Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers never actually went anywhere, but he's clearly back after his status as the game's most gifted passer came into question over the last three seasons.
During Sunday's 37-30 victory over the New Orleans Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, Rodgers pulled out all of his old tricks, easily outdueled Drew Brees and helped Green Bay stake its claim as the NFC's best through three weeks of play.
To be completely fair, Rodgers previously butted up against an impossible standard he set with four seasons of 38 or more touchdowns and two MVPs between 2011 and '16. During that stretch, the eight-time Pro Bowl signal-caller set career highs in completion percentage (68.3), passing yards (4,643) and touchdown passes (45). His resume—which includes a championship and Super Bowl MVP—all but guaranteed a future residency in Canton, Ohio.
But the quarterback's situation became stagnant in Green Bay, with a marriage to head coach Mike McCarthy ending in divorce and plenty of bad blood between the two.
The transition from McCarthy to current head coach Matt LaFleur wasn't seamless despite last season's overall team success. Rodgers clearly needed some time to transition from one system to the next.
As such, others around the league became the standard-bearers for the position when the Packers quarterback previously held the torch. The Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes and Baltimore Ravens' Lamar Jackson became the quarterbacks everyone else wanted to emulate.
The 36-year-old Rodgers was far from done, even though the Packers decided to draft a quarterback prospect, Jordan Love, with this year's first-round draft pick.
Now in LaFleur's second season, Rodgers is once again back to doing the things that always made him dominant. Their success together is due, in part, to the 16-year-veteran doing a little self-scouting, as Rodgers told reporters last week:
"In this situation, I've just been choosing to work on myself. I feel really good about where I'm at. Matt and I, we've had a friendship since the beginning. It's even grown during this offseason. There's a lot of trust there. We're in the second year of a system and guys are playing a little faster and we're finding ways to be more efficient. That maybe doesn't sell a lot of papers or get a lot of hits on a website but to me, that's closer to the truth than this idea of some monster chip."
Continuity from season to season can't be overlooked. Even someone as good as Rodgers still needs time to adjust to new circumstances. And now he seems to be in a zen-like state.
He's no longer driven by the massive boulder that used to exist on his shoulder after tumbling to the 24th overall pick in the '05 draft. Love's selection this year didn't rile him up too much, either.
"If anything, it's almost the opposite, I'm completely at peace with where I'm at with my career," Rodgers said an interview on The Rich Eisen Show (h/t Zach Kruse of USA Today's Packers Wire). "And that's what's freed me up to get to this comfort level is the peace that sometimes surpasses your own understanding."
What always separated Rodgers from everyone else was his natural arm talent. No one before Mahomes truly rivaled the Green Bay gunslinger for supremacy in this particular area. Sometimes, the old hand has to show exactly how he earned such a reputation, and he did with one of the best throws we'll see this season when he rolled to his left and uncorked a stunningly beautiful 48-yard pass to Allen Lazard with but a flick of the wrist.
The ball placement and touch seen above, especially considering he didn't even fully set his feet, are special. The two connected on a 72-yard pass later in the contest, which showed how Rodgers can still drive the ball down the field with relative ease.
But it's not all big plays. Rodgers completed 65.6 percent of his passes for 283 yards and three scores against a talented Saints defense.
Life is easier on Rodgers because LaFleur, who doubles as the offensive play-caller, constructed a quarterback friendly scheme heavily reliant on the play-action passing attack.
Next Gen Stats @NextGenStats
Aaron Rodgers and the #Packers offense featured a play action-heavy attack, using play action on 52% of dropbacks, his highest PA rate in a game over the last five seasons (previous high: 42%). Rodgers on Play Action ➤ 13/17, 160 yards, 3 TD (+8.3% CPOE) #GBvsNO | #GoPackGo https://t.co/3TrVy1Vezu
Rodgers' play once again places the Packers in the Super Bowl conversation as the NFC's best team. He didn't just take what was available to him. He extended plays, showed good pocket presence and secured a victory for his team by drawing a Saints defender offside on a crucial 3rd-and-3 play with 3:49 left to play and Green Bay winning by a field goal.
Rodgers' incomparable hard count drew the defender offside, and then the quarterback took a patented shot toward the end zone where Saints cornerback Janoris Jenkins committed pass interference, thus giving the Packers an automatic first down at the 1-yard line—which resulted in a game-sealing touchdown toss to tight end Robert Tonyan four plays later.
Amazingly, the Packers' offensive performance came even though leading target Davante Adams didn't play due to a tweaked hamstring. Green Bay will only get better with Adams in the lineup. And he's merely the starting point.
Green Bay's offensive line is still coming together. The unit has already cycled through three different iterations to start the season. Elgton Jenkins moved from left guard to right tackle in Week 1. Veteran Rick Wagner had to start in Week 2 due to an injury Lane Taylor suffered. Billy Turner returned to the lineup against the Saints and he finally took over at right tackle with Lucas Patrick at right guard. As this group gets healthy, it should solidify itself as one of the league's best.
Defensively, the Packers are playing without their rock in the middle. Kenny Clark missed his second straight game after injuring a groin muscle in the season opener against the Minnesota Vikings. As The Athletic's Matt Schneidman noted, Clark practiced this week but wasn't quite ready to go. The Pro Bowl interior defender should be ready for next Monday's meeting with the Atlanta Falcons.
The Saints (1-2) entered this season as one of the NFC favorites to make the Super Bowl. With the victory, the Packers have put themselves in a tier above New Orleans.
Right now, Green Bay is the clear favorite to win the NFC North despite the Chicago Bears getting off a 3-0 start. How Chicago performs in the coming weeks will be entirely dependent on what the coaching staff decides to do behind center after benching Mitchell Trubisky for Nick Foles. Either way, the Bears operate at a disadvantage at the game's most important position when compared to their oldest rival.
The Seattle Seahawks (3-0) are the only other NFC team in the Packers' class with Russell Wilson leading the way as the early MVP favorite. Even so, the Seahawks secondary has been torched so far. Seattle has allowed 1,303 passing yards through the first three weeks of play, which is a new record for futility, according to NFL on CBS.
Rodgers and the Packers looked like a prime regression candidate after last season's 13-3 campaign that featured a number of close victories. Instead, Rodgers and Co. have built on the foundation laid a year ago, which makes the quarterback as dangerous as he's been in quite some time.