GREEN BAY — Ask David Bakhtiari what he’s expecting from Aaron Rodgers in 2019, and the Green Bay Packers veteran left tackle and action movie aficionado’s answer is cinematic — and bloody.
“Have you ever seen John Wick?” Bakhtiari asks rhetorically. “Did you ever see when they kill his dog?”
For the uninitiated, the John Wick films are a neo-noir action thriller series starring Keanu Reeves as a former hitman who comes out of retirement to track down the gangsters who murdered his dog and stole his car. In the first two installments of the series, Wick kills off roughly 200 bad guys. (Yes, there are actually websites dedicated to tracking this sort of thing.)
“That,” Bakhtiari says after a dramatic pause, “is what I expect.”
If Bakhtiari is right, that would be bad news for the rest of the NFL, which really hasn’t seen Rodgers at the peak of his powers for an extended period since a virtuoso eight-game stretch at the end of the 2016 season, when he rallied the 4-6 Packers to an eight-game winning streak and a berth in the NFC championship game with a stunning run of magnificent quarterbacking. In those eight games, Rodgers completed 195 of 283 passes (68.9 percent) for 2,384 yards with 21 touchdowns and only one interception (117.9 rating) before the Packers lost to the Atlanta Falcons one victory shy of their second Super Bowl of Rodgers’ career.
Rodgers was playing well early in the 2017 season, too, but a fractured right collarbone suffered in the sixth game of the year derailed what had been a promising season, with the Packers off to a 4-1 start and Rodgers picking up where he left off the previous year, completing 66.7 percent of his passes for 1,367 yards with 13 TDs and three INTs (104.1 rating) before the injury.
Now, he’s coming off a down season in which his numbers were at or near career lows and the Packers missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year, the two-time NFL MVP enters 2019 facing arguably the most criticism he’s received since irate Brett Favre loyalists directed their anger toward him during the summer of 2008, following Favre’s acrimonious divorce from the Packers.
Rodgers, who revealed last week that he suffered a tibial plateau fracture and a torn medial collateral ligament when he went down with a left knee injury during the first half of the 2018 season-opener against Chicago, finished last season with a 97.6 passer rating, the third-lowest of his 11 years as a starter. (Although he still leads the NFL in career passer rating, at 103.1.)
He threw for 4,442 yards and 25 touchdowns with only two interceptions, but he only completed 62.3 percent of his passes — his second-worst season completion percentage as a starter — and threw more balls away than any other quarterback in the league. He also absorbed a whopping 49 sacks — the third-most of his tenure — and often seemed to hold on to the ball longer than he should have.
His frustrations with coach Mike McCarthy and his offensive scheme boiled over during a Sept. 30 victory over Buffalo, when he publicly criticized the game plan despite the Packers winning, 22-0, and the offense rolling up 423 total yards. (Rodgers acknowledged in an ESPN Wisconsin interview last week that he should have expressed his frustrations face-to-face with McCarthy, who was fired on Dec. 2 with four games left in his 13th season as coach.)
Now, at age 35, Rodgers has a new head coach in Matt LaFleur and a new offensive playbook he started learning when the offseason program kicked off last week. He says he’s excited about the team’s fresh start, and to say he’s looking forward to the Sept. 5 season opener at Chicago would be an understatement, although there’s another date on his calendar he has highlighted, first: The release of John Wick Chapter 3-Parabellum on May 16.
Yes, the guy Bakhtiari compared to John Wick not only liked the comparison — he is a fan of the films, too.
“I love those movies,” Rodgers said when told of his left tackle comparing him to Keanu Reeves’ hitman. “You know how we always talk about movies like ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ or ‘Hoosiers,’ people have these movies where, ‘If it’s on, I’m watching it,’ for me, if John Wick is on — 1 or 2 — I’ll watch it.”
Whether Rodgers can take his frustrations of the past two years out on opponents hinges on a number of variables, including staying healthy (in addition to the knee injury, Rodgers also left the season finale with the third diagnosed concussion of his NFL career), getting on the same page with his young receivers (having lost Randall Cobb to free agency, the second longtime target to depart in the past two years) and building a rapport with LaFleur after his up-and-down experience with McCarthy as his play-caller.
“I think it’s going to be a fun process,” Rodgers said in that lengthy ESPN Wisconsin interview last week. “He’s a super-energetic guy. I think he’s a real straight-shooter, an honest guy. We’ve had some good conversations (already). It’s been fun to get to know him. I’m excited about working with him.
“I think any great play-caller to quarterback relationship is a partnership. Ultimately, we both know who the boss is — and it’s him. But it works best when it’s a partnership. I’m excited about working with him.”
For his part, Rodgers didn’t bite on questions about how motivated he is during the ESPN Wisconsin interview or during the first day of offseason media access. He insisted that questions about whether he was losing his edge or if his best days are behind him don’t add to his focus.
“I’m always going to be determined and motivated from within,” Rodgers said. “Many years where there’s a new coach on a new team, everybody — from the fans to the organization to the players — kind of goes, ‘Well, we’re in Year 1.’ I don’t feel that with this.
“This is Titletown. We should expect us to bounce back. I expect to, our team expects to. I’m excited about the additions that we’ve made. I love (defensive coordinator) Mike Pettine; I think he’s a fantastic coach. (So) there’s going to be no excuses this year. We don’t need a grace period. And we all expect to get something rolling and hopefully we can get that rolling and come together as a team and do something great.
“There’s 32 teams that think they can win it. We’re one of them. But I think we all know there’s only eight to 10 every year who have that something special, and I hope we’re one of those eight to 10 when it comes to September.”
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9-11 on “Wilde & Tausch” on your local ESPN station.