The NFL draft is always chaos and drama all on its own, but the 2021 edition leaped to a new level when Aaron Rodgers and the Packers cannonballed into the conversation Thursday afternoon. In a draft already fraught with uncertainty, the Rodgers story upended the plans, or at least the call sheets, of half a dozen teams.
Rumors flew farther than a Rodgers Hail Mary. The 49ers are going to trade the third pick for Rodgers! The Broncos are putting together a deal to get Rodgers! The Raiders are bringing Rodgers to Vegas! No rumor seemed too absurd to air.
Left unsaid in all the madness was the exact reason why the Packers and Aaron Rodgers are at such odds. What put Green Bay on the edge of a split with the reigning NFL MVP? Who’s in the right, and who’s in the wrong? Who should we be rooting for here?
Well, it’s not quite that simple. Let’s break it all down.
What the heck is going on?
Aaron Rodgers, star quarterback, and the Green Bay Packers, legendary franchise, are at odds with one another. The degree of that separation is a matter of debate; Rodgers could be done with the team, while the team says he’ll be right back in uniform come Week 1. The truth, as always, lies somewhere in between. But as with all relationship disputes, the longer this goes on, the more likely it is that someone’s going to say or do something they can’t take back.
What’s Rodgers’ beef?
Rodgers isn’t talking — at least, not on the record — but his complaints with the Packers seem to boil down to three factors: protection, respect and footsteps.
Tom Brady’s Super Bowl win was remarkable not just for the way it took Brady’s already-stratospheric legacy to yet another level, but for the way it inspired furious jealousy among his fellow elite quarterbacks. Russell Wilson reportedly sat in a skybox and seethed watching how well Brady was protected. Rodgers, who lost to Brady in the NFC championship, could see how Tampa Bay had built its entire team around Brady’s narrow window … and had to wonder why, from his perspective, Green Bay hasn’t done the same thing for him.
Plus, by this point Rodgers believes he not only deserves to be protected, he deserves input into how the team should be constructed. As far back as 2018, Rodgers was expressing frustration with the Packers for not consulting him on personnel decisions, including the departures of receiver Jordy Nelson and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt.
“I know he’s thinking about that stuff when it comes to the next contract because he should have earned a voice by now,” a league source familiar with Rodgers’ thinking told our Charles Robinson in 2018. “In other places with [elite] quarterbacks, consideration is given to those guys. I think Aaron wants to be engaged in some decisions. But that’s just not the way it works [in Green Bay]. I think that’s obviously frustrating and it’s going to keep coming out.”
Watching preferred receivers and coaches walk out the door is one thing. Watching your replacement walk in is something else entirely.
Rodgers, like much of the NFL, was stunned to see Green Bay trade up to draft Jordan Love with the 26th pick in 2020. Rodgers could now put a human face on his successor. Given the fact that virtually every recent quarterback drafted in the first round was starting by his second year, Rodgers could hear the footsteps thundering in his ears. The fact that the Packers could have used that pick to bolster an already-strong team (13-3 in 2019) just burned even more, as did the fact that Green Bay didn’t offer Rodgers more money as an enticement for shepherding Love into the lineup.
So, whether or not you agree with it, you can see his point of view.
What’s the Packers’ side?
The Packers are a way of life, a religion boasting one of the most fervent and devoted fanbases in sports. However, the Packers are also a business, and they’re in this position in part because they treated Rodgers like a commodity: specifically, a commodity with a limited shelf life. It’s unseemly to think in those terms, but let’s be honest: that’s what corporations do, viewing employees — and that’s what Rodgers is, an employee — as assets rather than as individuals.
Rodgers is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, but he’s also got a finite number of years remaining where he can play at the highest level: maybe three years, maybe five, maybe more. The Packers saw this coming, and rather than cling too long to Rodgers out of nostalgia and loyalty, they began the process of preparing for that day when Rodgers would not be a starting-caliber QB.
Now, where the Packers apparently erred, from a PR if not a business perspective, was in not bringing Rodgers in on the discussions. Perhaps they did and we don’t know it, perhaps they tried and Rodgers rebuffed even the attempt, but regardless, Rodgers apparently felt betrayed. Which, regardless of corporate organizational structures, is not the way to a harmonious workplace.
The Packers, for their part, couldn’t have been pleased that the latest Rodgers news broke right before the draft, right when the team had to focus its efforts entirely on the future rather than the present. Later reports which indicate that Rodgers wants G.M. Brian Gutekunst gone only serve to poison the beer cheese even further.
So it’s worth noting that the Packers have their own reasons for being angry with Rodgers, over and above the fact that they aren’t obligated to keep Rodgers in the know. Which brings us to our next point …
How much power does Rodgers have?
Not much, which is as much an indictment of the NFL power hierarchy as anything we’ve ever seen. Contracts in the NFL are structured such that even the reigning MVP holds very little power to change his circumstances, aside from 1. holding out and potentially surrendering a substantial portion of his paycheck to fines; 2. retiring, which would mean giving up, and also would require paying back more than $22 million in signing bonuses to the Packers; or 3. making a significant public stink to embarrass the Packers into action.
Rodgers’ lack of power even at the pinnacle of his career is, in part, the reason why Tom Brady has signed a succession of one- and two-year deals: Brady retained the power to chart his own destiny, and that’s exactly what he did in leaving New England. Rodgers’ four-year deal that he restructured in December 2019 runs through the 2023 season.
What could Rodgers realistically do?
Uh … give snarky interviews? Rodgers specializes in negative-space interviews, saying something without saying anything. Case in point: this past weekend, when Rodgers declined an on-camera interview at the Kentucky Derby but still let it leak out that he was disappointed the spat became public. That’s a masterclass in passive-aggressive insulting.
Rodgers interviews are like the hottest of hot sauces, the ones that hit you on a delayed timer. He wields the word “interesting” like a blade. And after the NFC championship, he defined his future with Green Bay as a “beautiful mystery,” exactly the kind of Rorschach quote that means whatever you want it to mean.
What could the Packers do?
Let’s lay this out here: the Packers are under zero obligation to make Rodgers “happy” by sending him out of town. They’ve made it clear for years now that they view him as a well-compensated employee, one whose contributions are welcome on the field but nowhere higher. That’s their right, regardless of how that sits with outside observers.
In theory, the Packers could cut Rodgers right now, but that would carry a dead cap hit of $38 million, an untenable figure. They could save several million by waiting until after the 2021 season, but that carries the unappealing notion of leaving the reigning MVP sitting at home rather than playing for you.
This is, in short, a poker game where the Packers hold all the cards … as long as Rodgers stays in the game.
Isn’t Rodgers kind of entitled to keep the Packers waiting, since he had to wait out Brett Favre?
Sort of. Rodgers famously sat behind Favre for three seasons while the Packers legend retired, unretired, re-retired and generally kept the team off-balance for multiple offseasons. Rodgers wasn’t happy about that, and he shouldn’t have been; he was top-level talent, and by all reasonable rights of succession he should have been the guy to step in and replace Favre a season or two before he did.
Love isn’t quite at that level of talent. You don’t need to be an NFL GM to recognize that a Super Bowl-caliber team swapping out an MVP for a completely untested rookie is not a recipe for success. The fact that Rodgers found something in himself last season complicates matters for Green Bay. You’d think the Packers might file that under “nice problems to have,” but apparently not.
How does Carson Palmer figure into all this?
There’s precedent here. After the 2010 season, Carson Palmer, then with the woeful Cincinnati Bengals, declared he would rather retire than play any longer in orange and black. The Bengals called his bluff, declining to trade him and instead placing him on the reserve list. With Palmer’s future in Cincinnati unlikely at best, the Bengals drafted, and subsequently started, Andy Dalton.
Later in the 2011 season, rocked by injury, the Raiders dealt a first-rounder to get Palmer … or, put another way, the Bengals were able to kick back and wait for the best possible offer before dealing Palmer.
With all due respect to the Palmer family, Carson Palmer of 2011 was not Aaron Rodgers of 2021. The Packers would be able to command a hefty price for Rodgers should they decide to deal him, but they might also follow the Bengals’ path of letting him sit and think about what he’s done.
Is Aaron Rodgers’ future in “Jeopardy”? (Sorry.)
Rodgers did a two-week guest spin as the host of “Jeopardy,” and he did so well that some pundits believe he could actually use it as leverage against the Packers. Why play football, the thinking goes, when you can work a few weeks a year without the threat of getting a concussion?
It’s an … interesting idea, to use a Rodgers-ism. However, buried within the ‘Jeopardy’ stint could just be the clue to Rodgers’ discontent. On Rodgers’ first night of hosting, a contestant trolled him with a jab about the Packers’ failure in the NFC championship:
When even ‘Jeopardy’ contestants are dunking on you, you know something’s out of whack with the universe. Put another way: the answer to Rodgers’ Packers problem might just be “What is, ‘I don’t need this s—’?”
But seriously: if you think Aaron Rodgers is going to stop being an NFL quarterback to go host a syndicated game show, I have some magic beans to trade you for your next three first-round picks.
Will Rodgers be in a Packers uniform in 2021?
To be determined, but if you were a gambling type, you might want to throw a little money on “yes.” Rodgers is the star attraction, yes, but the Packers still own the show.
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