Business of Football: The End of Green Bay’s Rodgers Era Is Near

Before getting to my insights into the future of one future Hall of Fame quarterback, a few words—among the hundreds of thousands written and spoken about him in the past day—about the retirement of Tom Brady.

Brady's retirement seemed to be coming after the Bucs lost last week, with comments from Brady revolving around family and the realization of years going by without dedicated time with them. I can certainly relate to that, as someone who left the NFL (when I was a couple of years older than Brady) to be around my sons more as they grew up.

While there will be much fanfare about his career and his accomplishments, what sticks out to me is Brady's amazing longevity while competing at the highest level of the game. In a sport that has an average lifespan of less than three years, Brady was at the top of the game for most of the 22 years he played. Brady, along with other athletes like LeBron James, has changed the narrative on age and aging of not only elite athletes but everyone. As someone now much older than Brady and very diligent about healthy aging, I appreciate that.

Brady's name is prevalent in my classes on sports law as well. He was the name plaintiff in the 2011 case against the NFL that challenged the legality of the league lockout (the case was moot after a new CBA was reached). And, as we all know, Brady sued Roger Goodell—winning in the district court and losing in the court of appeals—over his suspension for allegedly deflating footballs.

Now Brady, approaching age 45, goes from being an old man in his profession (football) to a young man in his new profession (retirement). I, like everyone, am thankful for all the memories he provided.

Business of Football: The End of Green Bay’s Rodgers Era Is Near

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers could be heading for an imminent divorce.

Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports

Thirty years of spoiling

The end of the Packers’ season came harder and faster than anyone, especially this writer, expected. Now the Packers, blessed with two generational talents at the game’s most important position for the past 30 years, face a reckoning.

Packers fans are the most spoiled of all NFL fans—although they certainly do not act spoiled—for this reason: They have had truly elite quarterback play, first with Brett Favre and then with Aaron Rodgers, without interruption for almost 30 years. The closest another NFL team has come to equaling that was the Colts moving from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck. But that was interrupted by injury and terminated by Luck’s retirement. Now my sense, and the sense I have had for the past two years, is that the transition that all other teams go through is coming, and coming soon.

I have no inside knowledge on this from Aaron or the team, and deliberately refrain from reaching out; I comment from my own experienced insight and perspective. And I just think this is the time for a change, both for Aaron and the team. Let’s examine.

Keeping the seat warm as the MVP

Headlines blared all last offseason that Aaron wanted out of Green Bay and many, including respected pundits, suggested Aaron would never set foot there again. As you may know from reading this space, I always thought he’d be back in 2021, and he was.

My sense of what happened last year is that Aaron, both as the reigning MVP and a placeholder for Jordan Love, rightfully wanted some clarity. If the Packers were moving to Love in 2022—something I have always felt would happen—Aaron may have wanted to just get on with it rather than wait a year. The Packers, of course, wanted their cake and to eat it too; they wanted Aaron to continue his MVP play while Love apprenticed another year. And they got that. Aaron returned with another MVP season to boot and seemed happy with the team and the front office, and vice versa.

But alas, the season ended with another playoff disappointment at snowy and frigid Lambeau Field and the book on the 2021 season is now closed.

Time for Transition

Seared in my mind from draft night 2020 is the image of both Packers general manger Brian Gutekunst and head coach Matt LaFleur, in separate locations due to COVID-19, both smiling ear-to-ear after having traded up to select Love. Fifteen years before that, we drafted Aaron because no one else did and he fell in our lap. But here, the Packers aggressively moved to get Love.

The reality of the NFL is that first-round quarterbacks play. They don’t sit forever; they’re not flipped for draft picks; they play. For an NFL team to have the conviction to take a first-round quarterback, no matter where in the round, it is deciding that he is going to play. The only question is when.

For Aaron, that time frame turned out to be an extraordinary length: three years. Patrick Mahomes sat for one year, and it seems like Trey Lance will assume the Niners’ starting role after a year on the bench, too. Every other first-round quarterback drafted since 2012 has played during his first year. Except, of course, for Love, who has now sat two years.

I know: Rodgers and Gutekunst are now getting along well, and Aaron seems open to returning. But I don’t think so. I stuck with my position that he would return last year, in the face of so many saying I would be wrong, and will do the same this year.

And I think the decision will be mutual.

Business of Football: The End of Green Bay’s Rodgers Era Is Near

Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has been planning for life after Aaron Rodgers for a while now. Will the vision be realized this offseason?

Mark Hoffman/USA Today Network

Packers’ true feelings?

The Packers are saying they want Aaron back. What else are they going to say? But it leaves open so many other questions. How long do they want to commit to Aaron? Do they want to delay the transition to Jordan Love another year? Another two years? If Aaron came back, it would be a repeat of the past two years, with the MVP leading them as a Super Bowl contender while keeping the seat warm for Love. Again, Love is going to play; the only question is when.

There are many parallels between this situation and what we dealt with 15 years ago. It’s like déjà vu.

In years prior to 2008, amid constant rumors of Brett Favre’s retirement, we would essentially beg and plead for Brett to return, with trips to Mississippi, allowances for missing offseason participation, etc. Come 2008, the tone changed to “We’ll let Brett decide.” And, of course, Brett retired, only to return later to set up a messy divorce.

Last year, there were trips to plead for Aaron’s return from the coach, general manager and president. There were team concessions to allow Aaron to miss the offseason, to acquire his best friend Randall Cobb, to adjust his contract for a 2023 exit and to mutually determine what happens in ’22. Things now seem somewhat different, as they were with Brett at the end.

Much will be made of the Packers’ cap issues, but as someone who managed that cap for a decade: ignore it. The Packers have always had 1) solid and prudent cap management and; 2) a plentiful supply of cheap and fixed rookie contracts on the roster. Cap issues will not be a reason that they keep or move on from Aaron. Coaches are hired to coach, general managers to acquire talent and cap managers to make sure the cap does not impede the other two areas. The Packers have known about their cap issues for months; they’ve had a plan. As we did when I was there, they’ll figure out that part.

Time for a Change

Sometimes in life, you just know. It’s hard to describe, it’s hard to articulate, it’s hard to give reasons that make sense to anyone or everyone. But there are times when you just know that, well, it’s time or a change. And that seems the case with Aaron and the Packers.

Mike Holmgren was in Green Bay for seven years. Ron Wolf, who hired me, was in Green Bay for nine years. They both knew, as I did, that it was time for a change.

I enjoyed my nine years with the team and have fond memories of living in Green Bay. But I was never going to be a “lifer” with the Packers or any other team; my life interests were bigger than the myopic world of working for a team. I had had enough of working for the Packers and, candidly, the Packers had probably had enough of me working for them.

With Aaron and the Packers, it’s been an extraordinary run. I know the “only one Super Bowl” narrative but again, this is not tennis or golf—it is a team sport. Packers fans are blessed to have had him this long, and I know he feels blessed to have been the face of this iconic franchise. But I continue to think it’s time for a change.

A trade seems mostly likely, as I have been predicting for two years, and a lot of dots connect to Denver, a rumored destination for Aaron for a year. The Broncos 1) just hired Aaron’s favorite coach on the Packers’ coaching staff as their head coach; 2) have ample tradable assets, including an extra second- and third-round pick they stole from the Rams for pending free agent Von Miller, and 3) are about to be put on the market for a record-setting sale. Aaron, of course, would have to agree to where he is being sent and my sense is that Denver would be a preferred destination.

I would also not be surprised if Aaron retires. He has been so nostalgic and retrospective this year that it is certainly an option. He has talked openly about “hanging on too long” and, as everyone knows all too well, sees himself as a lot more than a football player.

Whether through trade or retirement, I continue to believe that the expiration date between Aaron Rodgers and the Packers is coming in the next month.

Change is hard, but change is good. Aaron will be fine, the NFL will be fine and Packers fans will be fine. As Brad Pitt said as Billy Beane in the movie Moneyball, “Adapt or die.” Onward.

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