The Packers might win another Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers, but they cannot win their standoff with him. That is because nobody really wins this kind of standoff. As soon as you are in it, you have lost.
The Packers-Rodgers tiff has simmered for a year and started boiling two weeks ago, when ESPN reported that Rodgers wants out of Green Bay—and yet, the situation is still being viewed through the wrong lens.
This is not about one side being right and the other being wrong. It’s football, not tort law or a talk show. This is also not a zero-sum game, where one side can beat the other. The Packers’ leverage is that Rodgers is under contract, and if they simply refuse to trade him, he either has to play for them or retire. But having a miserable star quarterback is not winning. And if Rodgers retires, the Packers lose the league MVP for nothing. When your leverage is also your worst-case scenario, you have a problem.
“Smooth organizations have consistency in their ownership, front office, coaching and franchise quarterback,” says agent Leigh Steinberg, who has represented as many star quarterbacks as any agent ever. “This is a group that works together over time. An astute organization who values their quarterback is going to value his insight on every aspect of the organization. That doesn’t mean absolute ability to make those decisions. It means input.”
Steinberg was speaking generally, not about the Packers specifically. But what he said applies to them. Trading up to draft quarterback Jordan Love in the first round without even telling Rodgers was indefensible. And if Rodgers is unhappy with his contract, then that is also a failure by the Packers. They have the most precious asset in the sport: a franchise quarterback. Rodgers was the MVP of the league. Keep paying him like it. Be proactive about it. Great franchises do not fight with their franchise quarterback. Disagree, sure. But not fight. Not like this.
Steinberg watched Russell Wilson’s media tour this winter, when the Seahawks quarterback pushed for offensive personnel and strategy that were more to his liking. Steinberg says, “When I followed the Russell Wilson scenario that seemed to play out publicly, I was confused, because I would have thought Russell Wilson would already have had those powers.”
Steinberg has worked for All-Pro quarterbacks since before free agency began in 1992; his firm currently represents Patrick Mahomes. He has seen salaries rise and players gain power. But while a popular opinion is that players can now influence decisions more so than in the past, Steinberg argues that they could always influence a great franchise, because those franchises wanted to be influenced.
“An astute front office would view the quarterback as the most essential source of feedback on all of those issues, whether it’s team personnel, play-calling, possible additions in free agency,” Steinberg says. “We used to have meetings with Troy Aikman, myself and [Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones to talk about the season and what happened. We used to have those discussions with Steve Young and [team president] Carmen Policy on the 49ers.”
You could argue that the Packers supplied Rodgers with enough talent, whether he was consulted or not. But consulting him is an essential part of the process. A quarterback needs to trust everything from the general manager to the play-call to the inside receiver’s route-running ability; even if the GM is smart, the call is correct and the receiver is precise, the trust still needs to be there. That trust was broken.
Still, Rodgers is probably losing, too. Sure, Green Bay used a first-round pick on a player (Love) who can’t help a healthy Rodgers win games. But if he gets traded, his new team would have to give up multiple first-round picks just to get him. He would also have to adjust to a different scheme, different coach and fresh set of teammates. Of course he could do it. But the better scenario is the one Rodgers wanted all along: to stay in one place, with a smart, aggressive organization that involves him.
By listening to Rodgers, the Packers would benefit, too. He would be more inclined to recruit players in free agency—and a happy Rodgers is a talent magnet. He could also convert some of his salary to signing bonus as requested, pushing some of his salary-cap hit into the future. Everybody wins when everybody works together to win.
There has been a lot of discussion in this offseason about quarterbacks using leverage like basketball stars do, but there are fundamental differences between the NFL and NBA that limit an individual’s power. It is impossible for a player to form a superteam in football—winning teams need too many good players, and turning over a whole roster in an offseason is not feasible. Free agency is harder to reach (because of the franchise tag) and doing so comes at a greater risk, because players have to turn down guaranteed money in a high-risk sport. Free agency is also fundamentally less appealing in football than in basketball, because switching teams is harder. Kevin Durant and LeBron James were going to be superstars no matter where they played, but even a great quarterback like Rodgers needs a scheme and complementary pieces that are suited to him. As Steinberg says, “Football is the most systemic game there is.”
Tom Brady hit free agency and chose wisely. So did Peyton Manning. Kirk Cousins used free agency to join a better organization and get paid beyond his worth, so good for him. But quarterbacks are generally better off like Brady in New England or Manning in Indianapolis—working in concert with a strong organization to contend every year.
A quarterback could theoretically sign a fresh, one-year deal every year, essentially challenging the organization to kowtow to him. But that probably sounds better than it would work in practice. It would rob the front office of the certainty of building around a specific player—and in Rodgers’s cases, it would have made the drafting of Love both more likely and defensible, because the Packers would have had to prepare for life after Rodgers.
This is a fluid situation, with several possible conclusions. Rodgers could end up back in Green Bay, with another team or on the Jeopardy! set; the Packers could start Rodgers or Love. The speculation is fun but also a little sad. The one place that Rodgers and the Packers should not be is where they are right now.
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