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We’re in Uncharted Territory With the Aaron Rodgers–Packers Standoff

A fractured relationship between a front office and the reigning MVP will have extraordinary implications for the NFL

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“Sometimes big changes follow from small events, and sometimes these changes can happen very quickly.” —Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point

Quarterback standoffs do not repeat themselves, but they do rhyme. Aaron Rodgers is not Brett Favre, but if you squint a little bit, you can see some overlap between the two. Replace Favre’s tractor with a Jeopardy! podium and you are almost there. There are a number of notable differences in the impasses between the Green Bay Packers and two of the most storied players in football history, the most obvious being that Rodgers is a significantly better player than Favre was in 2008, when Favre unretired and the Packers traded him to the New York Jets. “Just about everyone who counted in the football department reached the conclusion that Favre could never win another championship,” Packers beat writer Bob McGinn wrote during the 2008 saga. Absolutely no one thinks this about Rodgers in 2021, nor do they think, as the Packers did in 2008, that the team’s heir apparent is better than the star quarterback in question. Jordan Love is not Aaron Rodgers. This whole situation would be a lot less complicated if he were.

Here’s a quick summary of the Rodgers-Packers beef, which exploded into the news cycle a few hours before last week’s draft: Rodgers, who’s been generally unhappy with the team, has reportedly said he’s not returning. There are a handful of reasons for this, ranging from Jake Kumerow’s release before the start of last season, which we will get to later, to Rodgers not liking general manager Brian Gutekunst, who selected Love in last year’s first round. The team has met with Rodgers several times and Rodgers has not grown any warmer toward the organization. Things are bad. How bad? The Athletic reported that Rodgers has referred to Gutekunst in group chats as “Jerry Krause,” the Bulls general manager who built and then broke up the Michael Jordan–led dynasty. Yes, Rodgers took it personally.

There’s never really been any story like this with a reigning NFL MVP, a saga with endless possibilities, all of which would single-handedly change the balance of power in the league. There is no realistic transaction currently on the table that has more possibilities for butterfly effects. First of all, if the Packers decided it’s time to trade Rodgers and called the 31 other teams and said, “We’ll give you Rodgers for a first-round pick plus your current starting quarterback,” they’d probably get about 25 or 26 yeses. About 15 of those teams would instantly vault into the Super Bowl discussion upon acquiring Rodgers. Trading Rodgers would obviously remove the Packers as a legitimate Super Bowl contender and immediately clear a path to relevance for other NFC North teams. If Rodgers chooses to retire, that would shake up the division in the same way, but the move wouldn’t build up another contender. The prospect of Rodgers’s departure makes Love’s selection an immediate litmus test for Green Bay’s front office in 2021.

Rodgers’s status in September 2021 has the chance to change nearly everything about the sport. Favre was not nearly as big a domino. If Rodgers goes to the AFC West, to the Broncos or Raiders, he changes the outlook for Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs. If he goes to, say, the Carolina Panthers, the move brings a Rodgers–Tom Brady rivalry to the forefront. Rodgers has the chance to define the 2021 season and that could mean many different things. Only two MVPs in history haven’t returned to their team the following season. Both retired, and one of them, Jim Brown, retired before the 1966 season and pursued an acting career. The open-ended nature of this situation—nothing really has to be done until the season begins—makes for an all-time football media apocalypse. Add in the fact that Rodgers is one of the most media-savvy athletes on the planet and I’ve got to say I’m not sure we’re quite ready for the next few months.

Last fall, I spoke to Gutekunst, who mentioned Ted Thompson, the late Packers GM responsible for the Favre trade in 2008, a handful of times, particularly when I asked about the uproar that followed the Love selection. “I think with anything like that—the draft always brings some of that, and free agency does too—I’m always surprised by the intensity to those things that aren’t games,” he said. “But I also had the luxury of being here when Ted drafted Aaron and when he traded Brett [Favre] and saw some of the fervor. This [2020] offseason didn’t compare to that. When Ted traded Brett and we were going through that training camp, and growing up in this business [you learned] that this was just part of it.”

The 2008 saga with Favre was as heated a football moment as there had been in recent memory. Some fans confronted Thompson at the team’s shareholder meeting. One asked Thompson directly: “Why would you want a quarterback like Rodgers who can only take you to the Toilet Bowl when you can have Favre, who’ll take you to the Super Bowl?” according to an incredible story from a local report. It is impossible to know yet if things will get that heated about Rodgers’s situation as it gets closer to training camp; it’s only fair to say things are headed that way, albeit probably without anything as lame as the phrase “toilet bowl.” There’s also the matter of Favre simply not helping Rodgers in the early part of his career, which made things even more awkward. As Favre put it: “My contract doesn’t say I have to get Aaron Rodgers ready to play. Now hopefully he watches me and gets something from that.”

Favre was saying the quiet part out loud—no quarterback is ever comfortable when their eventual replacement has a locker next to theirs. Alex Smith mentoring Mahomes for a season is the exception, not the rule. What’s more common is Ryan Fitzpatrick being crestfallen over losing his job to Tua Tagovailoa last season. Rodgers has reportedly been welcoming to Love, but that doesn’t mean it’s all comfortable. After all, Rodgers himself said he was “not thrilled” by the pick when it was made.

One of the many small miracles of the Patriots’ 20-year run was that every time you’d hear a rumor of two dudes who were feuding, it would stay exactly that—a rumor—and by the time the Patriots were 5-2 in October, you’d forget it ever happened. Keeping everyone happy in the NFL takes a lot of skill and a lot of luck. Rodgers was reportedly upset last September after the Packers released wide receiver Jake Kumerow, who had a cool 22 receiving yards in six games after being picked up by the Bills. If that’s true, you get the feeling it will take a lot of work to keep Rodgers happy. Still, every effort should probably be made considering it’s been nearly a decade since Rodgers’s teammates told 60 Minutes that their star quarterback was noted for his sensitivity. It is clear that Rodgers can get irked easily.

ESPN’s Rob Demovsky wrote this week that the Packers should have done a better job of communicating to Rodgers that they might pick Love last year. (Demovsky pointed out that the Vikings informed Kirk Cousins about their intention to take a quarterback in the third round last week.) NFL Network’s Mike Garafolo said Rodgers has been telling prospective free agents that they should know that he probably won’t be with the team going forward before they made a decision. Great athletes all have their own special motivation. Some dig deep to summon that extra edge by thinking about their teammates or financial stakes. Some thrive on simply being pissed off. Rodgers is in the latter category. With a player like that, it’s important to let them be pissed off, but also to know how to use that anger to the team’s advantage. When he’s pissed off at the team, there’s a problem.

Rodgers, in theory, has more options than the Packers if he doesn’t want to play football. He could host any number of game shows, try to do something else in Hollywood, or simply just hang out with the $241 million he’s made in his career and continue to partake in inside jokes with golf meme accounts (this last one would be my choice). The allure of a professional athlete using a career in entertainment as leverage is not new. Babe Ruth, who spent considerable time on the West Coast in his offseasons, considered acting, according to his biographer Jane Leavy. In 1966, Dodgers stars Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale signed with Paramount Pictures to increase their leverage during a contract holdout. A classic of the genre that often goes overlooked is when Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor started a staring contest with his team, telling them he would not attend any offseason workouts or show up to training camp and would participate on Dancing With the Stars instead. The Dolphins eventually dealt Taylor to Washington and Taylor finished second to Kristi Yamaguchi on Dancing.

A lot of smart Packers writers are essentially saying that it’s all over. Demovsky thinks there’s less than a 5 percent chance Rodgers is the team’s starter going forward. Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote on Tuesday that the team should “be prepared” to trade Rodgers. “The Packers undoubtedly will give it time to see if Rodgers changes his mind, but they should set a deadline of June 1 to reconcile. If they can’t convince him to report, they should start shopping him around with the intention of trading him before training camp starts,” he wrote. Prepare yourself. Favre’s saga happened in the early days of social media. The idea of Mac Jones going third consumed the news cycle in the middle of the offseason, and now this is a genuinely massive story without an end date that could explode further at any time. “Maybe he’ll host Jeopardy!” is a legitimate story line here. The question “What if LeVar Burton is better?” has serious implications for the Denver Broncos’ Super Bowl hopes. Look what Jake Kumerow started.