The Green Bay Packers are off to a great start in 2019. After pounding the Oakland Raiders 42-24 at Lambeau Field on Sunday, the Packers are 6-1 and in the driver's seat in the NFC North.
But while the Packers were winning games, Aaron Rodgers didn't seem right.
Well, Rodgers put a stop to that thinking and then some Sunday. After exploding for over 400 passing yards and six touchdowns (five passing, one rushing) against the Raiders, it appears Rodgers has found his sea legs in Matt LaFleur's offense.
And if that's the case, the rest of the NFC is in big trouble.
Over the first six weeks of the 2019 season, Rodgers' statistical production was very un-Rodgers-like. There was a 422-yard, two-score effort in a loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in which the Packers were playing from behind, but in the other five contests Rodgers topped 250 passing yards just once—in Week 6 against the Detroit Lions. Rodgers hadn't had a three-score game yet this season and had thrown just eight touchdown passes in six games.
Green Bay's two-headed rushing attack of Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams has improved relative to past seasons, and that has cut into Rodgers' stats. But it was still strange to see such pedestrian numbers from one of the all-time greats at the position.
As a matter of fact, there were pundits like Ben Baldwin of The Athletic who went so far as to suggest heading into Week 7 that maybe Rodgers just wasn't the player he used to be.
"As we saw Monday night, Rodgers still makes a few incredible plays every game that remind us of the heights he reached from 2009 through 2014. But efficiency numbers suggest either those plays aren’t happening as frequently as they used to or that the non-highlight-reel plays — i.e. the other 90 percent of the game — have taken a step back. After going through a long list of explanations — he needs a running game, he needs a new coach, he needs to recover from his injury and on and on — how many seasons of not being able to drive efficient offense should lead us to reevaluate his standing?"
Apparently, Rodgers heard him—because he was as good as he's ever been Sunday.
In one respect, he was even better.
For all the things that Rodgers has accomplished in 15 seasons in the NFL—the MVP awards, Super Bowl win and status as the highest-rated passer in NFL history, the 35-year-old had never had a game with a perfect passer rating of 158.3.
By virtue of completing 25 of 31 passes for 429 yards with five touchdowns and no interceptions against Oakland, that was Rodgers' rating in Week 7. Without star wideout Davante Adams on the field.
Even Raiders head coach Jon Gruden had to tip his cap.
Now, it's worth pointing out that Oakland's pass defense isn't especially formidable—the Raiders entered Week 7 22nd in the league against the pass. But this was still easily Rodgers' best performance of the year.
If he can build on it, then the rest of the teams in the NFC are going to have a significant problem.
The Packers struggled running the ball against the Raiders, but the team is getting better on the ground. The defense has improved by leaps and bounds—after ranking outside the top 20 in scoring defense last year, Green Bay headed into Week 7 eighth in the league. The team is allowing over five fewer points per game than a season ago.
All in all, the Packers are a more balanced team this year. Add in the ability for a superstar quarterback to stand on his head and drop 400 and five on an opponent, and you have arguably the best team in the conference.
There are a couple of reasons to think this could be more than a one-off, too. It's not like Rodgers had been playing poorly—he had thrown just two interceptions this year and had a passer rating of 92.8. But Rodgers didn't appear comfortable in LaFleur's offense. In a way, that's understandable. Rodgers spent essentially his entire career playing under Mike McCarthy. By the end of their time together, Rodgers basically had free rein. He called as many plays as McCarthy did. Maybe more.
Now, player and coach appear to be settling in. It may just be a matter of having some time together in game action. Or it could be that Rodgers sees the same thing we all do—a Packers offense featuring more balance and creativity than we've seen in years.
Conversely, LaFleur seems to be getting more comfortable with Rodgers' ability to improvise. There were more audibles and play changes against Oakland than we saw earlier in the season. Of course, the fact that so many worked so well makes it that much easier to live with.
Just like the team itself, Rodgers and LaFleur are finding balance.
Things aren't going to get any easier for the Packers. Next week, the Packers head to Arrowhead to face a Kansas City Chiefs team that just dropped 30 points on the Denver Broncos even without Patrick Mahomes on the field for most of the final three quarters. Three of Green Bay's next four games are against teams with winning records—including a trip to face the undefeated 49ers on November 24, a game that looms large in the battle for home-field advantage.
But the Packers appear well-equipped for that gauntlet now. They have two physical tailbacks. A punishing defense and pass rush that came into the week tied for seventh in the league in sacks. With any luck, Adams (turf toe) will be back on the field soon.
And now Green Bay's superstar signal-caller is playing like one again.