Aaron Rodgers' Return Is About a Lot More Than a Packers Super Bowl Pipe Dream

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 12, 2017

Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers celebrates after overtime of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, in Green Bay, Wis. The Packers won 26-20. (AP Photo/Mike Roemer)
Mike Roemer/Associated Press

(Editor's note: Aaron Rodgers has been medically cleared to play since this article was published.)

Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

The universe wants Aaron Rodgers to come back. 

Ten thousand little coincidences have conspired to make his return inevitable. An initial prognosis that kept the door cracked open for a late-December ride to the rescue. A pair of Packers overtime victories against two of the NFL's most hapless teams. A daisy chain of losses by the NFC's front-runners to keep the playoffs within reach of .500 teams.

Wild bounces, strange coaching decisions, DeShone Kizer closing his eyes and trying to launch a football into the sun in overtime: It's been a Final Destination-style chain reaction that kept a mediocre Packers team relevant until Rodgers could return to save the day.

Now Carson Wentz is injured, Case Keenum has run out of power-ups and rabbit's feet, the Saints and Rams have displayed vulnerabilities, and the Seahawks are launching a second career as wrestling heels. All Rodgers has to do is lead the Packers past three straight playoff-caliber opponents, then win a trio of playoff games (probably on the road), then knock off the Patriots or Steelers in the Super Bowl to accomplish one of the greatest human achievements since Hannibal brought elephants across the Alps.

Even with injuries and losses around the conference, there's about a 0.01 percent chance of all of that happening.

But it's worth the risk.

Let's be honest. Winning a pair of road games and a home division matchup in December, then embarking on a playoff quest through destinations like Philly and New Orleans, would have been a tall order even in the Packers' best years, when Rodgers was surrounded by Pro Bowl talent and the Packers' schemes were still fresh.

This Packers team is not nearly as talented as Rodgers' Super Bowl or 15-1 teams. And the club's 1-4 skid before they figured out how to beat pitiful opponents (take care of the ball and wait for the opposing quarterback to do something stupid) leaves Rodgers with no margin for error. The Packers are one game behind the wild-card chase, flanked by the Lions (who have a much easier late schedule) and Cowboys, though with a few tiebreaker advantages on their resume. One loss and they are done. Three wins might not even be enough.

The Packers took advantage of a Browns team that imploded to keep their playoff hopes alive.
The Packers took advantage of a Browns team that imploded to keep their playoff hopes alive.Jason Miller/Getty Images

To put it plainly, Rodgers won't lead the Packers to a championship this year, folks.

So maybe bringing him back isn't worth it. He could reinjure his collarbone, or pull a Wentz, jeopardizing next season in the name of a month-long Hail Mary pass this season.

Or he could win a couple of games, fall just short in Charlotte or Detroit, and leave the Packers at home for the playoffs at 9-7. That could cost them a half-dozen or more precious spots in the draft order, once again jeopardizing the future on a pipe dream.

So perhaps the Packers should fluff Rodgers' pillow, let him rest, rehab and shoot more insurance commercials while the Packers play out the string and further evaluate their youngsters. It's what would have happened anyway if the Bucs had a pulse, the Browns had a clue and the conference leaders didn't take turns beating each other up.

That's the modern school of thought, right? Clinical, analytic, realistic. It would be crazy to hold Rodgers out if the Packers were 10-3 and even crazier to risk him if they were 3-10. But 7-6 is a percentage play in a league where winning seven straight tough games is nearly impossible but serious injuries seem even more impossible to avoid.

But clinical wisdom misses the point. The Packers owe it to their fans, and to NFL fans, to bring Rodgers back this season.

Over 77,000 paying customers at Lambeau field endured three interceptions from Brett Hundley on a windy, icy day in a shutout loss to the Ravens four weeks ago. The same number of ticket holders returned to watch Hundley throw for just 84 yards while the Bucs marched up and down the field looking for the perfect moment to sabotage themselves two weeks ago.

A mix of Dawg Pound diehards and traveling Cheeseheads paid hard-earned money to watch Sunday's blustery slog, in which the Browns took a 21-7 lead before they Browned out for the rest of the afternoon. And, of course, the NFL counts on hundreds of thousands around the country to watch these regional telecasts.

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 10: Green Bay Packers fans hold a sign referring to injured Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers during action against the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium on December 10, 2017 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Gett
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The fans who suffered through all of that deserve a great big jolt of Rodgers (and maybe a hug as well) as a holiday gift. So do fans around the league who want to see Rodgers versus Cam Newton, Matthew Stafford and the Vikings Collective. The NFL schedule has doled out quality matchups with an eye-dropper this season: two or three truly big games per week sprinkled among too many Bears-Bengals games. Rodgers brightens up the whole stretch-run schedule.

And making games watchable is what the NFL is all about. Herm Edwards was wrong when he said, "you play to win the game." You play to entertain the fans. Packers fans who trudged through grim, joyless-until-the-end wins (and painful losses) have earned the thrill of a Rodgers-led go-for-broke Super-Bowl-or-bust charge.

"Let the best player play" may not sound like a bold proclamation. But nothing is obvious in an NFL that has become obsessed with delayed gratification. A plague has festered both the league and large swaths of the fanbase—the scourge of thinking that nothing else matters but winning the Super Bowl.

The plague causes fans to flood the internet and talk shows with erstwhile Moneyball logic: maybe we should just go 0-16 for six years, then totally rebuild the roster. It has convinced teams to trade away useful veterans while still in the playoff race, lulled them into keeping bad coaches/execs because 5-11 and 11-5 seasons can be considered "equally unsuccessful" and trapped them in rebuilding cycles that will only work when Jupiter aligns with Saturn in the year when the perfect quarterback enters the draft after Tom Brady retires.

Packers fans are particularly susceptible to the only-Super-Bowls-matter reasoning after eight straight playoff appearances. Rams and Jaguars fans can be happy to crack .500 and reach the playoffs. A 9-7 finish or a one-and-done playoff cameo may feel like a failure to many in Titletown. But a season that ends in frustration is better than one that ends in boredom.

Satisfying customers and viewers is the end, winning games is the means, and the Super Bowl is just the final boss battle in the video game, the grand climax to a whole universe of superhero movies. If fandom were only about Super Bowls, only Patriots fans would be watching football by now. Fandom is about moments: touchdowns, wins, celebrations and anticipation that next week's game will be more exciting and more important than this week's game.

The Packers won't win the Super Bowl this season, even with the league's best player back in the huddle. Their secondary isn't good enough. Their offensive line isn't good enough. They aren't deep enough at the skill positions. Their schemes are not creative enough. The Panthers too talented, the Vikings too disciplined, the Lions too crafty in close games. The NFC playoff field is too brutal.

But Rodgers can provide edge-of-the-seat moments and lump-in-the-throat moments. He can scare contenders, play spoiler, make the front-runners nervous about who they will host if they cannot secure a first-round bye. The underdog story doesn't have to end in triumph for the underdog story to be a triumph. And even that one-in-a-zillion hope for the big one is more than half the fans in the NFL can wish for right now.

The universe conspired to give Aaron Rodgers one more chance this season. Let's find out what other surprises it has up its sleeve.

    

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. He is also a co-author of Football Outsiders Almanac and teaches a football analytics course for Sports Management Worldwide. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier. 

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