It’s Super Bowl or bust for the Green Bay Packers to open 2021 season

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The Last Dance.

The offseason storyline has been beaten, thrown into a trash compactor, lit on fire, and then beaten again. There aren’t many new layers to peel here, but as the 2021 season opener approaches on Thursday night, it’s worth considering the state of the Packers leading up to what could be, or rather what is likely to be, the end of an era in Green Bay.

Generalized niceties have since manifested in and around 1265 Lombardi Ave., but math is a fickle mistress, and the numbers aren’t nice to the Packers.

Let’s quickly review:

According to Spotrac, the Packers are already $25 million over next year’s projected salary cap, which doesn’t include this year’s impending free agents. Davante Adams wants a new contract (duh) and should expect to see somewhere in the range of $25 million per year. Marquez Valdes-Scantling is also a free agent. A big season for MVS could net a big payday. Allen Lazard will be a restricted free agent. Downrange, Russ Ball is likely eyeing extensions for Jaire Alexander, Elgton Jenkins, Rashan Gary, and Darnell Savage, and potentially Za’Darius Smith. And of course the elephant in the room: Aaron Rodgers’ current cap hit in 2022 is $46 million, the year he turns 39, which just happens to be an interesting inflection point.

In 2014, Peyton Manning, at age 38, led the Broncos to a regular-season record of 12-4, throwing 39 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, and a 101.5 passer rating. He won the Super Bowl the next year at age 39, but he was hardly the reason. He started nine regular-season games, throwing nine touchdowns, 17 interceptions, and a 67.9 passer rating. His playoff numbers were equally pedestrian.

Brett Favre was stellar at age 38 (13-3 record, 28 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 95.7 passer rating) but slipped the following year at 39 (9-7 record, 28 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, 81.0 passer rating). He found the fountain of youth spite in Minnesota, which powered an impressive age-40 season (12-4 record, 33 touchdowns, 7 interceptions, and 107.2 passer rating). He ultimately retired after the following season, playing just 13 games, winning five games, and throwing 11 touchdowns, 19 interceptions, and a 69.9 rating.

John Elway stopped playing after he won the Super Bowl in his year-38 season. So, too, did Dan Marino retire after 38, though his final season was a statistical bust. Steve Young played three games at age 38 and retired thereafter.

Phillip Rivers played respectable football last year at age 39 – producing a 97.0 passer rating – but never seemed to have enough to get the Colts over a team like Kansas City or Buffalo.

Tom Brady is of course the exception. He’s played exemplary football in the last six seasons, including two Super Bowls and four seasons ending with over a 100.0 passer rating.

Aside from the personal success, Brady’s teams have also benefited from a quarterback playing below the top-of-the-market rate, an advantage for front offices looking to reinforce roster vulnerabilities.

At least that’s the way Packers President Mark Murphy sees it. From his most recent Take Five column:

“I don’t think you can win a Super Bowl now without an elite quarterback. The other issue is whether you can win with an elite quarterback getting paid a full-market salary. Tom Brady has been paid less than full market throughout most of his career, and Patrick Mahomes won the Super Bowl on his rookie contract,” Murphy wrote.

It’s not a secret that the NFL is a young man’s game, and though the league has protected quarterbacks, biology, like math, doesn’t seem to care about narratives. Bodies break down when they do, and they break down fast. Also, young players are cheap.

The Packers were perhaps too proactive in stocking protection for the day when Rodgers’ body fails him – such things have been and will continue to be litigated well into the future – but they’re at least prepared in the sense that high-leverage assets have been allocated to replace QB1.

Maybe the Packers roll the dice and dig themselves into a deeper salary cap hole by way of accounting tricks, but the odds are that this is a team built to win this year. The Packers know this. The fans know this. Aaron Rodgers knows this. This year is about winning. It’s about bookending what began in 2010. It’s hard to imagine a player as naturally competitive Rodgers not caring about his legacy.

If he does? Well, let’s just say his third act will require a successful quest to capture a second ring.

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