Can Aaron Rodgers reinvent himself?

For the Green Bay Packers, 2018 will go down as a season of missed opportunities and frustratingly consistent inconsistencies. Coming into the year, there was plenty to be excited about—a new general manager who wasn’t afraid to wade into the free agency waters, a new defensive coordinator who promised to simplify things for his players, a host of young talent on both sides of the ball, and, of course, the return of a fully healthy Hall of Fame quarterback.

In retrospect, however, perhaps some of those things should have served to temper expectations rather than amplify them.

The signing of Jimmy Graham was lauded, viewed as an addition that would make the Packers virtually unstoppable in the red zone. In reality, the Packers paid $13 million for a 31-year old, past-his-prime tight end who, at this point, has two touchdowns on the year.

The defense, which, to be fair, has been ravaged by injuries, has improved. After finishing 22nd in total defense last season, Green Bay ranks 15th in 2018. As it turns out, new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine may need more than one season to turn the unit into the top-10 group many expect.

The young talent, of which there have been many flashes in 2018, also emerged as a source of frustration. Whether it was the young receivers never seeming to quite get on the same page with Aaron Rodgers, the misuse of the running backs, or the young pieces in the secondary either not developing or being exposed completely, it was obvious the Packers could have used a little more veteran experience if they were to be a serious contender this season.

Finally—the two-time MVP quarterback. After missing the majority of last season with a broken collarbone, Aaron Rodgers returned in week 15, in a desperate attempt to save their 2017 season. He threw three interceptions and the Packers’ playoff hopes were squashed.

Expectations were sky-high for a healed Rodgers entering 2018, but outside of a miraculous comeback victory over the Bears after injuring his knee in the season opener, Rodgers simply hasn’t looked himself all year. Sure, there have been occasional flashes of the vintage brilliance we’ve come to expect, but the staggering amount of missed throws made him look, well, human, just as he did in that week 15 game at Carolina last season.

I don’t think anyone would be surprised to find out after the season that Rodgers’ left knee never got completely right after the injury in week one and it affected his play. In a way, that would almost be comforting—another season, another excuse for coming up short. In reality, though, maybe the team and its fans need to brace for the chance that Rodgers is simply showing the signs of an aging quarterback.

To be clear, in no way is that a suggestion of regression. Just take a look around the league—Tom Brady (40), Drew Brees (39) and Philip Rivers (37) are all enjoying continued success as they get older. The difference is in their play style. There’s no question Rodgers can still sling the ball as well as anyone in the NFL, but it’s no stretch to think that maybe the days of playground-style, make-something-out-of-nothing football are behind him.

As the Packers head into the last two weeks of their season with nothing left to play for, all eyes will no doubt shift to their search for a new head coach. The great debate will center around what kind of coach that should be—an offensive genius who can re-elevate Rodgers to his immortal status, or a defensive guru who can help make things easier on the quarterback and his offense. Either way, as you can see, the key to the Packers’ success still centers on giving Rodgers what he needs. When you give someone a $134 million contract—a contract they absolutely, positively deserve by the way—you have little choice but to make them the centerpiece of your future plans.

Of course, whether or not Rodgers’ can return to his previous levels of success is largely incumbent upon himself. Too many times this season, Rodgers stood at the postgame podium and stated he needed to play better. And too many times, the better play never materialized. Maybe it’s the knee, maybe it’s the still-burgeoning chemistry with his younger receivers, maybe Rodgers—and the organization as a whole—has gotten a little complacent in their success, or maybe the quarterback just isn’t that young anymore. Whatever the reason, the franchise’s first consecutive losing seasons in 27 years has already sparked change, and it feels as if those in charge are beginning to realize the time they have with Aaron Rodgers isn’t going to last forever.

Whichever direction the team decides to go, on thing is clear—the next head coach of the Green Bay Packers needs to be the person best suited to maximize the impact of the 36-year old Aaron Rodgers, not the 30-year old version.

Top photo: Mike De Sisti/USA Today sports