GREEN BAY, Wis. – If there’s any chance the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers are going to be able to put aside their differences, the first step would be stopping the media leaks and communicating like adults.
For the Packers, coming off back-to-back trips to the NFC Championship Game but shut out of the Super Bowl for a 10th consecutive season, this weekend’s NFL draft was supposed to be about finding the pieces to get the team over the top.
Instead, on Thursday, ESPN.com reported Rodgers no longer wants to play for the Packers. After Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said on Thursday night that he would not trade Rodgers, NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Rodgers would consider retirement. On Saturday, a source within Rodgers’s camp told Yahoo that Rodgers wouldn’t return to the team unless the Packers fired Gutekunst.
After the draft concluded on Saturday evening, Gutekunst refuted that report … sort of.
“Aaron hasn’t said anything like that to me, and certainly hasn’t said anything publicly,” Gutekunst said. “I think it’s a little unfair to put that on him. But, listen, you certainly don’t like to hear those things but at the same time it’s kind of part of the gig in the National Football League. But, no, nothing’s been communicated directly to me.”
The word “directly” is the important one. If Rodgers didn’t state that directly to Gutekunst, perhaps it was through his agent, David Dunn. Or, perhaps Rodgers communicated that directly via team president Mark Murphy or coach Matt LaFleur.
Regardless of how the message was delivered, there’s been a massive communication breakdown. And that seems to reside with Rodgers.
“I think, obviously, there’s some things that can become complicated, and we’re working through it the best we can,” Gutekunst said. “We’ve been working through it for a while. We’re very optimistic that we can get through this for what’s best for the Green Bay Packers, which is Aaron suiting up for us this fall.”
It’s going to take level-headed, grown-up communication to save a franchise that would be screwed without its quarterback and a quarterback that is screwing with his legacy.
There’s plenty of blame, starting exactly 373 days ago. Coming off a loss in the NFC championship game, Gutekunst could have zeroed in on instant-impact players in the draft. Instead, he drafted Rodgers’s presumed successor, Jordan Love, with the first-round pick. To be sure, Rodgers was coming off two less-than-stellar seasons. With a massive contract and back-to-back seasons ranked 26th and 21st in completion percentage, it was fair to wonder if Rodgers was in a state of serious decline.
Still, from the team’s perspective, the timing was all wrong. While the contenders all got better through the draft, Green Bay’s precious No. 1 pick was inactive for every game. From Rodgers’s perspective, it was the cold realization that his future was out of his control.
“What I can control is how I play and making that decision at some point a very hard one,” he said a few weeks after the 2020 draft. “You know, if I were to retire in the organization’s timetable, then it’s an easy decision. But if there comes a time where I feel like I can still play at a high level and my body feels great, you know, then there’s other guys that have gone on and played elsewhere.”
Rodgers, of course, turned back the clock in 2020. He led the NFL in passer rating, completion percentage, touchdown percentage and interception percentage en route to his third MVP.
Rodgers did his part to secure his future by showing that he remains among the best quarterbacks in the game. The Packers, however, did nothing. No different than the moment Love was drafted, the logical point of division between Rodgers and the Packers would come after the 2021 season. That’s when Green Bay could get out of Rodgers’s contract, save big on the salary cap and hand the offense to Love. That would give Love a full season as the starter so Gutekunst could make an informed decision on Love’s lucrative fifth-year option.
A big, bold restructure of Rodgers’s contract, from his perspective, would have been a win-win. The Packers needed the cap space to add players to a roster that wasn’t quite good enough to get past Tampa Bay in the NFC championship game. By turning Rodgers’s roster bonus and base salary into signing bonus, the team would have had cap money for 2021 and Rodgers would have had job security for 2022 via the salary cap.
Instead, the Packers restructured several contracts to get below the cap and left Rodgers’s contract untouched.
To Rodgers, the signal was clear. The team wasn’t committed to him. So, he wouldn’t be committed to the team.
With the face of the franchise fuming, Gutekunst and Murphy stated the team’s commitment this weekend. From Rodgers’s view, it’s too late. What good are the cap dollars going to do with the impact free agents off the market for weeks?
So, the Packers’ blunder in the 2020 draft started the fire. And the media leaks in the 2021 draft via Rodgers/his people have acted as a tanker car filled with gasoline.
Maybe Rodgers’s plan is to act so childish and spiteful that the team will say screw it and dump him. It’s a horrific look for one of the most popular athletes the state has ever seen. That Rodgers (or his people) went public with Rodgers’s desire for Gutekunst to be replaced is stunning given the quarterback’s typically measured approach.
LaFleur, meanwhile, seems to be an innocent bystander. With a 26-6 regular-season record and two trips to the NFC championship game, he’s established himself as one of the best coaches in the NFL. However, it seems impossible to believe he can sustain that success without Rodgers. And even if he has Rodgers, what will a disgruntled quarterback mean for the team chemistry he’s worked so hard to create?
“This guy is our quarterback, man, and he’s the leader of our team, and I want nothing more than to see him back in a Packer uniform,” LaFleur said. “In my eyes, he’s the greatest to ever do it. I don’t care about Super Bowls or whatnot, but we want him back here.”
For that to happen, it’s time for the adults to come to the table. Gutekunst, LaFleur and Murphy have met separately with Rodgers. Now, everyone needs to come to the table, put aside their grudges and stubbornness, and talk like mature humans. Whether that’s possible is anyone’s guess.