It was about relationships last year, and it’s about relationships this year.
Aaron Rodgers wasn’t in a great place with the Packers coming out of the 2020 season, and an upset loss to the 49ers in the NFC title game, so much so that the Green Bay brass spent weeks unable to get ahold of its quarterback. There was the bungling of the communication on the Jordan Love pick. There was awkwardness of a draft-day news drop of a trade demand a year later. There was president Mark Murphy calling Rodgers a “complicated fella.”
And even Rodgers’s reentry to the organization, at the outset of training camp, was wonky, with his airing-of-grievances press conference and insistence that Randall Cobb be acquired as part of his return to Green Bay.
The funny thing is, seven months later, the earmarks of that dispute foretold everything.
Rodgers spent this past weekend officiating his buddy David Bakhtiari’s wedding. Cobb was there and Matt LaFleur was, too—and that served as the perfect precursor to a decision for Rodgers that, in some ways, came down to those ties that bind the quarterback to the only organization he’s ever played for.
Let’s start with the relationships that were never in a bad place, those between Rodgers and his teammates, and between Rodgers and the current Green Bay staff. Rodgers has always loved the guys he played with, evidenced by how close he is with longtime Packers such as Bakhtiari and Cobb, and fellow wedding attendees A.J. Hawk and Clay Matthews III. All the same, his relationship with LaFleur has been pretty steady all the way through.
In fact, that last relationship with his coach wound up being the key to keeping all of this together, with the coach having maintained his bond with the quarterback even through all the tumult of last year. Which is why, in a quiet moment, on the second day of training camp, LaFleur remained optimistic that Rodgers wouldn’t necessarily be eyeing the door when the clock showed zeros on the 2021 season.
And this is important, too—above all else, you could hear how badly LaFleur wanted to keep coaching him.
“I mean, the guy’s, in my eyes, the greatest to do ever do it. So yeah, why wouldn’t you want to?” LaFleur told me that night at Lambeau Field. “I think he’s still got a lot left in the tank. I see it every day. He has so much fun out there, too, just competing. The ball’s still jumping out of his hand so damn effortlessly. So yeah, if he were to have retired, I would’ve put it in the same category as how I felt growing up in Michigan.
“I didn’t really grow up a huge professional football fan, but yeah, it was fun watching the Detroit Lions and Barry Sanders. And when [Sanders] walked away? That was heartbreaking. I know, from my perspective, it just wouldn’t be good for the game of football. And I do believe—I know—that there’s a lot of history here, and a lot that he loves about this place. And hopefully we can continue to work and come together, and fix whatever issues there might be.”
Which brings you back to the issues that were there. Though Rodgers held no ill will against Love, having been through a rocky start to his career alongside Brett Favre, he didn’t like the handling of Love’s selection—he was not told the Utah State prospect would be the pick until the Packers were on the clock—and didn’t like that Murphy and GM Brian Gutekunst hadn’t involved him more in big-picture decision-making. So that’s why when the Packers’ front office tried to change that, and did so last winter, Rodgers more or less ghosted them.
Since then, Gutekunst and Murphy have worked hard to repair their respective relationships with Rodgers and, as you might imagine, that went a very long way. So, too, did the fact that Rodgers, I was told over the weekend, felt like his relationships in the locker room (again, which have always been strong) were as good as they’ve ever been this year.
Now, I’m not naive to the business part of this. The Packers and Rodgers have discussed a four-year extension that’ll likely be finalized now as a part of this, and money’s not a nonfactor in any of these sorts of things, no matter what people try to tell you. I also believe that the Packers’ willingness to take on a Buccaneers–style build, in which they restructure contract after contract, mortgaging deals in order to keep a core in place, was important, too. Rodgers wanted the Packers to work on his timeline, and now they are.
But in the end, none of that matters if the relationships that Rodgers wanted to have with the people he works with, all of them, weren’t where they needed to be.
With one tweet from Pat McAfee on Tuesday morning, we got affirmation.
Aaron Rodgers’s pursuit of a favorable environment in Green Bay was one he took to its theatrical edge, not unlike Leonardo DiCaprio’s desire for an Oscar win that led him to be pummeled by a black bear in The Revenant.
He freed himself from the buttoned-up quarterback norm. He said everything—literally, everything—that came across his mind during a consequential and maddening time in U.S. history. He posted cryptic Instagram photos (before denying their cryptic nature). He called out the Packers’ organization in press conferences with their sponsor logos sitting idly in the background. He became both the disease and the cure, which forced his team to decide between a full-scale surgical removal or ultimate, unbridled acceptance. In vacillating between hero of all jaded employees and suspect Reddit Thanksgiving uncle, Rodgers was essentially forcing the Packers to make a plaster mold of his personalities, desires, preferences and talents for him to comfortably fall back into.
And he did. Even before news of his record-breaking contract leaked Tuesday—the one that will rightfully place him above Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Dak Prescott, the one that will almost surely get Jordan Love traded—Rodgers began to see the changes he desired enacted out of that reticent acceptance. The organization brought back his favorite position coach with no assurance that Rodgers would even sign. Behind the scenes at the combine, Packers execs were prepared to pay him whatever he wanted but also seemed wholly prepared for the entire thing to blow up on a whim if Rodgers decided to walk away. That is a special kind of Stockholm syndrome.
Throughout this process, Rodgers accomplished a few bucket list items. He did what Brett Favre couldn’t do, establishing his value to the point where it was the understudy, not the entrenched MVP, who would have to go. He assured that his thoughts would matter, whether they were actually taken into account inside the Packers’ front office or if they’d simply be espoused on Pat McAfee’s show as a means to second-guess the employer who wouldn’t listen to him.
But mostly, he provided a modern blueprint for the next handful of quarterbacks angling for an extension. Not just ensuring that they would likely continue the trend of market-topping deals after a few years when players at the position started taking strange, below-market contracts, but that they would have to be accepted, wholly and completely. That they would have to be listened to. That they would be undermined no longer at the hands of some process that didn’t exclusively have their best interests in mind.
We don’t know whether Justin Herbert, Matthew Stafford or Joe Burrow has any burning desires to control their respective front offices, sign contracts that could afford them enough money to purchase and rule over a small Caribbean island chain or wade into media as active players religiously defending their own personal narrative. But now they can. They will be able to do so without so much as a sneeze from their employer because they, like Rodgers, have crossed a talent threshold that a franchise will stand on its head to accommodate.
Think about the incredible reality of what Rodgers accomplished. In an era of scheme-forward head coaches, the Packers have Matt LaFleur, who won 13 games in each of his first three seasons. They have a first-round pick at the quarterback position whom LaFleur could tutor. Theoretically, they were armed with absolutely everything they needed to walk away from Rodgers during the most fitful moments of this passive-aggressive power struggle.
What did they do instead?
This is real, concrete power. This is absolute power in a day in age when some seedy owners are so desperate for answers at the position that they’re willing to try to disgustingly force-settle very serious lawsuits in order to attain stability under center. Credit goes to Rodgers for feeling that out. For realizing that no one was going to tell him “no.” And for showing another generation of players just how valuable they are and how desperate those who employ them can get.
While some might say this isn’t behavior to be celebrated, think about how manipulative, controlling and coordinated ownership has become in NFL circles. Think about how many times players have been squeezed, locked out, shut up and buried just to maintain the current illusion of power.
Rodgers is an extreme example, but when you look around the NFL, his importance to the Packers is not unlike Herbert’s to the Chargers, Mahomes’s to the Chiefs, Allen’s to the Bills, Burrow’s to the Bengals or Stafford’s to the Rams. Everything would fall apart if they walked away, and the organizations must be willing to accommodate so much more, bending and contorting so much more than these players thought possible.
It’s time for them to start asking for the moon and the stars. For Saturn and a few of its rings, and demand that Pluto be reinstated its planethood just because they feel like it. Then, they can thank Rodgers for the ability to get what they wanted, when they wanted it and just because they wanted it.