Aaron Rodgers is going back to Green Bay. That’s what ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported Monday after three months of uncertainty about whether Rodgers would ever play for the Packers again. Rodgers had reportedly been unhappy about a variety of things—from Green Bay drafting his replacement, to not being secured as the team’s future starter after he won MVP, to the Packers cutting Jake Kumerow (really). But Schefter said that Rodgers and the team have reached a tentative compromise on some of their differences, and the QB will report to training camp.
To entice Rodgers back, the Packers reportedly made a few concessions, including lopping off the final year of his current deal (it will now end after the 2022 season instead of 2023). The team also agreed not to use the franchise tag at the end of his contract, and that if Rodgers “wants to be traded [after the 2021 season], the team will acquiesce to his wishes,” according to Schefter. Put all of that together and Rodgers will stick it out at least one more year in Green Bay, then have the freedom to leave, either via a trade in 2022 or free agency in 2023.
Tom Brady made a similar move two years ago, when he signed a new contract with New England that allowed him to become a free agent after the 2019 season. That ended with Brady finishing out his contract with the Patriots, signing with the Buccaneers, and winning a Super Bowl at 43 years old (and beating Rodgers and Co. in the process). Rodgers is now using at least part of the method that Brady pioneered. But there’s another GOAT whom Rodgers seems to be modeling even more closely here.
On Friday night, Rodgers and star Packers receiver Davante Adams posted the same photo to their Instagram stories. It showed Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen fist-bumping during their time together with the Bulls.
Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams have the same Instagram story up right now. pic.twitter.com/hDLE02V7fk— Matt Schneidman (@mattschneidman) July 24, 2021
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the reference: Rodgers may see this season as his Last Dance in Green Bay.
“He’s unhappy with his boss and has no options,” Tom Brady said—both jokingly and not—about Rodgers in a July press conference for The Match IV. Leave it to Brady to have the clearest view of the field.
Rodgers has certainly been unhappy with the Packers front office over the past year, especially general manager Brian Gutekunst. It started during the 2020 draft, when the team traded up to draft Jordan Love—Rodgers’s heir apparent—without telling him. Then in September, Green Bay released Kumerow just days after Rodgers had publicly praised the receiver, which NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said made Rodgers even more upset (apparently we’re in the timeline where Jake Kumerow alters the NFL universe). When Rodgers responded by winning MVP and leading the Packers to a 13-3 season and the NFC championship game, the team refused to commit to him as the starter beyond 2021 (the Packers reportedly offered Rodgers a contract that would have made him the league’s highest-paid player, but that money was not guaranteed). While Rodgers was upset, there wasn’t much he could do about it.
Rodgers missed offseason practices and mandatory minicamp, but skipping training camp would have gotten expensive—fast. If he held out for the entire month of August, Rodgers would have been fined about $2 million. And if he skipped the season, he would have forfeited his $15 million salary and the Packers could have asked him to pay back roughly $23 million of his signing bonus. Perhaps a player who has made $241 million in salary alone in his career (plus that State Farm money) could stomach that. But it’s not just about money. Rodgers’s absence would have hung his teammates out to dry, changed how millions of Packers fans perceived him, and delayed his chance at a second Super Bowl ring until 2022—a tough pill to swallow for a QB turning 38 this season.
Then there’s the fact that Green Bay had little reason to trade Rodgers this offseason. Competitively, the Packers need Rodgers in order to be a Super Bowl contender in 2021. That is obvious. Less obvious is the money the Packers would have lost in a trade. Had Green Bay dealt Rodgers before June 2, the team would have eaten so much dead money ($38 million) that it would have used roughly 20 percent of its 2021 budget on Rodgers while he played for a different team. A trade becomes much more palatable next offseason, when dealing him will only waste about 10 percent of the team’s budget—and that figure will likely be even lower once we learn the details of the restructured deal the two sides have reportedly agreed on. As Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap said when asked whether Rodgers would show up: “The ball was in Aaron’s court.”
The timing of trading Rodgers this year also never made sense. Rodgers’s request went mega public the morning of the first round of the draft, and it is difficult for teams to pull together a franchise-altering deal in mere hours. Once the draft was over, there was even less incentive for the Packers to move him. If Green Bay had traded Rodgers this summer, his new team would likely have been a contender in 2021. But any contender would deliver the Packers draft picks way outside the top 10. Waiting until after the season means Green Bay knows exactly which picks it will get in a trade—not to mention it gives other teams months to plan for a megadeal.
But Green Bay also needed to do something to ensure Rodgers would show up. Rodgers’s run hosting Jeopardy! and his legendary grudge-holding abilities led to rumors that he could retire rather than return to the Packers. But if Rodgers didn’t come to training camp, everyone involved was going to lose. So the team made some concessions—one of which, according to Schefter, was that “mechanisms will be put in place to address Rodgers’ issues with the team.”
What on God’s green earth does that mean? That Gutekunst will have to remain 50 feet from Rodgers at all times? Maybe. More likely though is that Green Bay is giving Rodgers more input on personnel. In addition to the Love pick last year, many of the QB’s grievances are about roster decisions—especially his receivers. If the Packers want Rodgers to stay beyond this year, they’ll have to give him more input about whom he’ll be playing alongside. The Packers are apparently taking this part seriously enough that they are trying to trade with Houston for former Packers receiver Randall Cobb, who left Green Bay in free agency two years ago. According to Trey Wingo, the Cobb deal may be the last domino for Rodgers to officially return. What a strange timeline we live in.
Hearing Rodgers coming back to GB hinging on trading for former teammate Randall Cobb . If Cobb is in Green Bay it looks like Rodgers will be too— trey wingo (@wingoz) July 26, 2021
It is not a coincidence that Rodgers has sought the same contractual structure that guided Brady to free agency two years ago. Brady was frustrated by the receiver wasteland that was New England. But he was also frustrated that the team continued to treat him like any other player. He left to go to Tampa Bay because he would be throwing to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, and because the organization was willing to take his suggestions—to allow him to be a coach as much as a player. Rodgers isn’t just seeking the security that he will be the starter for his team—that should be the bare minimum for an MVP!—but also that his team will seek his input on key decisions. Now, if the Packers want Rodgers to stay beyond next year, they’ll have to listen.
Neither side is getting exactly what they want in this deal. The Packers now have to include Rodgers in roster moves if they want to keep him happy. And Rodgers has to play for a team he seemed resolved never to return to. But sometimes, as Andrew Brandt, the former chief negotiator for the Green Bay Packers, said in a video on Twitter on Sunday, “the deals that both sides hate are the only way out.”
So what happens now? Rodgers will have some ’splainin’ to do when he shows up to training camp and faces the media. The world outside of Green Bay will undoubtedly obsess over the Last Dance Packers all season. And Rodgers himself is surely stoking the greatest motivational fire the world has ever seen (this entire saga has been one big Michael Jordan “and I took that personally” meme).
But in terms of the team itself, things seem … like they’ll be normal? Rodgers is going to show up to training camp. Adams is reportedly willing to discuss a contract extension with the team now that Rodgers’s financials are ironed out. Some ghosts of teams past—like Cobb—may return at Rodgers’s request. But the Packers themselves will likely be focused on a Super Bowl run. If there is one more lesson for Rodgers and the Packers to take from The Last Dance, it’s this: It don’t mean a thing without a ring.