Aaron Rodgers' return keeps Packers' title window open, but it's just the first step

GREEN BAY, Wis. – Last season wasn’t “The Last Dance” for quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers.

Now, they have to figure out how to keep dancing longer in the playoffs than they did in what seemed like a Super-Bowl-or-bust year.

Rodgers’ decision to return for another season, as he told Pat McAfee on Tuesday morning, is only the beginning. While it’s the most important piece, it’s not the only one.

In fact, now the real work begins.

It’s on general manager Brian Gutekunst and salary-cap manager Russ Ball to figure out how the Packers can not only make another run with as many of the players from last season as possible, but also make some important additions to push them over the top.

“There’s a lot to build on there, whether I’m there or not,” Rodgers said on Feb. 10, after accepting his MVP award. “I think they’ve got a really good nucleus in place. Should I come back, there’s some things that need to get done, probably, to get the team where it needs to go.”

There’s no reason to think Rodgers’ play will decline; he was as sharp in the regular season as ever on the way to winning his fourth MVP and second in a row. He turned 38 in the midst of one of his most efficient seasons with 37 touchdowns and four interceptions. His 9.4 touchdown-to-interception ratio over the last two seasons is the best in a two-season span in NFL history with a minimum of 1,000 attempts, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He missed one game after he contracted COVID-19, with the Packers losing at the Kansas City Chiefs, because of his mandatory quarantine as an unvaccinated player, but it did not prevent the Packers from earning the top seed for the NFC playoffs.

The playoffs, however, were another story. Rodgers did not play up to his regular-season standards, as has been the case all too often in the 16 playoff games since the Packers won Super Bowl XLV (he’s 7-9 in those games). Those 16 straight starts without reaching the Super Bowl represent the longest streak by any QB in postseason history, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

While Rodgers struggled in the 13-10 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round, the Packers’ special teams were a disaster.

Coach Matt LaFleur tried to address the special teams problems with another coaching change, naming former Raiders interim head coach Rich Bisaccia as his third special teams coordinator in four years.

Rodgers said he did not want to be part of a rebuilding process, and given the Packers’ salary-cap troubles –- they were still $27.5 million over the cap before including All-Pro receiver Davante Adams, who is expected to receive the franchise tag -- that will require more work. Ball already has been busy restructuring deals to create cap space and will have more moves to make.

Rodgers’ return should help with that. If he hasn’t already done so, he will sign a contract extension that will lower his salary-cap charge of $46,144,156. There are multiple ways to take care of that even if Rodgers only plays one more season.

The Packers not only need to keep Adams, but also must make him happy. The franchise tag won’t do that. No player wants to play without the security of a long-term deal, even though Adams’ tag would pay him $20.12 million.

Rodgers also must have received assurances from Gutekunst that he will be able to do more than just keep Adams. Among the Packers' key free agents are linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, cornerback Rasul Douglas, receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling and receiver Allen Lazard (a restricted free agent).

Rodgers also must have been pleased the Packers lured one of his favorite coaches, Tom Clements, out of retirement to replace quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy (who became the Bears offensive coordinator). After all, LaFleur said Rodgers had a “significant role” in the hire.

Whatever the team looks like, the Packers believe Rodgers gives them their best chance to win the Super Bowl, even if his recent playoff history doesn’t match his regular-season performance. Turning things over to quarterback Jordan Love, whom the Packers traded up to select in the first round of the 2020 draft, would almost certainly mean a season of growing pains and a likely rebuild without many of the aforementioned free agents.

Now, that can wait at least another year.