GREEN BAY — It isn’t the first Super-Bowl-or-bust season around these parts, but this one feels different.
Even Aaron Rodgers admitted as much as the Green Bay Packers close in on their 2021 opener on Sunday afternoon against the New Orleans Saints at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville, Florida.
“It definitely does,” Rodgers said Wednesday. “There’s a lot of unknowns.”
Starting, of course, with Rodgers. He’s about to start his 17th season with the organization and all signs point toward it being his final one in Titletown. Offseason drama pitting Rodgers against the organization led to a restructuring of his contract, leaving just one year remaining on it after 2021. A trade next season seems like the inevitable conclusion to his time with the Packers.
Star receiver Davante Adams’ future is unknown as well. He’s about to enter the final year of his contract and said Wednesday there’s “no chance” an extension would be done before the start of the season.
Other key players — outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith, tight end Robert Tonyan, wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling — have unresolved contract situations as well.
The Packers will have some difficult financial decisions to make after pushing their chips into the middle of the table for a run at their first Super Bowl title in over a decade. It’s not that the organization went out and made free agent signings the way the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did a year ago, a plan that paid off with a title. Instead, the Packers reworked the contracts of several veterans, pushing money into the future just so they could re-sign tailback Aaron Jones and others.
The result: They’re all in this year and in potential salary cap hell come 2022.
It’ll all be worth it if Rodgers and the Packers win a title after knocking on the door the past two seasons. They’ve gone 13-3 during each of coach Matt LaFleur’s two seasons, losing in the NFC Championship Game each time. The ending last season was particularly painful, with the Packers dropping a 31-26 decision to Tom Brady and the Buccaneers at Lambeau Field.
“This is probably the hungriest team that I’ve ever been around, honestly, just because we have been so close a number of times now,” Adams said. “So I feel like everybody in the back of their mind, they know how reachable it is and realistic we are to getting to that final step. We just haven’t really had the opportunity to showcase what we can do in the real dance.”
Not much has changed from a personnel standpoint for the Packers, at least by NFL roster standards. It’ll largely be the same starting lineup in the opener against the Saints as it was last January when Tampa Bay was in town.
The biggest question mark entering the season is whether a new defensive coordinator — Joe Barry replaced Mike Pettine — will lead to improvements on that side of the ball. There’ll certainly be more than enough offensive firepower with Rodgers surrounded by playmakers at each of the skill positions.
I’d wondered when training camp opened if Rodgers, who said he considered retirement during his stalemate with the team, was in the right frame of mind to reach his usual standard of excellence. That was six weeks ago and Rodgers seems to have settled into a good place mentally, eager to cherish every last second with this group of teammates.
Rather than shying from the massive expectations, Rodgers and Co. are embracing them.
“From Day 1, they haven’t been quiet about that,” rookie center Josh Myers said of the atmosphere created by the veterans. “It’s not a secret that’s our goal and it’s an attainable goal. That’s really been the vibe. There’s no waiting around for it to happen. We’ve got to go take it.”
If not this season, then when? That’s the question hovering over Rodgers … and Adams … and LaFleur … and general manager Brian Gutekunst … and team president Mark Murphy.
“The feel that I get with the energy in the locker room is not pressure, it’s focus,” Rodgers said. “I think it’s the right perspective and the right type of focus. We know we have a talented team, we know what the expectations are, we’re just focusing on accountability and holding each other accountable because regardless of what happens with any of our situations, this group will not be together the way it is now in years down the line.”
And so it begins, another Super-Bowl-or-bust season. With an inevitable makeover on the horizon, we may not be saying that for a while in Titletown.