Aaron Rodgers loves Game of Thrones. It’s something we’ve talked about often. It’s easy to draw parallels between plot points in Thrones, a show about power, and the Packers now that Rodgers has a potential successor gunning for his job. The most important thing for Rodgers is to avoid a very specific Thrones fate: He has to make sure that the ending doesn’t suck.
Rodgers, unlike Thrones, was good in 2019. Yet on Thursday night, the Packers took Utah State quarterback Jordan Love with the no. 26 pick in the draft. It is the first skill-position player they’ve drafted in the first round in 15 years, since … Rodgers went at no. 24 in 2005. Rodgers told Pat McAfee that it would be “kind of cool” if the Packers took a skill-position player this year. This is probably not what he had in mind. Rodgers, at 36, is now older than Brett Favre was when Rodgers was drafted. This sounds like one of those viral time facts—much like Cleopatra living closer to the invention of the iPhone than to the building of the Great Pyramid—but it poses a legitimate team-building conundrum. Rodgers is coming off an NFC championship game appearance. He is two years into a four-year, $134 million deal. And most importantly, he is still very effective.
Drafting a quarterback in the first round fundamentally changes a franchise, but how things change depends on the franchise. The Dolphins nabbed Tua Tagovailoa with the fifth pick Thursday and now their franchise goes from a teardown to a build-up. They know their identity, have a young core, and will go from there. The Bengals know they are a Joe Burrow project now. The Packers franchise changed, too: Love’s name will be mentioned constantly this season. Given the financial considerations, the Packers couldn’t realistically get out of Rodgers’s deal until 2022, even if they wanted to, and Love’s presence will be noted each day until then. The conversation around the Packers on Friday—and for the next few years—is completely different than it was before the draft. This is a gift from the entertainment gods: a slow-burn quarterback controversy that might take years to play out and involves one of the smartest, funniest, and bluntest players in the sport.
Green Bay general manager Brian Gutekunst didn’t sound like someone who wanted to move on from his quarterback on Thursday, even when that becomes financially possible. He said after the draft that Love has “a very good upside to become a starter in the National Football League. But we’ve got the best quarterback in the National Football League and we plan to have him for a while competing for championships. I can understand the fan base and people thinking, ‘Why would you do this at this time?’ But I just think the value of our board and the way it sat, it was the best for the Green Bay Packers and we’re really excited to get Jordan here and get him in the door and learning our system.” Gutekunst declined to put a timetable on when Love might be ready to start.
While this move seems strange, it fits in line with franchise history. Developing quarterbacks has always been a Packers thing, dating back to former general manager Ron Wolf, the architect for the franchise in the 1990s, whose philosophy still influences the team to this day. There’s a reason why Mark Brunell and Matt Hasselbeck started out as Favre backups: Green Bay always wanted a pipeline of quarterbacks, even if it had a legend in the starting job. Rodgers, mind you, sat for three full years before getting his shot. The Packers waited so long to give him the reins that they had to sign him to a contract extension in November of his first year as a starter. And Rodgers wasn’t the only early-round quarterback the Packers took during this window. They picked Louisville’s Brian Brohm in the 2008 second round. Brohm very much did not become the most talented passer in football, and was out of the league by 2010.
Gutekunst said earlier this year that he had a lot of former Packers GM Ted Thompson in him. This pick signals that. History doesn’t repeat itself. Man always does. That’s Voltaire. Or Mel Kiper Jr., I forget.
The idea of sitting a quarterback for three years starting in 2020 is very different than it was when Rodgers was drafted, because the 2011 collective bargaining agreement made rookie contracts significantly cheaper. A huge chunk of the value of rookie quarterbacks now comes from their cheap initial deals. The decade’s most effective team-building strategy has been to hit on a good, young quarterback and then pass the savings on to veterans to stack the roster. The problem here is that when you have a good, expensive starter, as Rodgers is, the roster has to be built out with great draft picks, who are cheap, to maximize the talent under the salary cap. The best way to compete with Rodgers under his contract is to hit on a lot of complementary picks, play them early, and win with them. Sitting a first-rounder for a number of years does not align with this strategy. The Packers are a dynamic, young team that has drafted well over the past few years. There’s a reason they were one game away from reaching the Super Bowl. Putting that eye for draft talent toward getting help in 2020 was probably the best option on Thursday night.
There’s also the little matter of projecting how good Love can be. The wrinkle in the Rodgers-Favre debate is that Rodgers was a legitimately great prospect who was in the running to become the no. 1 pick before famously sliding on draft day. His résumé was enough to push Favre out the door after Favre did his annual retirement bit one time too many. Love’s 17 interceptions at Utah State last season were more than Rodgers had in his entire college career. This is not to say Love is doomed—Patrick Mahomes is the patron saint of modern QBs who had some flaws in college that went away in the pros—but he is a far less heralded prospect than Rodgers was. Rodgers was a steal at no. 24. Love was not an automatic first round pick.
How Rodgers will handle this decision becomes the story moving forward. Because Rodgers does not forget easily. Before he played the 49ers last season, a local paper stacked all of the things that he’d said about San Francisco’s decision to pass on him in favor of Alex Smith in the past 14 years. Ryan Grant, the former Packers running back, told Bleacher Report he thought Rodgers held a grudge against his former head coach, Mike McCarthy, because he was an assistant on that Niners team that passed on him. Rodgers has been great, in part, because he’s channeled this energy into working hard and playing great football. The list of perceived slights that all-time greats use to motivate them is incalculably long. Rodgers and Tom Brady can find a comment made about them from 2013 or 2005 or 1998 and use it for an extra push in 2020. The key is to act more like Michael Jordan and use that chip on the shoulder wisely than to go full Count of Monte Cristo. Rodgers, to borrow a line from Ray Lewis, is pissed off for greatness. And according to Peter King, Rodgers is pissed off now. That can be good.
Every team says it takes the best player available instead of drafting for need; then, in a stunning coincidence, it typically takes a player at the exact position at which it’s weakest. Taking a quarterback when the QB on your roster just made the NFC title game is the embodiment of the best-player-available strategy. I remember talking to someone one time who counted cards in blackjack, and he said that to do it effectively you have to look completely unhinged sometimes by making counterintuitive moves. This is equally true of the best-player-available mind-set. If you believe in it, you have to live it. Andrew Brandt, a former Packers executive, noted how many fan comments Thursday sounded exactly like the ones that surrounded Rodgers’s pick.
I got so many of these messages (although not on Twitter) 15 years ago. Deja vu. https://t.co/NZEdBgdhMV— Andrew Brandt (@AndrewBrandt) April 24, 2020
Still, this isn’t Thrones, and Rodgers is not Daenerys Targaryen—Daenerys hasn’t laid waste to Chicago like Rodgers has. But this is one of the most interesting plot points in the NFL, in 2020 and beyond. At the end of one of our interviews a few years ago, during a brief talk about TV shows, I told Rodgers about Succession. He said he’d watch it. I hope now that he did. After Thursday night, we’re about to see some Peak TV in Green Bay.