In 2019, the Green Bay Packers no longer needed Aaron Rodgers to be Aaron Rodgers. Now it seems they’re closer than ever to not needing Aaron Rodgers at all.
Make no mistake, the Packers moving up to select quarterback Jordan Love in the first round of last week’s draft was a signal that Rodgers’ time in Green Bay is coming to an end, sooner rather than later. That his eventual exit will mirror that of Brett Favre is a juicy bit of irony: The young pup quarterback with all the physical tools, selected at the end of the first round, and asked to learn from the old pro, whose own physical gifts have started to wane.
The hit rate on quarterbacks in that late first- to early second-round window is iffy to say the least. There is a reason they are still on the board – full of untapped potential in the eyes of the coaches; but often stuck with a debilitating flaw in reality. Between picks 20 and 40, there have been 29 Pro Bowl berths, 21 of which are made up by Rodgers and Drew Brees. For each Lamar Jackson, there’s a Geno Smith or a Brandon Weeden or a Johnny Manziel.
It’s not crazy for the Packers to think about the future, certainly not if they believe Love has the potential to be an All-Pro quarterback. But why now? That’s the question.
The Packers were a game away from the Super Bowl last season. Rodgers is on the other side of his otherworldly peak, but he remains one of the best quarterbacks in the sport, one of the rare few who can balance efficiency with explosiveness. Rodgers needed a little bit more help in the passing game, that’s all. Not picking a receiver in a class loaded with sure-fire stars was a clear message to Rodgers: our success isn’t dependent on you.
The Packers spent the rest of the draft committing to their run game, moving away from the all-pass, all-the-time offense that was constructed around vintage Rodgers back in the Mike McCarthy days. They added three interior offensive linemen, a thumping running back, and a tight end/H-back, Josiah Deguara, who will serve the function of a modern fullback: shifting across the formation, from the backfield to the slot, as a blocker and pass catcher. Sound familiar? It’s a similar model to the one the 49ers have built in San Francisco, the one that waxed Green Bay in last season’s NFC Championship game.
Defense and run game, that’s the Packers’ identity going forward. They spent over $100m this offseason to upgrade a defense that was good against the pass but lousy against the run in 2019.
The trend started last year. The Packers became more of a run-based team, with their rushing offense ranked fourth in the league in efficiency while their passing game slipped outside the top 10. Rather than try to upgrade the skill spots, in a class loaded with receiving talent – of varying shapes, speeds, and body sizes (a receiver for all your needs! – the Packers doubled down on their run-first approach.
All of this points to the inevitable: A Rodgers-Packers divorce.
The timing of the split isn’t tricky to figure out unless Rodgers tries to preemptively force a move. All signs point to 2022. Trade Rodgers now, and it would trigger a $45.9m cap charge. Wait until 1 June, however, and that number drops to a more palatable $14m in 2020 with the rest of the money pushed to 2021.
Moving on that quick would be in the event of Rodgers demanding a trade. More likely, the Packers have two years on the clock. Super Bowl or bust, as it has been for the better part of a decade. By the time 2022 rolls around, a Rodgers-trade cap hit will be easier to navigate, with a charge of just $17m.
By that time, the team would hope Love has been able to grow and develop on the bench. And even if he hasn’t, it will be his time anyway – teams don’t trade up in the first-round for a quarterback and not give them a look at some point.
The doomsday scenario for Green Bay, of course, is that Rodgers demands out now. Listen closely enough and you can almost hear him venting: What? You don’t believe in me any longer? Ship me somewhere else. I’ll show you.
Such a situation has the potential to get just as ugly as Favre’s exit when Rodgers joined the team. And now comes the careful combing of Rodgers’ record: Did he only shine against bad teams? Is one championship enough?
No and yes. Rodgers remains an All-Pro caliber player. His arm strength is still there, his accuracy on point, his movement, the area that makes him an all-time-great, has only become more refined as he has aged.
In 2019, Rodgers’ numbers across the board were excellent, even if some of the visceral signs of greatness had dipped. Instead of eight to 10, what-in-the-world throws a game, there were two. And that was by design. But his efficiency numbers held firm, as much a part of Rodgers’ brilliance as his wild, off-platform throws. He finished third in the league in big-time throws v turnover worthy throws, and sixth in completion percentage on throws under pressure. Together, they represent the best statistic we currently have of a quarterback as a “passing playmaker”. Talk of any decline has been greatly overstated.
Teams would be queuing up to grab a quarterback fitting that profile tomorrow, and would be happy to fork over a significant asking price to boot. If 2022 is the date, Rodgers will be 38, with enough years in the tank for a team to justify handing over a high draft pick or two. Already, teams will be preparing their cap sheets with the idea of snagging Rodgers between now and then.
It’s over to the quarterback himself, now. He has every right to be pissed off, while also understanding that this is how The Game works – being on the other side of it himself should provide some perspective.
Now, does he stick or twist? Spend two seasons trying to deliver another title to Green Bay or try to force his way out before next season, whenever that winds up being? His heart probably says the latter, but Rodgers has always been the analytical type.
Two years, then out: the Packers are officially on the clock.