Green Bay Packers

Aaron Rodgers Has Never Had Much Help From the Defense or Special Teams

Photo credit: Mike De Sisti/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY

Vince Lombardi famously said, “You should be able to win a championship with excellent quarterback play and a well-rounded offense — this despite having an average to below-average defense that is all too often soft against the run and a special teams unit that continually lingers near the bottom of the league, and stuff.”

Of course, Lombardi didn’t say that, but that quote could describe the last decade for the Green Packers.

Maybe Aaron Rodgers doesn’t want to come back to Green Bay because the front office won’t fix the things that have been broken for what seems like forever. Let’s put it all out there.

The special teams have been a disaster, and the defense has been middle of the road (or worse) and rarely dominant. Rodgers’ mostly elite play has masked the deficiencies of the two phases that he doesn’t have control over. “You have to be good in all three phases of football to win it all” is something that every high school, college, and pro coach — and Randy, the guy at the end of the bar — has said for as long as there’s been football.

I’m going to lay out my case with stats below. I don’t think you go to the Super Bowl when your special teams is perpetually awful and your defense is just okay or worse. I don’t think Aaron Rodgers trusts that the Packers’ leadership knows how to, or is committed to, improving the defense and reforming the special teams into a competitive unit, and I think that’s why he doesn’t want to come back.

The guy has laid it all out there: broken bones, twisted ankles, taken shots to the head, rehabbed, and done everything you can ask of a quarterback and team leader on and off the field. But the Packers’ front office hasn’t shown they’ll put in the work (or take the risks) to surround the offense with the type of defense and special teams you need to win Super Bowls.

If you’ve read this far, you probably are willing to at least hear me out. I’m not saying that the defense has always been putrid; it just hasn’t been good enough. And more often than not, it’s been below average, especially late in the playoffs. We’ve all seen (and grieved) the crushing defensive collapses in the recent NFC Championship games.

I’m not saying the special teams have been terrible, either, because they have actually been worse than terrible, and the statistics show a team that clearly can’t find a way to fix it.

It’s fascinating to see Mark Murphy try to paint Aaron as a “complicated fella” whose holdout has “divided the fan base,” because if you look at the stats below, you’ll see that there’s a very uncomplicated and clear history of surrounding the Packers’ offense with mediocre defense and incomprehensibly bad special teams.

In the last decade, the good-in-all-three-phases (New England Patriots-style) Packers team we all dreamed about never materialized. So, if you are one of the Packers fans who call Rodgers a diva, maybe turn your focus to the front office and see if they’ll acknowledge the failures and complacency of the last decade in the two phases of the game Aaron doesn’t control.

And now for some stats.

According to Pro Football Reference…

  • The Packers fielded a defense that finished 19th or worse five times in the last decade.
  • The Packers fielded a defense that finished 14th or worse six times in the last decade.
  • The Packers fielded a defense that finished 13th or worse seven times in the last
    decade.
  • The Packers fielded a defense that finished 21st or worse four times in the last decade.
  • The Packers fielded only one top-10 defense (ninth in 2019) in the last decade.
  • The Packers rush defense finished 14th or worse nine times in the last decade.
  • The Packers rush defense finished 17th or worse seven times in the last decade.
  • The Packers rush defense finished 21st or worse five times in the last decade.
  • The Packers only had one top-10 rush defense in the last decade (eighth in 2016).
  • The Packers’ pass defense has been a top-10 unit only twice in the last 10 years.
  • The Packers’ pass defense has finished 23rd or worse four times in the last decade.

For perspective, Tom Brady has had a top-10 defense nine out of the last 10 years, including six top-eight defenses and two first-overall defenses.

Also, for perspective: Eight out of the last 10 Super Bowl winners have had a top-10 defense or better. Six out of the last 10 Super Bowl winners have had a top-seven defense.

Four out of the last 10 Super Bowl winners have had a top-four defense. Again, the Packers have had only one top-10 defense in the last 10 years.

The special teams rankings below are from Dallas Morning News’ Rick Gosselin’s NFL Special Teams Rankings, a highly regarded, comprehensive ranking system for special teams that features 22 data points.

  • The Packers’ special teams ranked 26th or worse five times in the last decade.
  • The Packers’ special teams ranked 16th or worse eight times.
  • The Packers’ special teams ranked in the top 10 zero times in the last decade.
  • The Packers’ special teams ranked dead last two times in the last decade.

Special teams stats below are from Pro-Football-Reference.com:

  • The Packers’ kick-and-punt-return units ranked 15th or worse 10 times in the last
    decade.
  • The Packers’ kick-and-punt-return units ranked 21st or worse eight times in the last decade.
  • The Packers’ kick-and-punt-return units ranked 25th or worse four times in the last decade.
  • The Packers’ kick-and-punt-return units ranked 27th or worse three times in the last decade.

When Rodgers played at his most elite levels, the other two phases just weren’t good enough.

In 2011, Rodgers’ first MVP season:

  • The Packers’ offense finished first.
  • The Packers’ team defense finished 19th.
  • The Packers’ rush defense finished 14th.
  • The Packers’ pass defense finished 32nd.
  • The Packers’ special teams ranked 13th in the Gosselin Ranks.
  • The kick-and-punt-return units finished 29th.

In 2014, Rodgers’ second MVP season:

  • The Packers’ offense finished first.
  • The Packers’ defense ranked 14th.
  • The Packers’ rush defense ranked 23rd.
  • The Packers’ passing defense ranked 10th.
  • The Packers’ special teams ranked 32nd (dead last) in the Gosselin ranks.
  • The Packers’ kick-and-punt-return units finished 27th.

In 2020, Rodgers third MVP season:

  • The Packers’ offense finished first.
  • The Packers’ defense finished 13th.
  • The Packers’ rushing defense finished 14th.
  • The Packers’ passing defense finished seventh.
  • The Packers’ special teams ranked 29th in the Gosselin ranks.
  • The Packers kick-and-punt-return units finished 30th.

I don’t feel great about calling attention to the negative. After all, the hallmark of any Packers fan experience is the unity we feel when cheering on our green and gold. And I’m most certainly not implying that the team itself has been bad the last decade. They’ve won seven out of the last 10 NFC North titles and have appeared in 17 playoff games in a decade.

The sum of their parts has made them a very competitive team. But as history reflects on the Rodgers era, the answer to why they didn’t win more than one championship will undoubtedly focus on not building highly competitive special teams and defense around their prolific offense.

Imagine the glory that could have come had Rodgers, like Brady, had a few top-five defenses and a few top-10 special teams units. It could have been magic.

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