Groundhog Day arrived late Saturday night for Aaron Rodgers. The Green Bay Packers quarterback trudged into an interview room below University of Phoenix Stadium and recited a familiar refrain of disappointment about another winning season cut short by a wrenching playoff defeat.
"We'll put this one to bed and be proud of the things we accomplished," he said after the Packers' 26-20 overtime loss to the Arizona Cardinals. "And obviously, we'll think about things that were close in our grasp that we didn't accomplish."
Rodgers has led the Packers to the NFL's second-most victories in the regular season since he ascended to the starting job in 2008. Only Tom Brady and the New England Patriots have done better. The Packers have made the playoffs for seven consecutive years, but it has now been five years since they appeared in or won the Super Bowl.
And suddenly, it seems, the clock is ticking. Rodgers turned 32 last month and will begin his 12th NFL season in September. If championships are the way to measure greatness, then the Packers have failed to fully redeem the gift of a two-time MVP who will go down as one of the best ever.
The window is not shut, of course. There is plenty of recent precedent for elite quarterbacks maintaining skills into their late 30s. And Rodgers, despite a statistical slip that we'll dive into in a moment, has shown no signs of physical decline. But it's fair to ask if the Packers simply have been unlucky during Rodgers' career, or if he is caught in a systemic shortcoming that will limit his impact on history.
"We don't have a loser mentality here," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said this week. "That's in the bricks of this place, and we know the history. We take full responsibility for the expectations here. We're not scared to talk about winning world championships and what you have to do to win world championships. The fact of the matter is we were a successful football team this year, we just did not reach the level of success that we wanted to attain. That's the reality of the game of football in my opinion."
Historically, of course, that hasn't always been the reality of football. By the time he was 32, Brady had won three Super Bowls. So had Joe Montana. Terry Bradshaw won all four of his titles by age 32.
Rodgers wouldn't be alone as a Hall of Fame quarterback with disappointing postseason outcomes -- hello, Warren Moon, Dan Marino and Dan Fouts -- but that perspective won't assuage anyone who hopes for something more than "close."
McCarthy bristled at questions this week about common threads during the Rodgers era, and it's true that each season has ended on its own deficiencies. If there is a relevant theme, however, it's that the Packers have not been able to pivot effectively enough through the ebbs and flows of a typical NFL season. Along the way, Rodgers has proved transcendent but not a miracle worker.
The 2015 season was no exception. The preseason loss of receiver Jordy Nelson helped knock the passing game into a tailspin, one exacerbated by a lack of depth at offensive line that left Rodgers pressured on a career-high 33.4 percent of his dropbacks. Incredibly, the Packers finished with the NFL's seventh-fewest passing yards (3,503). Rodgers had career lows in completion percentage (60.7), yards per attempt (6.7) and first downs per attempt (30.2).
Numbers from the ESPN Stats & Information database help flesh out what happened.
Since 2009, Rodgers had never been pressured on more than on 24.9 percent of his dropbacks. Some of that can be attributed to a newfound courage from defenses, which blitzed him on a career-high 32.2 percent of his dropbacks. (He faced the blitz 28 percent of the time from 2008-14.)
Pressured more than ever, and without a deep replacement for Nelson, Rodgers held the ball for an average of 2.73 seconds before throwing. That was 0.07 seconds more than in any other season, and as recently as 2013, he averaged 2.43 seconds.
In the end, Rodgers threw at or behind the line of scrimmage on 28.5 percent of his passes, by far a career high. He completed a career-low 39 percent of throws that traveled more than 15 yards in the air and was judged by ESPN video analysis to be off target on 20.5 percent of his throws overall. (He had never been higher than 17.3 percent in his career.)
"He's a great player that plays at such a high level the competition is usually with himself trying not to do too much," McCarthy said, "and I think he was really challenged this year more than ever with what he was trying to pick up for with Jordy and so forth."
Rodgers deserves his share of the blame for that, and it doesn't take a football genius to recognize that he wasn't as sharp this season as he has been in others. But it also demonstrates how slight the Packers' margin of error has been over the past eight seasons.
An injury to one receiver and thin depth along the line don't have to be death blows to a team's championship aspirations. Neither does a quarterback's imperfect reaction to that adversity. So the question becomes: What can the Packers do to better navigate these types of relatively typical setbacks?
This, of course, is a problem most every NFL franchise would love to have. Despite their issues, the Packers still won 11 games and were within one overtime of appearing in their second consecutive NFC Championship Game. To be clear, their challenge is to find a way to transition from "very good" to "elite."
The easy target is their largely celebrated method of player acquisition, one that relies almost exclusively on the draft and college free agency. As I've written before, that approach is the envy of team builders around the league, but still requires the Packers to be better at the annual draft crapshoot than everyone else. It's worth noting that the only team with better results over the past eight seasons, the Patriots, have made a habit of signing second-tier veteran free agents for depth and situational purposes.
It might not be reasonable to expect general manager Ted Thompson to change his approach after all these years, and it's impossible to know if it would make a difference anyway. But the Packers no longer have the luxury of planning for a seemingly indefinite future with the NFL's best passer. The events of this season, and Father Time, should add a new urgency to their offseason.
Jacob Nitzberg of ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.