JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The Saints’ home game that was scheduled to be held Sunday amid climate-controlled pandemonium in New Orleans was instead staged in dryer-vent conditions in north Florida before hordes of fans wearing foam blocks of cheese on their heads — and yet somehow all that seemed downright normal compared to what was transpiring on the field.
A quarterback at TIAA Bank Field threw the ball to the other team, made reckless decisions and wilted under pressure, but it was not the player whose career has abounded with face-palming blunders. The culprit bore a striking resemblance to one Aaron Charles Rodgers, the N.F.L.’s reigning most valuable player and the protagonist of what will be its most captivating season-long saga.
Rodgers said many months ago that his future was a “beautiful mystery,” a term shrouded in inscrutability. Whether he would retire, refuse to play again for Green Bay or host “Jeopardy!” — it all seemed feasible, or at least not unfeasible, as the extent of his dissatisfaction with the Packers front office emerged. He addressed his grievances with the Packers in stunning candor, vowed to compartmentalize and resumed preparing for what very well could be his final season with the team.
Late in the third quarter of the Saints’ 38-3 demolition, Rodgers sat slouched on Green Bay’s sun-drenched sideline. The Saints had just converted his second interception in as many drives into a touchdown, and it would soon get worse. On the next drive, the Packers turned the ball over on downs and, given another opportunity to outclass Rodgers, Jameis Winston tossed his fourth touchdown pass. A few minutes later, Winston threw his fifth.
If the Packers demonstrated a certain clumsiness in hatching their succession plan at quarterback, believing after the 2019 season that Rodgers had approached an irreversible decline and then trading up to draft Jordan Love without communicating those intentions to Rodgers, the Saints pursued a more conventional route to replacing Drew Brees: They bought low on Winston. He had been a remarkable talent who, if he can only improve his risk management after five turbulent seasons in Tampa Bay, might be molded into a better version of himself — strong-armed but disciplined.
That is how Winston looked on Sunday, bypassing riskier throws he might have relished earlier in his career in favor of safer, shorter passes that extended drives. He threw for only 148 yards, with 55 coming on a majestic deep ball to Deonte Harris that revealed the facade of Winston’s training-camp competition with Taysom Hill.
But even if Winston didn’t fling the ball downfield much, Saints Coach Sean Payton still showed his trust in him by going for two fourth-down conversions during a second-quarter drive. Winston converted both with throws to Juwan Johnson, including a 1-yard score that extended the Saints’ lead to 17-0.
The Packers kicked a field goal as time expired in the first half, then drove 66 yards to the Saints’ 9-yard line before Rodgers morphed into Winston, circa 2019. Chased out of the pocket, Rodgers darted forward and tried whipping a pass to Davante Adams, who was cutting toward the near sideline. The ball zipped behind him and into the arms of the rookie cornerback Paulson Adebo. Rodgers lamented his bad decision — he should have thrown it, he said, to Aaron Jones in the flat.
“Obviously,” Rodgers said, “the play of the game.”
Rodgers is beyond aware of how the Packers’ last two seasons unfolded and concluded, of their going 13-3 before losing in the N.F.C. championship game, in back-to-back attempts. Their defeat in January at home against the Buccaneers, and how it ended — with Coach Matt LaFleur attempting a close field goal instead of trusting his quarterback to surmount an 8-point deficit — contributed to the urgency facing this team.
Whether the Packers believe it or not, they are under pressure to reach the Super Bowl this season. They have a dire salary-cap situation, Adams appears eager to test free agency, and Rodgers, through concessions Green Bay made with his contract, has the power to determine where he plays next season. Rodgers said last week that he was “in a good head space.”
“The feel that I get with the energy in the locker room is not pressure — it’s focus,” Rodgers said last week. “I think it’s the right perspective and the right type of focus.”
After Sunday’s game, Rodgers suggested he thought the Packers were a bit complacent, believing that they would throttle a team displaced by Hurricane Ida. The Saints bypassed Florida’s other N.F.L. destinations — Tampa Bay and Miami — for Jacksonville because, in part, of its relative inaccessibility and the heat and humidity, which sapped the Packers’ energy.
“We felt like the hotter, the better,” Payton said.
But, according to The New Orleans Times-Picayune, it also didn’t escape the Saints that Rodgers was 3-4 with a 78.1 passer rating — which would have ranked 32nd in the league last season — in games played in Florida. Rodgers, pulled for Love with about 11 minutes left as the Packers faced a large deficit, is now 3-5 in the Sunshine State.
“It’s just one game,” said Rodgers, who completed 15 of 28 passes for 133 yards. “We played bad. I played bad.”
The Packers might find comfort from precedent: In Week 9 last season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost by the same score to the Saints, then recovered to win the Super Bowl. There is danger in ascribing too much meaning to the first game, in presuming that Winston will continue playing with discipline and poise and that the Packers are plowing toward disappointment. What happens next with any and all of them is, as Rodgers might say, a beautiful mystery.
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