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When it looked like Aaron Rodgers was on a gentle decline, he had his best season and won NFL MVP

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It was hard to see Aaron Rodgers’ third NFL MVP coming because the Green Bay Packers themselves apparently didn’t see it coming.

The Packers’ oft-debated moves in the offseason — trading up to draft quarterback Jordan Love in the first round, ignoring receivers in free agency and in an incredibly deep draft class, pouring more resources into the running game — make sense only if viewed in this prism: The Packers thought Rodgers would not rebound to an elite level again.

Then Rodgers had his best season.

Rodgers won NFL MVP on Saturday night, the third of his career. He did so with a stunning stat line that in many ways surpassed his ridiculous 2011 season. It’s not like Rodgers had been terrible the past few seasons. He was fading enough that the Packers acted like they didn’t believe another great season was coming.

Aaron Rodgers rebounds from ‘down years’

Rodgers had the most accurate portrayal of his 2017-19 seasons.

"I sometimes laugh when people talk about down years for me because a lot of times down years for me are career years for most quarterbacks,” Rodgers said on “The Pat McAfee Show.”

That’s bold. Rodgers wasn’t a bad quarterback. He just wasn’t at the level he had been for most of his career. Other than avoiding interceptions, Rodgers’ numbers were slipping in completion percentage, touchdowns, passer rating and other metrics. Rodgers’ 95.4 passer rating in 2019 was 12th among NFL quarterbacks. He wasn’t bad, just closer to average than we had ever seen from him.

Rodgers was also going to turn 37 in 2020. The Packers would never say anything bad about Rodgers publicly, after all he has meant to the franchise. But their actions, most notably the purposeful move to trade up and get Love, were telling. Most of the offseason was spent speculating on when Rodgers and the Packers would separate.

That made the turnaround this past season all the more remarkable.

Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers won his third NFL MVP award. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)
Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers won his third NFL MVP award. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)

Rodgers had a phenomenal season

Rodgers was great in 2011. The Packers went 15-1 and Rodgers played nearly perfect football. Yet in 2020, he was even better in some key areas.

Rodgers saw huge spikes from 2019 in completion percentage, yards per game, touchdowns and yards per attempt. His 70.7 completion percentage and 48 touchdowns led the NFL and were career highs. His rating jumped up more than 26 points, to a league-leading 121.5. That is the second-best passer rating for a single season in NFL history. Rodgers’ rating of 122.5 in 2011 is still the record.

He did so despite a front office that made no offseason moves to get him help at receiver or tight end. It’s hard to argue with the success, after Green Bay went 13-3 and was the No. 1 seed in the NFC. But it’s fair to wonder if Rodgers could have been even better (and perhaps the Packers could have won a close NFC championship game vs. Tampa Bay) with a stronger commitment from the team over the offseason.

The Packers not going all-in on Rodgers, and aggressively drafting his replacement, has led to an unusual situation. Rodgers just won an MVP with an all-time great season, and yet there have been many stories speculating if he’d be back in Green Bay. The Packers have said he will be — what are they going to do, trade the league’s MVP to make room for someone who hasn’t taken a snap? — but it will continue to be a bit of an uneasy relationship moving forward. That’s what happens when you try to replace someone before it’s their time to be replaced.

Rodgers was already a white-hot star when he won his first two MVPs. He seemed to be a bit past his prime by 2020 and another MVP award seemed like a long shot. He proved everyone wrong, even his own team.

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