Before Green Bay’s epic collapse against the San Francisco 49ers, Aaron Rodgers was asked if he knew in his heart what he was going to do with his career at the end of the Packers’ season.
“I don’t,” Rodgers told NFL Network’s Kay Adams. “I want to know what it feels like at zeroes in our last game.”
When the clock reached zeroes on Saturday, Robbie Gould’s game-winning kick was flying through the uprights at Lambeau Field as the 49ers beat Green Bay 13-10 and eliminated the Packers from the playoffs for the fourth time in 10 years. It was a brutal collapse after San Francisco started the game with four three-and-outs on offense. The 49ers had negative 10 yards of offense midway through the second quarter.
But while the Packers’ defense was dominant, their special teams gave up 10 points in a 13-10 game. Green Bay allowed a blocked field goal, costing itself three points late in the first half, then allowed a blocked punt that San Francisco returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Adding insult to injury, on the final play of the game, the Packers had only 10 defenders on the field to defend Gould’s game-winner—despite coming out of a timeout. This may be the lasting image of Green Bay’s season.
The NFL’s worst special teams unit turned in one of the worst special teams performances in NFL playoff history … and appears to have had only 10 men on the field for the winning field goal. pic.twitter.com/bJvPtHYXkQ— Tom Pelissero (@TomPelissero) January 23, 2022
Green Bay’s offense was essentially silenced after a touchdown on its opening drive. The Packers scored three points on their final nine drives. They had six possessions in a row without a point, the first time a Rodgers-led Packers team has done that since Week 1. Green Bay now has the dubious distinction of having the most regular-season wins in a three-year span without a Super Bowl appearance.
“A little numb,” Rodgers said when asked how he was feeling after the game. “I didn’t think it was going to end like this.”
Few did. Now the Packers must pick up the pieces and pivot to an even larger question. Is Rodgers going to return to Green Bay? And if not, what is he going to do?
Rodgers is under contract for one more season, after which he can enter free agency, exactly like Tom Brady did when he left New England for Tampa Bay. Rodgers, 38, is likely to win his second consecutive MVP award when the winner is announced in a few weeks. If he decides to play one more season in Green Bay and leave in free agency next year, he would be three years younger than Brady was when he left the Patriots. That’s assuming Rodgers wants to play at all after he said he seriously considered retirement this offseason.
Rodgers, who railed against the front office last year for not involving him in personnel moves, is going to speak to Packers GM Brian Gutekunst about Green Bay’s various offseason decisions in the next couple of weeks. He said those conversations would influence his own choices and that he’ll decide on what he is going to do before free agency begins in March and teams lock in their yearlong plans. But we already know enough to see that Rodgers has roughly four options. Let’s go through them one by one.
Option 1: The Drew Brees
The Move: Rodgers returns to the Packers and signs a contract extension that gives the Packers short-term cap help. It also indicates he will be with the team for multiple years to come.
Does it Make Sense?: The Packers are almost $45 million over the cap for 2022, the result of pushing money into the future to maximize a title window in 2020 and 2021. But now the bill is coming due.
Receivers Davante Adams, Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Equanimeous St. Brown are all hitting free agency, as is tight end Robert Tonyan Jr.—that’s almost the entire pass-catching corp. And Randall Cobb, one of the few receivers under contract, may get released. Starting pass rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith plus defensive tackle Kenny Clark are currently set to take up a third of Green Bay’s salary cap in 2022. Their contracts will need to be significantly restructured just to get under the cap, never mind creating the space to make Adams the highest-paid receiver in the league.
Rodgers can help with this. His cap hit next year is $46 million, but if he signs an extension, that number can go down. (Yes, in the NFL, giving players more money means NFL teams can say they cost less—don’t try to understand accounting). Drew Brees often did this in New Orleans to help the Saints retain players. But Brees also didn’t have any intention of leaving the Saints. Rodgers signing a multiyear contract would leave his future out of his hands—which is probably something he does not want to do.
“I don’t want to be part of a rebuild if I’m going to keep playing,” Rodgers said after Saturday’s loss. The implication of that comment is that if the Packers don’t have a plan to stay competitive and keep their marquee players, Rodgers may not return for the year he has left on his contract, never mind adding extra time to it.
Option 2: The Tom Brady
The Move: Return to the Packers without signing an extension, setting up the chance to leave in free agency in March 2023. This would be the real version of the Last Dance.
Does it Make Sense?: Let’s start with the optimistic case for Rodgers returning to the Packers in 2022. The case that would have been made before Saturday’s epic collapse. There are four basic reasons Rodgers would stay.
First, the Packers want him back. “Certainly we want him back here,” head coach Matt LaFleur said after Saturday’s loss. “I think we’d be crazy to not want him back here. He’s going to be the two-time MVP.”
Second, the Packers just went 13-4, becoming the first team to win 13 games three seasons in a row. Just like LaFleur says the Packers would be crazy to not bring back Rodgers, there’s a case Rodgers might be crazy not to return to the Packers. Green Bay has captured the no. 1 seed in the NFC two years in a row. They’ve got an All-Pro receiver in Adams, an All-Pro left tackle in David Bakhtiari, running backs Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon, and a defense that just held the 49ers to six points on offense. Where is Rodgers going to go that will provide him a better chance to compete for a Super Bowl than the team he’s just won 13 games with for the third year in a row? As devastating as Saturday’s loss was, it feels like the Packers are his best option.
Third, Green Bay’s rivals in the NFC North have disintegrated. The Lions have the second pick in the draft and didn’t win a game until December. The Vikings recently fired their head coach and general manager in an organizational reset. Ditto for the Bears (who Rodgers owns). Green Bay has the kind of cakewalk path to a division title that the Patriots enjoyed for decades in the AFC East. The Packers are the dominant team in a doormat division
Fourth, the organizational complaints Rodgers had that led to all this mishegas last offseason were mostly addressed. Rodgers was angry that he was not consulted on basic personnel decisions that affected his job, like which receivers would be released. (Tom Brady had similar complaints about Bill Belichick before leaving New England.) But the Packers made what Rodgers said were good-faith attempts to address those concerns. Packers GM Brian Gutekunst traded for Cobb, a former Packers receiver—and Rodgers’s close friend— to placate Rodgers. “From the day I got back,” Rodgers said after Saturday’s loss, “I felt there was an earnest decision on both sides to meet in the middle and to communicate. I’m very thankful to be part of the conversations I was a part of, to feel that my opinion mattered.”
Add up these four factors—Green Bay wants Rodgers back, he doesn’t have any obviously better options, he does have an easy path back to the playoffs, and the team has genuinely tried to improve their relationship with him—and it seems unlikely that Rogers could survey the NFL landscape and decide he has a better chance to win a Super Bowl somewhere else in 2022. And if Adams plays this season on the franchise tag, perhaps he could follow Rodgers wherever he signs in 2023.
Option 3: The Anthony Davis
The Move: Request a trade to a contender. Rodgers does not have a no-trade clause, but any team dealing multiple first-rounders for him would want to get his blessing before finalizing a deal.
Does it Make Sense?: Rodgers was reportedly interested in playing on the West Coast last year and narrowed his list to three teams: San Francisco, Denver, and Las Vegas. (We can probably cross the 49ers off that list, considering they just beat the Packers and traded up in last year’s draft to select Trey Lance.) As for the other two options:
Las Vegas: Their 2021 was defined by organizational chaos. Playing in the AFC West also means competing with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert for the division title.
Denver: The Broncos have a great young roster and need a quarterback, but the team might get sold to a new owner before the 2022 season begins. Any stability Rodgers might seek would be hard to get in Denver if a new owner may eventually want to hire their own head coach or general manager.
If Rodgers—or his fiancée, Shailene Woodley—were open to non–West Coast teams, there are a few other options.
Indianapolis: A team that seems ready-made for Rodgers to make them a contender, but Indy sent their 2022 first-rounder to the Eagles. Would the Packers consider a trade package without it?
Philadelphia: The Eagles have three first-round picks, but would Rodgers play for Nick Sirianni and a team who famously does not like committing to its quarterbacks?
Pittsburgh: The Steelers don’t seem like a team that would trade multiple first-rounders for a 39-year-old quarterback.
Cleveland: The Browns have the cap space to make it work and perhaps the deepest roster in the NFL among the teams who need quarterbacks. But is Rodgers going to force his way from Titletown to … Cleveland?
And would any of these non–Green Bay spots would truly be a better option for Rodgers than the Packers?
Any possible new destination has its flaws. If you’re Rodgers, do you want to go to a team that just traded two or three first-round picks for you, or do you want to wait a year and go to that same team with those first-round picks in free agency. If the Bucs traded their 2020 first-rounder to New England for Brady, they wouldn’t have gotten to draft right tackle Tristan Wirfs.
If Rodgers is going to leave Green Bay, waiting out 2022 and becoming a free agent might make more sense.
Option 4: The Carson Palmer
The Move: Retire and possibly get traded to a contender at an unknown point in the future.
Does it Make Sense?: Does the reigning two-time MVP retiring make sense? Of course not! But how much of the Rodgers stuff of the past few years has made sense? He also wearily alluded to retirement in his press conference.
“There’s a lot of players whose futures are up in the air, so definitely will be interesting to see which way some of those decisions will go,” Rodgers said after the loss. “But I’ll have the conversations with Brian in the next week or so and get a little bit more clarity and think about my own future and how much longer I want to keep doing this.”
Rodgers is probably not done playing football. But after a surreal season ended in the divisional round, we’ll know soon whether Rodgers’s career as a Packer—or his NFL career, period—is heading for zeroes.