Everything was coming up roses Monday morning in Green Bay after an ugly victory in Cleveland. Not only did the Packers keep their playoff hopes alive, but Aaron Rodgers is set to the return to the lineup. The two-time league MVP is poised to come back for the final three games of the year and potentially lead the Packers to a playoff berth that weeks ago felt more like a pipe dream than a possibility.
While everyone is overjoyed at the promise of Rodgers return, the seven full games (excluding the rest of the game Rodgers was injured in) that played without their signal caller revealed just how incomplete the rest of the roster is. The offense predictably sputtered with Brett Hundley at the controls, but the defense was far from lights out during this stretch. Sunday, against a woeful Cleveland offense, the Packers surrendered 136 yards on the ground and were it not for some bone-headed plays from Deshone Kizer might have given the Browns their first win of the year. The Rodgers-less span also included a shutout at home against Baltimore, a game that was even more deflating than the 23-0 final score indicated. While the steep decline in play is indicative of just how talented Aaron Rodgers is, it is also a massive indictment of the job Ted Thompson has done surrounding him with talent.
Thompson has long held the belief that the Packers do not need to be big spenders in free agency because of their belief in building through the draft. While that is a great philosophy in theory because you get talented players on cheap contracts, Thompson’s refusal to spend in free agency coupled with several iffy draft classes have left the cupboard fairly bare. He let both Josh Sitton and TJ Lang leave in the offseason and go to division rivals without bringing in legitimate replacements on the offensive line. Davante Adams has shown he can blossom without Rodgers, but all of the other receivers have been relative no-shows with Hundley under center. Thompson’s one splash in the free agency, tight end Martellus Bennett, accused the organization of forcing him to play through injury and was cut only to see him sign with New England and score a touchdown a week later. The inability to surround a generational talent at the quarterback position with adequate talent is team-building malpractice. It is the same crime that got Ryan Grigson fired in Indianapolis less than a year ago.
What makes matters worse for Thompson is there is a team within the NFC that has built a contender with average to slightly below average quarterback play. Minnesota has lost not one, but two quarterbacks in the last two seasons and lost their sensational rookie running back earlier this year and are poised to finish atop the division. Minnesota has built an elite defense through the draft and shored up an abysmal offensive line by signing Mike Remmers and Riley Reiff in the offseason. They were able to sustain success and overcome average play from backup Case Keenum because of the way the rest of their roster has been filled out. Mike Zimmer drafted players that he knew would fit his aggressive style of defense, and GM Rick Speilman landed two gems outside of the top rounds with wide receivers Stefon Diggs (5th round) and Adam Thielen (undrafted). Speilman also signed Latavius Murray in the offseason, a move that has become invaluable given the injury to Dalvin Cook. Building depth and creating a team that can survive independent of outstanding quarterback play, is literally the opposite of what Ted Thompson did.
As strange as it sounds, having Aaron Rodgers be as good as he is has in some ways hurts the Packers team building. Rodgers is so talented that he can cover up a lot of mistakes and inefficiencies. It is easy to look at the Packers win totals and playoff appearances and suggest that they are a team that does not need to make significant improvements, but much of that success is built on the back of Rodgers being a magician with the football. The inability to shore up the secondary and surround Rodgers with playmakers on the outside is reason enough for the Packers to give thought to keeping Ted Thompson around long term. Much like the Cleveland Cavaliers when they first had LeBron James, failure to put talent around a generational superstar is grounds for heads to roll on all levels of the organization.