It’s déjà vu all over again. As I watched the draft Thursday night, vivid memories from 2005 flooded my mind: I sat in the middle of the Packers’ war room when we made the most controversial (and impactful) decision of the 2005 draft by taking a first-round quarterback while we had one of the best players in the NFL quarterbacking our team and still playing at an elite level at age 35.
Fifteen years later, to the day, the Packers did it again.
Two things happened that night. First, all the players (except one) that we rated as first-round players were falling off our board before our pick came up at No. 24. We wanted DeMarcus Ware; gone (Cowboys). We wanted Marcus Spears; gone (also Cowboys). We wanted Derrick Johnson; gone (Chiefs). There were no surprises, at least according to our board.
Second, no one was taking Aaron Rodgers, presumed to be one of the top picks—if not the top pick—in the draft. He sat looking forlorn in the green room with his agent, with a camera in his face, waiting for the phone to ring. As our pick approached, our choice was clear: to take Aaron or to dip into our second-round grades for a player at a position of need.
Although there were persistent rumors of Brett Favre’s retirement, I always thought he would play for us until we decided he wouldn’t, not the other way around (and that turned out to be mostly true). And there was no thought to draft a quarterback in the first round; it was not a scenario we had even discussed.
Our coaches, seated to my right, were now begging me to use whatever influence I had with general manager Ted Thompson to not pick a quarterback and instead pick a player who would help us immediately. However, Thompson, seated to my left, simply said: “What do we always say: Trust the board.” And, after an excruciating 12 minutes while we waited for the phone to ring to see if we got an offer to trade the pick (we didn’t, it was crickets), we handed in the card and selected Aaron.
Brett was livid. Brett’s agent was livid. Coaches stormed out of the room (the staff was fired after that season). The draft party at Lambeau Field going on below us booed thunderously; we could hear it well. Aaron said the right things, but he, like all players, wanted to play. And for the next three years, I spent time managing Brett’s camp (not happy coming to work every day to sit next to his replacement) and Aaron’s camp (wondering when, if ever, he was going to play).
History now tells us that the “when” turned out to be after three seasons, following Brett’s retirement and messy divorce upon his change of mind. Of course, Aaron turned out to be a truly special player and, although it took some time, the wounds with Brett eventually healed.
That was then, this is now.
There are some differences. In 2005, we reluctantly took a quarterback when Aaron fell in our lap. In 2020, the Packers took an affirmative step to move up in the draft to select a quarterback. In 2005, our coach, Mike Sherman, was not happy to be taking a quarterback, a player who would not help us that year, maybe not the next year, maybe never. In 2020, Packers coach Matt Lafleur was all smiles. In 2005, the coach and general manager were not in agreement on the pick. In 2020, the coach and general manager are arm-in-arm in this selection. Pardon the pun, but they loved Love, using the precious resource of a first-round pick (and a fourth-rounder) on a quarterback while a future Hall of Famer is playing at a superior level at age 35.
There is one parallel that is important here. In the later years of Brett’s tenure, I sensed a feeling around our personnel department that there was, well, too much emphasis on Brett and not enough on our team. I just noticed that when fans and media constantly marveled about Brett, they felt it was ignoring all the work put in by our team as a whole. Current Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst was part of that scouting department then and my sense, from afar, is the same feeling exists in that building now. It is a dynamic in team sports that happens far more than people know, currently on display in the The Last Dance documentary about Michael Jordan’s last season with the Bulls. Scouts, while marveling at the talent of their superstars, get much more excited about seeing their “hidden gems” succeed than they do about stars doing what they are expected to do.
The Packers have the most fortunate (and spoiled) front office and fan base in the NFL when it comes to the quarterback position. They have had a franchise quarterback leading their team for almost thirty years! And they now believe they have secured the future to hopefully continue that streak another 10-15 years with Jordan Love.
I get it, but this cannot end well.
The reality is this: A first-round quarterback will play, period. And the trend in recent years has been to push them onto field sooner rather than later. The only rookie in recent years to have even one “redshirt year” was Patrick Mahomes, as Aaron’s three-year apprenticeship appears more abnormal with each passing year.
The question the Packers will now be asked incessantly by fans and media—as well as from Aaron and Love—is the one we faced 15 (and 14, and 13) years ago: When?
I have staked this claim many times after experiencing the Aaron-Brett situation: No first-round quarterback will ever sit for three years again. So, you ask, does that mean I think Jordan Love will be the starting quarterback of the Packers before 2023? As surprised I am to be writing this: Yes.
While I believe three years is too long an apprenticeship, it is also inconceivable that the Packers move on from Aaron next year, no matter how uneven Aaron’s play this upcoming season. Thus, by deduction, I believe the date of transfer of the Packers quarterback position will be after two seasons, in 2022. And that presents an uncomfortable circle of life scenario for Aaron.
There is no reason to believe Aaron wants to leave football anytime before the expiration of his contract in four years, and he has talked of signing a contract after that. As for the contract, readers of this space know that NFL contracts, even for elite players, are one-way deals for the teams after the low-risk early years. Again, I can’t believe I’m writing this, but yes: The Packers can exit Aaron’s contract any time after this season with no financial cash liability remaining, albeit heavy cap ramifications. And Love will now sign a fixed and reasonable four-year contract with a fifth-year team option, binding him to the Packers through at least 2024.
As I say often about the business of the NFL: Even for the best of the best, it rarely, if ever, ends well. Again and again, we see teams severing relationships with people who were their signature players for over a decade, including names such as Favre, Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Tony Romo and, just this offseason, Philip Rivers and Tom Brady.
Unlike most positions, only one quarterback can play. And the Packers just signaled to the world that, at some point, their quarterback will not be Aaron Rodgers, but rather Jordan Love. And, probably in 2022, Aaron will hear those same three words from Matt Lafleur that Mike McCarthy said to Brett in 2008: “We’ve moved on.”
The Packers believe they have secured the future, but it comes at the expense of one of the best things going in the sport at the present.
Younger, cheaper, future-focused over present. The business of football always wins.
Five more thoughts on the draft …
1. My overriding thought throughout the weekend was one of envy: I wish I could have had my sons with me during my many drafts in Green Bay. I understand it would be less seamless in a war room than at home, but what a nice and human touch that should continue, virtual draft or not.
2. My interests in the draft this year were not only as a fan and an analyst for The MMQB, but also as an agent. As Executive Vice President for Vayner Sports, it was nice to see three players drafted—defensive backs Darnay Holmes (Giants) and Jordan Fuller (Rams), and quarterback Cole McDonald (Titans)—and several more signed after the draft.
3. The Eagles invested massive resources—in draft capital, and cash and cap allocation—into Carson Wentz, making their second-round investment in Jalen Hurts a curious one. After “cheating on” Wentz with Nick Foles for a couple of years, they now are doing similarly with a much younger paramour. Wentz must be developing some thick skin (and maybe that is the point).
4. The Packers’ decision not to draft a wide receiver and the Patriots’ decision not to draft a quarterback can be seen as surprises or, more likely, team decisions signaling to fans and media that they know their team and their talent a lot better than others do. As always, we will see.
5. The virtual draft was, as expected, the most watched draft in history and went off largely without a hitch. As I noted weeks ago, the concerns about technical issues and the like were amusing. And the power of the NFL, even in a pandemic (or especially in a pandemic) is palpable.
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