Aaron Rodgers’ tenure with the Green Bay Packers is hurtling towards an unceremonious end. The reigning NFL MVP has been frustrated in recent years by a perceived lack of support from the front office, and now he’s fed up to the point he wants out.
The story of a veteran seeking a change is a familiar one, but it’s unheard of to see a future Hall of Famer coming off one of the best seasons of their career, one game removed from the Super Bowl, and deciding it’s time to make a break. It’s indicative of a relationship that has been souring for a decade and only bubbling to the surface now, and not even success can mend this rift.
Aaron Rodgers has always had a complicated relationship with the NFL. That began at the 2005 NFL Draft. A Northern California native, Rodgers saw the potential to be selected by the 49ers with the first overall pick, even projected to be taken 1st at points during the draft. A move that would land him close to the area he grew up in.
The draft, seen as a battle of two quarterbacks, was the ultimate failure of Mike Nolan’s disastrous tenure in San Francisco. We might never know what the football evaluation of both players was, but the Niners ended up selecting Alex Smith over Rodgers, largely because Nolan believed Rodgers had a strong personality, and thought the two would butt heads. Nolan wanted a more passive QB who understood his place, and the mild-mannered Smith fit the bill.
Typically this would have meant Rodgers dropped a couple of spots, landing on a bad team where he could play with a chip on his shoulder and try to prove the 49ers wrong. Instead 2005 was the worst possible draft to be passed on if you were a top quarterback. Few teams really needed a quarterback. The majority of the league either had a star, were willing to give one more year to their incumbent starter, or had recently drafted a QB. In addition the class wasn’t particularly hailed in the pre-draft process, with each prospect being closely scrutinized and doubted for one reason or another. The result was Rodgers plummeting down the board, becoming a meme on draft night as he sullenly waited for his name to be called, only to be passed on time, and time, and time again.
Finally at No. 24 the Packers decided the value was too good to pass on. Green Bay didn’t necessarily need a quarterback. Brett Favre was in his mid-thirties, but the NFL’s iron man was playing like he still had five or six years left in the tank, coming off a season where he passed for 4,088 yards.
So Rodgers, who dreamed of playing in San Francisco, and ignored by the majority of the league, now found himself on a team where he’d get to sit and learn, but with no discernible plans for his future other than “wait until Brett retires.”
Early years in Green Bay
Rodgers sat behind Favre in 2005 and watched as the legendary No. 4 began to decline. The 4-12 Packers were a mess, with Favre throwing a career-high 29 interceptions and making the front office look prescient for selecting a quarterback.
Desperate to prove himself, Rodgers didn’t make many friends on his team during his first season. The rookie never saw appreciable game time, instead running the scout team during practice to help mimic opponents and prepare the defense. Rodgers had to be asked to tone down his intensity, often going too hard in practice and irritating his teammates. Whether you chalk this up to “competitive fire,” a chip on his shoulder, or just being a bit of a try-hard, the result was that Rodgers learned the position quickly, not just how to play on the field, but work with his teammates off it.
Head coach Mike Sherman was fired following the season, replaced with Mike McCarthy, seen as a strong “Aaron Rodgers guy.” McCarthy took Rodgers under his wing, personally working on the young quarterback and preparing him to take over the reigns. McCarthy, who served as quarterback coach for the Chiefs and Packers before becoming offensive coordinator and head coach, was the perfect teacher for Rodgers, but the side effect of this one-on-one time was that Favre was seeing his spot slip away. The kid from California represented an existential threat to the kingdom Favre built in Wisconsin.
It made things very awkward. Here was Favre, one of the most beloved players in the storied history of the Packers, knowing full well the backlash that the Packers would face should he be cut. Meanwhile the writing was on the wall that the Packers had to begin the pivot to Rodgers. It left the young quarterback in limbo. Some fans calling for him to take over, others wanting Favre to get another chance. Meanwhile in San Francisco, Alex Smith was getting ready to lead the 49ers in his second year. Rodgers, who always believed he was the better quarterback, was stuck on the bench.
With the fanbase still predominantly on Favre’s side, McCarthy was stuck. Still viewed as the new kid on the block, the optics would have looked bad if McCarthy took over, immediately cut Favre, and began to install his own system, even if he believed it was the right move. So McCarthy allowed Favre the freedom to more or less call his own shots when it came to his future.
That future was not bright.
Favre wasn’t much better in 2006, throwing 18 touchdowns and 18 picks in an 8-8 season. No. 4 struggled to complete 56 percent of his passes, and looked like he was done, whether he admitted or not. That season made a difficult situation even worse. Sticking with Favre resigned the team to failure, and sitting Rodgers another year would accelerate him approaching the end of his rookie contract, without really getting a sense whether he could be “the guy.” But this was Brett Favre, the most beloved figure in modern Packers history. There was a sense that it didn’t matter how bad things got, he was owed the chance to play it out. He’d earned it.
There’s no single person to blame in this equation, but all sides could have handled it better. Favre wanted to retire a Packer, but do so when he was ready — and he wasn’t ready to retire. So began the seemingly endless “will he or won’t he?” when it came to the question of retirement.
The big loser in this scenario was Rodgers. He found himself lost in the shuffle. Some fans wanted him to take over the reigns, but the majority were on Favre’s side for nostalgic purposes. Resentment started to build between Favre and the Packers, with the veteran feeling like he was no longer valued, and the Rodgers’ future became a play thing. Green Bay couldn’t afford to keep Favre on the roster with his cap hit if they weren’t planning to start him. Now, whether or not you think Favre really grappled with retirement over 2006 and 2007, the result is the same. Rodgers had to wait.
The torch is finally passed
Favre bounced back in 2007 in a major way. Making up for his struggles of the previous two years he lead the Packers back to the playoffs in a great modern comeback. It wasn’t the Super Bowl win he hoped to go out on, but it was enough to continue the mystique of Favre as an NFL legend.
However impressive the season was, the time to hang it up had come and everyone knew it. In March of 2008 Brett Favre announced his retirement from the NFL, saying he’d only want to return if he thought he could win a Super Bowl — and knowing it was a slim chance, he was ready to walk away.
So, after years of waiting, now it was time for Rodgers to take over the Green Bay Packers. The job he’d been molded for during the first three years of his career. McCarthy and Rodgers moved full steam ahead into installing the offense they’d been building, which was a stark departure from Favre’s deep throwing, gun slinging style, and more in line with modern NFL concepts of chain moving.
Then Brett was back.
Just as the Packers were preparing to head to training camp, Favre said he was un-retiring. The drama of Favre’s on-again, off-again flirtations with retirement had grated too long on Packers fans, and this time the majority were in favor of No. 4 going away. Green Bay had given the veteran quarterback two seasons longer than most organizations would have, an appreciative gesture for everything he’d done for the team. However, now that he was saying he was coming back frustration mounted. There were not only functional salary cap issues with Favre returning, but a distraction the team didn’t need during its rebuild.
Trying to make his return seem as though it wasn’t disruptive, Favre asked for his unconditional release. How you perceive this act is up for discussion. There are equal reasons to believe Favre’s sincerity, as there are the reality that by waiting until July he maximized the pressure put on the Packers. Instead of being able to trade him during the draft, or giving the team an entire offseason to prepare, they were instead given one week from when Favre first contacted the team about returning, to making his intentions public.
The Packers were convinced that the Vikings had not only convinced Favre to return, but were integral in the timing of his announcement to put pressure for a full release. Green Bay filed tampering charges against Minnesota, though these were ultimately found to not have merit.
Instead Green Bay found a trade partner, sending Favre to the New York Jets for a conditional fourth round pick. Hardly the return they may have gotten six months earlier coming off a hot season, but at least it got the quarterback off Green Bay’s books.
A year later he would sign with the Vikings, leading the team to the playoffs against the organization who loved him for almost two decades.
Rodgers in charge
There was an immense amount of pressure on Rodgers to prove he could be the guy. Not only did he have the typical expectations of a starting quarterback, but the knowledge that all season long he’d be compared to Favre out in New York.
While Favre returned to mediocrity with the Jets, Rodgers became a star immediately. It was clear the team was not back to contending for a Super Bowl yet, limping to a 6-10 record, but Rodgers was sensational, throwing for more than 4,000 yards and finishing the year with a 93.8 quarterback rating — a figure almost on par with Favre’s stellar 2007, and it made fans quickly forget their nostalgia for the old gunslinger.
Still, there were issues. The team really only had two capable NFL receivers in an aging Donald Driver and Greg Jennings. It was apparent the team needed to get Rodgers more weapons in order to take a step forward. Yet, they didn’t. However, Aaron Rodgers proved why he’s so brilliant in 2009, taking essentially the same offense and playing almost flawless football, lifting the Packers to 11-5.
The Packers soon learned that they didn’t really need to put an elite team around Aaron Rodgers. He was so talented, his feel for the game so on point, and his relationship with McCarthy such a perfect union that he could bring this team thought anything. In 2010 he did just that.
Winning the Super Bowl
Just two years removed from taking over a starter, Rodgers proved the Packers were on the precipice of a dynasty by leading the team to a Super Bowl win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Still to this day, the season doesn’t make a great deal of sense. Driver had completely fallen off at age 35, Jennings was unquestionably one of the best receivers in the league at the time — but there really wasn’t much else to speak of on offense. Rodgers led a hodge-podge group (at the time) of 500-yard receivers and turned the Packers into a Super Bowl team.
This was a good 10-6 squad during the regular season, but they caught fire in the playoffs by winning a series of gutsy one-score games against the NFC’s best (with the exception of Atlanta who they demolished by 27 points). Then, in the Super Bowl they did the same. Here was Ben Roethlisberger with Hines Ward, Mike Wallace, Antwaan Randle-El, Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown, the deepest and most terrifying receiving corps in the NFL, and Rodgers managed to beat the Steelers’ vaunted defense with his island of misfit toys.
Following the Super Bowl win the sky was the limit for the Green Bay Packers. If they were able to do this with the team they assembled around Rodgers, what would the Packers do when they put a better team around their star quarterback?
That never happened.
A decade of promise, washed down the drain
Forget fandom, or allegiance — what happened for the next 10 years was one of the biggest disappointments in the modern NFL, leaving us with big questions about what could have been. Year in, year out, Aaron Rodgers was spectacular, but the Packers were left wanting. It may be a little unfair to paint this as a one man show considering the team found Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson, both of whom emerged as two of Rodgers’ favorite receivers, but the primary issue Green Bay had is a constant philosophy that their quarterback could perform with the bare minimum, and little more.
This became especially problematic as the Packers became unwilling to match free agent contracts for receivers. James Jones left following the 2014 season, then Nelson and Cobb in 2018. Conventional wisdom would tell you that the Packers, who were at one point so good at keeping their shelves stocked, would continue to draft receivers and keep the offense firing — but they didn’t.
Green Bay was a staple of the playoffs, a yearly threat to win the Super Bowl, but never managed to convert on their promise.
What could have been ...
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the Packers in recent years are the offensive weapons they decided to pass on in the first two rounds of the draft, only to see them go to other teams shortly after.
- 2017: Packers pass on JuJu Smith-Schuster in the 2nd round, take safety Josh Jones. Smith-Schuster is taken by the Steelers with the following pick.
- 2018: Packers pass on taking D.J. Moore and Calvin Ridley, both of whom become 1,000 yard receivers. Instead they take cornerback Jaire Alexander.
- 2019: Packers pass on A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf to select two defensive players in the first round, and a center in the second. The pair of receivers all become 1,000 yard players.
The point isn’t that the Packers drafted badly, in fact several of the players they took are very good NFL players, or even Pro Bowl caliber. This issue is a fundamental lack of understanding of what it takes to win a Super Bowl in the modern NFL. The team kept loading on defense, particularly in the secondary, while depriving Rodgers of players he could use to make the offense thrive.
Over this time period the Packers defense did improve from 22nd overall in 2016, to 9th in 2020 — but failed to get over the hump during this period. Each season a glaring problem remained: Rodgers needed more on offense.
The 2020 NFL Draft, a breaking point
Rodgers’ frustration with the Packers had largely been quiet over this period. If he was upset the team wasn’t giving him weapons it was largely hidden from fans. However, things boiled over during the 2020 draft.
The Packers were still winning, going 13-3 the previous year — but there were major issues on offense. Davante Adams was Rodgers’ only real top-tier weapon, and with Nelson and Cobb being gone the team’s scoring continued to stagnate. Lifts to the defense definitely helped the Packers win regular season football games, but a crushing loss to the 49ers in the NFC Championship showed that the offense has become too one dimensional and predictable with Rodgers and Adams being the nucleus.
The decision to take a wide receiver was so obvious, so apparent that it felt like the safest projection in mock drafts of the year. The Packers waited, set to select 30th, then traded up. It felt like the Packers had their guy to finally give Aaron Rodgers some help.
Then they selected a quarterback.
Taking Jordan Love with the 26th pick inspired all sorts of romanticism of history repeating, much like when the Packers took Rodgers over a decade before, but the circumstances inside the organization were very, very different. When the Packers selected Rodgers they were a complete football team without many glaring needs, extending them the luxury of looking forward. Now they were a successful team, but fractured and in dire need of help if Green Bay hoped to return to the Super Bowl.
Whether perceived or real, the pick felt like a slap in the face to Aaron Rodgers. A tacit move that indicated he was slowing down, despite there not being any signs of this being the case. Instead of landing a much-needed receiver, Green Bay chose a player who would ride the bench for years. It wasn’t just that the Packers took a QB, but that they never discussed or consulted with Rodgers ahead of time to gauge his feelings about it, or assess where he saw his future.
Packers GM Brian Gutekunst, who took over the top job in 2018 when Ted Thompson was forced to retire due to medical reasons, immediately came under fire for the decision to select Love. It created unnecessary drama where there didn’t need to be any. All the Packers needed was a skill-position heavy draft, which would have benefitted the team even after Rodgers’ tenure, and Green Bay failed to pass the lowest bar.
2020, a year of predictability
History repeated itself the following year, almost down to the letter. The Packers were incredible in the regular season, once again surging to a 13-3 record and becoming NFC favorites to make the Super Bowl. Rodgers put together one of his best seasons, winning the MVP award in a year that felt like it had to be the one where Green Bay put it together.
The team breezed through the Rams in the divisional playoff round, and were pegged to be favorites against a Buccaneers team constructed almost off an Aaron Rodgers wish list. Here was Tom Brady, the oldest quarterback in the NFL, thriving due to being given a wide array of offensive weapons. Meanwhile Rodgers walked onto Lambeau Field in a familiar position: Davante Adams, and little else.
Adams was ostensibly shut down in the game, finishing with 67 yards and a touchdown. Once again Rodgers played phenomenally, but just didn’t have enough around him to get past the Bucs. If only the team had drafted offense heavily earlier that year, instead of taking a developmental quarterback.
To compound this issue came the nonsensical decision by LaFleur to have Mason Crosby kick a 26-yard field goal when the Packers were down by eight in the fourth quarter, rather than put the ball in Rodgers’ hands and trust him to tie it up. It was bad enough that Rodgers was questioning his future immediately following the game.
"There's a lot of unknowns going into this offseason now."— ESPN (@espn) January 25, 2021
Aaron Rodgers postgame: pic.twitter.com/VBGvBsYSCg
Rodgers checks out
On the morning of the 2021 NFL Draft, the bomb dropped.
Reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers is so disgruntled with the Green Bay Packers that he has told some within the organization that he does not want to return to the team, league and team sources told ESPN on Thursday.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) April 29, 2021
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We don’t quite know the timeline of Rodgers deciding he needed out of Green Bay, but talk of a possible exit exploded in the days leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft. It was reported that the quarterback-needy 49ers, the team that passed on him back in 2005, were willing to throw the house at Green Bay to get Rodgers, possibly emulating the win-now mantra Tampa Bay had used to secure a ring.
The Packers said no.
It’s unclear if Rodgers knew about the 49ers offer prior to it going public, but he was clearly very upset. It was his perception that the team were looking to move on, and even if they weren’t, the front office wasn’t interested in getting him more weapons to succeed with. Rodgers wanted to be in San Francisco, close to the area he grew up, on a team with weapons where he could thrive, and within an earshot of Los Angeles, where oddly enough his burgeoning game show career was taking off, filling in as a host on Jeopardy! following Alex Trebek’s untimely death.
With the door closed on a deal to San Francisco rumors emerged of where Rodgers would play. In the hours leading up to the draft it reached a fevered pitch, with Rodgers allegedly only willing to go to the Broncos, 49ers, or Raiders — with Denver best positioned to make a strong play.
That didn’t materialize either. Mid-afternoon Gutekunst issued a damage control statement indicating the team had no intention of dealing Rodgers.
“As we’ve stated since the season ended, we are committed to Aaron in 2021 and beyond. Aaron has been a vital part of our success and we look forward to competing for another championship with him leading our team.”
The damage was far beyond salvageable. Fans were irate, Rodgers was furious, and the Packers were left with a disaster of their own making. Years of tolerating a lack of support had boiled over, with the drafting of Love serving as a catalyst. Drafting a quarterback felt disrespectful, failing to trade him to a team he wanted to play for served as the final straw.
News emerged that the relationship between Rodgers and Gutekunst couldn’t be salvaged. Rodgers had been comparing Gutekunst to Jerry Krause in messages with other players, the loathed former GM of the Chicago Bulls, who is infamously credited with tearing apart the mid-nineties Bulls dynasty.
How all this rates is a matter of perspective. You can think it’s beyond the pale for Rodgers to go after Gutekunst privately, but it’s emblematic of his frustration with the Packers boiling over. His analogy or comparing his GM to Krause might be labored, but it shows that he thinks the front office is killing the team’s chances of winning. And, much like Rodgers was back in 2005, Jordan Love is now trapped in the middle by no fault of his own.
What happens next?
The Packers and Rodgers are at a standstill. Rumors continue to swirl about whether teams can put a trade package together that will entice Green Bay, but as time drags on the possibility of a good return will dwindle — especially if Rodgers refuses to report to the Packers this summer.
There is no winner in this scenario. The Packers are in a difficult position. Rodgers is being labeled as a malcontent by some of his staunchest supporters, and fans are stuck in an all too familiar position of supporting their team, or one of their favorite players.
Inside all this remains one irrefutable fact: The Packers did not build a successful team around Aaron Rodgers. They had years to transform a Super Bowl team into a dynasty, and failed. Year in, year out Green Bay was one of the best teams in the NFL, but never managed to convert their regular season success into championships. Rodgers was a constant, always performing at a high level — so were the Packers, not really doing much of consequence.
Aaron Rodgers remains not just one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL right now, but one of the greatest of the last decade. A transcendent talent who never got his chance to cement himself with the great leaders of NFL dynasties because the front office didn’t put a team around him that could sustain success. Whether Rodgers leaves or stays, his story in the NFL will remain one of the league’s great “what ifs?” and that’s a shame.