GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers believes the Green Bay Packers’ window to win a Super Bowl has closed.
But he sees another one opening.
With 17 soon-to-be unrestricted free agents, potential coaching staff changes and yet another disappointing playoff exit – for which Rodgers took much of the blame – the Packers’ 30-year-old quarterback realizes that the 2014 team could be vastly different than the one that lost, 23-20, to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Wild Card Playoffs last Sunday.
That’s why Rodgers, who’ll be entering his 10th NFL season, believes that with enough holdovers forming the foundation, a few of those would-be free agents being re-signed and the right pieces added in the coming months, the Packers will still be Super Bowl contenders going forward.
“I think this is the end of a window and the beginning of a new one,” Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN, 100.5 FM ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com Tuesday. “I think this is a year where we can really open up a new window that can last for four or five years. It looks really bright.”
Rodgers pointed to an offensive line that solidified itself and has a pair of former first-round picks (Bryan Bulaga and Derek Sherrod) returning to the mix; a wide receiver group that “looks incredible,” a “big-time back” in Eddie Lacy with multiple options as the No. 2 back complementing him; and a host of young defensive players (he singled out cornerbacks Sam Shields, Micah Hyde and Casey Hayward) and some veteran defensive stalwarts (A.J. Hawk, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly) as reasons for optimism.
“We have a lot of things that are setting up to be really good for a long time, a lot of really good young players,” Rodgers said. “I think this window has a chance to open up and be really bright for four or five years when you can get guys signed and keep them around. My contract is for six more years. I expect to be playing well, at a high level, for all six of those years and then see what happens after that. Maybe we’ll be able to go another three or four or who knows? I think this organization understands that we have the chance to be great and contend. We just need a couple more pieces.”
In the wake of the 2010 team’s Super Bowl XLV championship, the prevailing thought was that the Packers were set up for multiple Super Bowl appearances with a young core of talented players and a draft-and-develop approach by general manager Ted Thompson that would replenish lost talent with young, up-and-coming players who would develop into front-line players and keep the team in the championship mix.
But a franchise-best 15-1 regular season in 2011 went up in smoke when the No. 1-seeded Packers lost at home to the eventual Super Bowl XLVI-champion New York Giants in the NFC Divisional Playoff round. Another NFC North division championship season in 2012 ended with an epic playoff defeat at the hands of the 49ers in the NFC Divisional Playoffs. And then came 2013, an injury-plagued, up-and-down season that saw them overcome Rodgers’ broken collarbone and other assorted setbacks to win the division at 8-7-1 but once again ended in disappointment, with the 49ers’ 23-20 victory at Lambeau Field.
Much like his predecessor, Brett Favre, once did, Rodgers finds himself at a career crossroads. Both quarterbacks won Super Bowls in their fifth seasons as a starter at age 27, then found a second title elusive. In Favre’s case, the 1996 Packers won Super Bowl XXXI, and they returned the following season but lost Super Bowl XXXII to the Denver Broncos, a 12-point underdog.
The 1998 season ended with a stunning NFC Wild Card Playoff loss to the 49ers in San Francisco, where a then-largely unknown Terrell Owens caught the game-winning touchdown in the final seconds. Coach Mike Holmgren would leave to become the head coach/general manager of the Seattle Seahawks a few days later, and the loss felt like the end of an era, with legendary defensive end Reggie White retiring and a number of free agents departing.
Favre then suffered through back-to-back playoff-less seasons in 1999 and 2000 under Ray Rhodes and Mike Sherman and wouldn’t get back to the NFC Championship Game until 2007. In between, Favre presided over first-round playoff exits in 2002 and 2004, NFC Divisional Playoff losses in 2001 and 2003 and playoff-less seasons in 2005 (Sherman’s final year) and 2006 (Mike McCarthy’s first year).
Rodgers ascended to the starting job in 2008, and after a 6-10 finish in the discombobulated season that followed Favre’s unpleasant departure, the Packers have been to the playoffs each of the past five seasons. But while Rodgers’ first playoff berth in 2009 ended in a overtime shootout loss at Arizona, it set the stage for the 2010 title run.
After Sunday’s loss, Rodgers sounded somber and borderline despondent. By Tuesday, despite still being disappointed, he sounded a more upbeat tone, despite the uncertain offseason ahead.
Rodgers’ position coach, Ben McAdoo, is expected to leave, either for the Cleveland Browns head-coaching job, for which he is set to interview Wednesday, or for an offensive coordinator position elsewhere. Other coaching changes could be in the offing as well.
As for the roster, of the key players Rodgers mentioned, Shields, Pickett and Jolly are free agents. So too are wide receiver James Jones, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, fullback John Kuhn and tight ends Jermichael Finley and Andrew Quarless.
And yet, Rodgers insisted the potential turnover of the roster doesn’t worry him.
“I’m not apprehensive, no. I trust our leadership,” Rodgers said. “I think a lot of really good things happened this season. We had a lot of guys step up and play really big roles for us. We found out which guys we can win with, which guys are players, and what areas we need to get better at.
“We obviously need to – and I know we will, we draft guys. We give them second and third contracts around here. There’s some guys deserving of some contracts, and I know that Ted and Mike are going to bring back the players that they think can help us win.”
And it’s possible some of those players could be veterans from outside. On Monday, veteran cornerback Tramon Williams – one of the few players older than Rodgers on the roster – suggested the team needed more veterans sprinkled among the many young players on the team.
“We all trust the judgment of Ted and his staff and Mike, but as an older player you understand the importance of having guys who’ve been there, done that, who have the credibility, who have the leadership ability. And I think that it never hurts to have more guys like that,” Rodgers said. “Or at the same accord, making sure that our veteran guys who are still playing at a high level are given the opportunity to stick around and continue to be a part of the Green Bay Packers.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.