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When Aaron Rodgers walked into Lambeau Field in late July, it was a big deal. After a drama-filled offseason in which he threatened to retire, Rodgers finally decided to report to Packers training camp.
All was well and Aaron was talking about love. He said he loves the city of Green Bay. He loves his teammates, his coaches and the Packers organization. He even loves his backup quarterback … Jordan Love.
After Sunday, the conversation changed.
The New Orleans Saints crushed the Packers 38-3. Rodgers was awful, completing just 15 of 28 passes to go with two interceptions and no touchdowns. He was benched in the fourth quarter with a 36.8 passer rating, the third worst single-game mark of his career.
Rogers said after the loss that “it’s just one game.” His coach, Matt LaFleur, said the Packers were “absolutely embarrassed” by the Saints.
Should Packers fans be nervous about this season? There are a lot of ways to answer that question. But it all begins with the quarterback and one big problem: no one knows whether Aaron truly wants to play for the Packers this season.
Conspicuously absent from Rodgers’s training camp admiration list are three names: Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst, executive vice president Russ Ball and CEO Mark Murphy. These three men are at the top of the Packers management chain. They were also in the middle of the biggest controversy of the NFL offseason.
We learned this past spring that Aaron Rodgers wanted out of Green Bay. Rodgers himself confirmed as much in July. By all accounts the rift between Rodgers and the team was more than just a business dispute; the collective reporting this summer painted a picture of a highly personal falling-out fueled by Rodgers’s contempt for team management.
Packers GM Gutekunst had (and may still have) the biggest target on his back. Multiple — admittedly unsubstantiated or anonymously sourced — reports during the offseason said Rodgers demanded that the GM be fired, that the three-time MVP sometimes mocks and belittles him in group texts with teammates, and that Rodgers has compared Gutekunst to former Chicago Bulls GM Jerry Krause, who was portrayed as the villain in the documentary series The Last Dance.
“Sometimes things can look a certain way outside this building, but inside the building this is part of the business,” Gutekunst told Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press Gazette recently.
“It wasn’t always fun, but at the same time we knew we were doing the right things,” Gutekunst continued. “That’s what we leaned on, and tried to do what’s best for the team and individual players. A lot of this was business as usual in the National Football League.”
After reporting for training camp in late July, Rodgers held an extraordinary news conference. It was unbelievably candid, unfiltered and had to make Packers management very uncomfortable because of his impact on team chemistry.
“I do,” said Rodgers when asked whether he wanted to be in Green Bay. “I love my teammates. I love the city. I love my coaches.”
Just a few months ago, it was a completely different message.
Rodgers reportedly told the Packers last Spring that he wanted out of Green Bay. One report said he told the team he would rather retire than play for the Packers. Other reports said he wanted to be traded to the Denver Broncos. Drama and distraction are Kryptonite to any sports team, and if the next five months are like the last five, the Packers and their fans are in for a long season.
According to multiple reports, Rodgers was upset that the Packers picked quarterback Jordan Love in the first round of 2020 NFL draft. At the very least, Rodgers believes the Packers front office should have consulted or given him advance warning.
Publicly, Aaron insists his frustrations with the franches aren’t about the Love draft pick. Rather he says, it’s about respect and the management that’s not giving it to him. “I’m not asking for anything that other great quarterbacks across the last few decades have not gotten … the opportunity to just be in conversation.”
But the notion that the dispute has nothing to do with the Packers drafting Rodgers’s potential replacement has always seemed a bit disingenuous. You don’t spend a first-round draft pick on a backup, and no Hall of Fame quarterback has ever taken kindly to seeing one wearing a headset on the sideline. The three-time MVP clearly feels he’s being pushed out the door.
“Based on them drafting my replacement, J Lo last year, I think that kind of put things in motion,” Rodgers told reporters. “There was nothing in last season that made me confident I’d be back after ’21 and maybe not even 2020. That’s why I have to focus on just this season.”
Eventually, it seems, Rodgers reported to training camp because The Packers wouldn’t trade him and he didn’t want to retire. The standoff was over, at least for a season. Aaron did get some concessions, though. The team brought back former Packer Randall Cobb because that’s what Aaron wanted. The Packers also reportedly agreed to void the final year of his contract (in 2023) and to not franchise him at the end of this season.
When you crunch the salary-cap numbers, the chances of Rodgers playing for the Packers beyond this season look grim. Unless both sides agree to a contract extension, Green Bay will likely trade their star quarterback rather than risk losing him in free agency.
This Last Dance scenario is crazy. Rather than being a unifying force, it has all the trappings of the kind of poison that can crush team morale and sow dissent inside the locker room. There are a lot of factors that impact a team’s success in the NFL, and the ability to handle adversity is near the top of the list — especially when that adversity is self-inflicted.
The potential hurdles facing the Packers this season are real.
Wide receiver Davante Adams, perhaps the best player on the team after Rodgers, is in the last year of his contract. He is reportedly upset with management and has broken off negotiations for an extension. The Packers best pass rusher, Za’Darius Smith, is nursing an injured back and has missed most of training camp. The team’s offensive line, last year considered one of the best in the NFL, has two rookies in its starting lineup. The Packers best offensive lineman, left tackle David Bakhtiari, is still recovering from a torn ACL and will miss at least the first six games.
Then there’s the schedule. The Packers need to bounce back quickly. A record anything less than 5-2 after the first seven games could spell trouble because of what lies ahead: a brutal five-game stretch against the Cardinals, Chiefs, Seahawks, Vikings (in Minneapolis) and Rams. How the Packers fare over these five games could make or break their season.
All of this said, the Packers are still loaded with talent and have a great head coach in Matt LaFleur. As for the icy relationship between Rodgers and Gutekunst, there are some indications that things are improving. In the end though, it all comes down to the quarterback. He now says he wants to be in Green Bay and the locker room is likely to follow his lead. The team will rise or fall based on what number 12 does this season. That’s why he’s the highest paid player on the roster.
Former Packers quarterback Brett Favre, the man Rodgers replaced in 2008, said many times that “team chemistry is more important than talent.” That will likely be put to the test in Green Bay this year, because the Packers success could come down to another basic question: Can Aaron Rodgers flip the switch from a divisive offseason to create team harmony and lead the Packers to the Super Bowl? Based on what happened Sunday, that seems unlikely. But stranger things have happened in the Wild West of the National Football League.
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