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Vitali: Can the Packers contend next season? Not under Aaron Rodgers’ blueprint HP NEWS

The 2022 Green Bay Packers failed to meet expectations. There’s no way around that. They missed out on double-digit wins and a playoff spot for the first time under coach Matt LaFleur, letting the latter slip through their fingers on the last game of the season.

There has been plenty of speculation as to what contributed to the lackluster season. The defense, with seven first-round picks claiming 11 starting spots, finished the season giving up 5.77 yards per play, good for 28th in the NFL. Their 4.95 yards allowed per rush and 7.01 yards per pass play were both 28th respectively.

Then there was the slow start on offense. After the departure of All-Pro Davante Adams, the Packers offense didn’t have an immediate plan to make up for a receiver who had the biggest target share of any player in the league. Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs contributed in between injuries, but that wasn’t until later in the season. And, oh, by that point, quarterback Aaron Rodgers was dealing with a broken thumb in his throwing hand. 

Rodgers fractured his thumb in Week 5 during Green Bay’s 27-22 loss to the New York Giants in London. He went on to throw nine more interceptions and had two games with multiple interceptions. Rodgers only had two such games in the prior five seasons, combined. He threw 12 total interceptions in 2022. He threw four total in 2021, five in 2020 and four in 2019. 

Aaron Rodgers uncertain on return to Green Bay

Aaron Rodgers uncertain on return to Green Bay

Jimmy Johnson and Colin Cowherd discuss Aaron Rodgers comments about returning to the Packers next season.

Rodgers didn’t throw for more than 300 yards in a game once this season. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that thumb injury affected him more than he let on throughout the course of the season. 

Rodgers also took the most sacks he has had in three years behind a line that dealt with injuries all season, including to left tackle David Bakhtiari (again).

One thing is clear: Things need to change. Green Bay can’t maintain the status quo and expect different results. As Albert Einstein once said, the very definition of insanity is doing the same thing but expecting something different to happen. 

If we’re taking comments from Packers brass and Rodgers himself at face value, however, that seems like exactly what the Packers are intent on doing.

Green Bay largely goes the way Rodgers goes. It has been like that for a long time, and justifiably so after back-to-back MVPs. Rodgers planted doubt in the situation with his comments on the “Pat McAfee Show,” sounding much more open to exploring his options outside of retirement or staying with the Packers.

“Do I still think I can play? Of course,” said Rodgers. “Can I play at a high level? Yeah. The highest — I think I can win MVP again in the right situation. Is that Green Bay or somewhere else? I’m not sure. But I don’t think you should shut down any opportunity.” 

Rodgers is calculated. He knows what he’s doing. By casting doubt on his return and putting conditions on it, he’s not-so-subtly telling the Packers they will continue to go the way he goes if they want him to stay. 

“This game is about relationships,” Rodgers said. “It’s about the guys you rely on, even if they don’t maybe show up huge in the stat book. A guy like Marcedes Lewis, he’s an important cog in the wheel of the locker room and the momentum of the team. That’s a guy I want to finish my career with. You know? If I’m playing, I want that guy next to me. I want the Randall Cobbs of the world, if he wants to keep playing, in my locker room. Guys you can win with. Allen Lazard, Bobby Tonyan, Dave Bakhtiari. There’s a lot of interesting names that we’ll see their desire to re-sign these certain guys who are glue guys in the locker room.”

Has Rodgers played his final game in Green Bay?

Has Rodgers played his final game in Green Bay?

Colin Cowherd predicts whether Aaron Rodgers has played his last game in Green Bay.

General manager Brian Gutekunst already said he’d like to have Rodgers back in his postseason press conference, reiterating a point he made in the bye week. 

“It’s my intention to have everybody back,” Gutekunst said. “Continuity is a big part of having success in this league.”

Those conversations are about whether the Packers are willing to meet the demands Rodgers is detailing. Is his return and all the baggage that comes with him what’s best for Green Bay as a franchise if it comes with limitations?

Yes, I said limitations. Let’s face it: intangible “glue” factor aside, are Lewis or Cobb picked up by any other NFL team if the Packers release them? The likely answer is no. So, why are they taking up valuable roster spots that Green Bay could use? 

As good as Bakhtiari is when he’s playing, he can’t seem to stay on the field. If you want to keep Bakhtiari, you need to have an excellent backup capable of coming in when Bakhtiari inevitably misses time. It’s one of the most important positions on the field. And if you have an excellent backup, why not just get one player to do the job well all the time instead of committing two roster spots to the position?

How can you add talent on the offensive side of the ball that will help with production when you’re accounting for Rodgers and friends? 

Rodgers isn’t alone in his sentiment of keeping “his guys,” either. 

LaFleur said he expected defensive coordinator Joe Barry to be back for the 2023 season and didn’t foresee many, if any, staffing changes going into next season. I realize Rashan Gary was lost for the season early and Eric Stokes was lost some time later, but the defensive talent is being completely underutilized. Someone has to be accountable for that. 

LaFleur doesn’t want to make changes. Rodgers doesn’t want to make changes. Gutekunst doesn’t want to make changes. But the Packers are expecting a different outcome next season. How?

I don’t see how that happens. Rodgers talked about a “reload” in which the team is only a couple players away. The Packers are not a couple players away, and I think there’s a disconnect at all levels as to what is best for Green Bay going into next season. 

If nothing changes, the Packers can’t expect a different outcome in 2023. That could very well put them in the cellar of the NFC North and once again out of playoff contention.

Carmen Vitali covers the NFC North for FOX Sports. Carmen had previous stops with The Draft Network and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She spent six seasons with the Bucs, including 2020, which added the title of Super Bowl Champion (and boat-parade participant) to her résumé. You can follow Carmen on Twitter at @CarmieV.

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