played bad — I played bad,” Rodgers said in his postgame news conference. “Uncharacteristic of how we’ve practiced in training camp [and] obviously how I’ve played over the years. This is hopefully an outlier moving forward.”

Sep 12, 2021; Jacksonville, Florida, USA;  Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) covers his ears in the huddle during the third quarter against the New Orleans Saints at TIAA Bank Field. Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Aaron Rodgers and the Packers had a nightmare of a start to the 2021 NFL season on Sunday. (Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports)

There are many shades of bad, of course. Sometimes a team can play bad and still have a fighting chance in the fourth quarter. That was not this. It was the kind of bad where Rodgers was pulled out of the game with nearly 11 minutes left. The awful performance couldn’t help but trigger questions about an offseason hangover still lingering in Green Bay. It's not a pounding headache but the questions are certainly merited after losing to the James Winston-led New Orleans Saints 38-3 on what amounted to a neutral field in Jacksonville, Florida.

So here we go in Green Bay. Into a ripple of anxiety, with Week 2 against the Detroit Lions already feeling oddly important. It's a game that will be at Lambeau Field, and on Monday night, no less, which means plenty of talk leading into the broadcast about what went so wrong in Week 1, not to mention that whole offseason tiff between Rodgers and the Packers.

In reality, once camp started and Rodgers was back in the fold, the uncomfortable offseason slid onto the back burner, thanks in large part to a preseason where the Packers looked and sounded like a team that was loose and ready to build on last season’s NFC title game run. But Sunday was an unexpected ice bath, at the hands of a Saints team that really had no idea what its own offense was going to look like with Winston at the helm.

The results were great for Winston, largely because he was rarely bothered by a Green Bay defense that hasn’t changed much since last season, save for one questionable roughing-the-passer penalty that overturned Winston’s lone interception. Aside from that moment, Winston operated with relative ease, throwing on platform to open wideouts seemingly all day long. Conversely, Rodgers looked uncomfortable at times in the pocket, while the Packers had virtually no impact trying to establish a running game early.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur said the Saints “absolutely embarrassed” Green Bay, which may very well count as the most biting comment he has ever made about his team. And even if it isn’t, that’s not the kind of assessment anyone wants to land on in Week 1, coming out of an offseason when the league's MVP quarterback was as critical of the front office as he has ever been. Then again, it was hard to argue with LaFleur’s vantage when you’re pulling that same starting quarterback for basically the entire fourth quarter.

“Turnovers, penalties, lack of execution, can’t get off the grass on defense,” LaFleur said. “… It’s very humbling, to say the least.”

LaFleur wasn’t going to say it, but there was no getting around that Rodgers was a part of the problem — although hardly all of it. It didn’t appear the receivers were getting open at times, and in the instances they were (like on Rodgers’ first interception), he was often navigating pressure and throwing off balance. Though it’s also notable that when Rodgers described his second interception, which looked almost like a punt, he appeared to suggest that he misread how the secondary was reacting to the route tree. That means it was his fault. And again, this is the reigning league MVP, who just went 15 of 28 for 133 passing yards and two interceptions. There’s no way for things to go that badly for a player of Rodgers’ caliber without him having at least something to do with it.

Interestingly, Rodgers said at one point that the team’s energy was low — but not because of the Florida heat. He also conceded the Packers felt good about their preseason, perhaps to the point of being overconfident on offense. All of that should vanish in the wake of Sunday, with nothing taken for granted.

“This is a good kick in the you-know-where [to] hopefully get us going in the right direction,” Rodgers said.

So what does a loss like this mean for the Packers and Rodgers moving forward? That’s hard to say. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost their season-opener to the Saints last year, then went on to take a 38-3 defeat to New Orleans in Week 9 last season. For all intents and purposes, it appeared that inevitable failure was creeping in on Tom Brady. Instead, it turned into a wakeup call that eventually kicked in a little over one month later, putting the Buccaneers onto a Super Bowl path.

The upside here for the Packers is that this might be a slap that shakes up Rodgers and the rest of the team. The downside is that Green Bay can’t afford another one of these losses anytime soon, lest it trigger the onslaught of questions about what lingers from the offseason.

That Green Bay and Rodgers are already at that kind of crossroads is about the poorest start anyone could have imagined. All they can do now is move on and hope it’s an aberration.

As Rodgers said, “It’s one game. We’ve got 16 to go.”

After a Week 1 implosion, that statement was Rodgers at his most accurate.