Is this really salvageable? Can Brian Gutekunst and company really convince Aaron Rodgers to return to the Green Bay Packers after Thursday’s news that the reigning MVP quarterback wants out?
Gutekunst, at least publicly, says yes. I have my doubts.
The news that Rodgers told members of the organization he wants out turned the first round of their draft Thursday night into a footnote. Most of Gutekunst’s post-draft news conference was devoted to Rodgers, and the team’s GM put up a front that Rodgers’ differences with the team are reconcilable.
At one point Gutekunst flatly said, “We’re not going to trade Aaron Rodgers.”
At another, he made what sounded like a direct plea to his quarterback: “We have a very good football team here and we have a great organization. We’re very committed to him, and I think as the lines of communication have been open, I’m just optimistic that that’s what’s best for the Green Bay Packers, and I truly believe that’s what’s best for Aaron Rogers as well.”
But those comments are at odds with an ominous report by ESPN’s Chris Mortensen shortly before the start of the draft Thursday evening. Mortensen said that as of that moment, the Packers hadn’t received calls about Rodgers on Thursday from other teams, but “they are open now to the reality they may have to trade Aaron Rodgers. Could that be today, could it be after the draft? It’s certainly a possibility.”
The question is, what more can they do to convince Rodgers to come back? In his initial report that Rodgers doesn’t want to return to the Packers, Adam Schefter of ESPN said Gutekunst, coach Matt LaFleur and CEO Mark Murphy each made separate trips to visit Rodgers this spring. That’s no small gesture.
Also, Ian Rapaport of the NFL Network reported Rodgers’ agent, David Dunn, visited Green Bay for several days in the offseason for negotiations on a contract extension but was unable to work out a deal.
So what more can the Packers offer? Trade the player this all goes back to, Jordan Love? Or are they just hoping in time, Rodgers cools off and changes his mind?
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Maybe it will come down to money, and with more contract talks, the sides will reach a deal. Maybe.
But it bodes poorly for the Packers that Rodgers leaked this to the media on the first day of the draft. Going for maximum exposure on the biggest day of the NFL offseason suggests Rodgers wanted to send a strong message and that he’s dug in. Perhaps Gutekunst, LaFleur and Murphy can change his mind, but if what they’ve done up to now hasn’t worked, I have my doubts.
Why did this relationship sour?
While there might be several contributing factors, this ultimately comes down to one thing: Rodgers hasn’t forgiven Gutekunst for drafting Love in the first round last year.
Count me among Gutekunst’s defenders for that. Winning quarterbacks are too hard to find to wait until you need one. When you don’t have one, desperation makes it easy to go through quarterback after quarterback for years and even decades and come up empty. Just ask the Chicago Bears, Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins.
So I’ve defended Gutekunst for drafting Love. Not the Love pick itself – who knows how he’ll turn out? – but for using a late first-round pick on a prospect he thinks has a good chance to be a winning quarterback in the NFL. All in all, that’s a relatively cheap price to protect yourself at the game’s most important position when your starter is in the fourth quarter of his career.
But one NFL executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation, said the mistake wasn’t the pick, it was letting things with Rodgers get anywhere near this point in the first place. Specifically, that Gutekunst hadn’t built a trusting relationship with Rodgers, so going into last year’s draft he could give Rodgers a heads-up that a quarterback was a possibility in the first round.
That was, in fact, a major failing of Gutekunst and the organization. GMs shouldn’t be in the business of informing players of their draft plans, but we all know things are different with quarterbacks, especially elite ones. They’re part-partner, part-player. I can recall Brett Favre telling me in the ‘90s that Ron Wolf regularly checked in to see how he was doing, what he thought about the team and how things were in the locker room. That earned Favre’s trust.
Gutekunst didn’t have that with Rodgers. He comes from the Ted Thompson school where the GM picks the players and the coaches deal with them. That’s the way it should be for most players, but not for stars, and certainly not for franchise quarterbacks. That’s a failing at the top.
Gutekunst, in fact, copped to the error Thursday night.
“I certainly look back to last year’s draft, and maybe some of the communication issues we could have done better,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it.”
Sticking it to the GM
Still, in the end, I’m not sure a closer relationship and a heads-up would have made Rodgers feel any better about drafting Love. He still would have felt betrayed. He still would have thought Gutekunst was pushing him out the door.
I get it. Just as Favre no doubt thinks he’s responsible for the Packers’ franchise-saving refurbishing of Lambeau Field two decades ago, Rodgers surely thinks the team was able to build the revenue-generating Titletown district because of him. And the truth is, they’re not wrong. They aren’t the only ones who deserve credit, but they’re the indispensable figures.
If you’ve won as many games for the Packers as Rodgers has, the Love pick had to feel like a big slap in the face. It’s clear that’s how Rodgers saw it, compounded because he was blindsided. And after putting up an MVP 2020 season – by the way, there’s no doubt the Love pick helped spur that performance – Rodgers now has the leverage to stick it to Gutekunst like he felt Gutekunst stuck it to him.
Still, a year ago at this time, I never would have guessed that Rodgers might go nuclear.
The lesson I take is that the NFL has changed in the last year or two. The best quarterbacks are taking their cues from NBA superstars and becoming more willing to exercise the power that comes with their status and salaries.
Earlier this offseason, Deshaun Watson had all but forced his way out of Houston before a spate of civil suits derailed the move.
Matthew Stafford’s departure from Detroit was amicable, but he still forced his way out.
Russell Wilson didn’t ask for a trade but gave the Seahawks a major warning flex by saying publicly he was open to one if they didn’t change their roster-building.
Now Rodgers might be on the brink of forcing the Packers to trade him because they drafted Love last year. And don’t for a second think Rodgers can’t make it happen if he’s willing to stand his ground.
One option would be to retire. The Packers would then face losing him while getting nothing in return but some cap money and cash that does them no good this year. Or he could show up at training camp and undermine the team with an uncooperative attitude behind the scenes and stoke a media circus. We saw in Mike McCarthy’s last season as coach how badly things can go when Rodgers is unhappy. In this league, the locker room is ruined if your quarterback isn’t all-in. The Packers know that. So if Rodgers really wants out, he can get out.
Gutekunst put up an optimistic front Thursday, and maybe it was more than a public front. Maybe he and Murphy and LaFleur will find a way to patch this up.
I have my doubts. With the timing of this news, it’s hard not to think Rodgers has already made up his mind.