Last week, reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers rattled the NFL when his disillusionment with the Green Bay Packers, which had led him to tell team officials he wanted out of the organization, became public hours before the draft. Rodgers had been the center of the Packers’ universe for 13 seasons, a Super Bowl champion who had taken them to 26 regular season wins and two NFC championship game appearances over the past two seasons. Having ruffled Rodgers primarily with the selection of heir apparent Jordan Love in last year’s first round, the Packers find themselves in a staredown with a franchise icon.
Even before Rodgers’s ire surfaced, quarterbacking discontent defined the NFL offseason. The Philadelphia Eagles traded Carson Wentz after a season in which he was benched and reportedly stopped speaking with former coach Doug Pederson. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson challenged his front office to better protect him, and his agent publicly shared a list of teams to which he would accept a trade. Before copious civil suits alleging sexual harassment and assault clouded his future, Deshaun Watson demanded a trade from the Houston Texans because he believed Texans ownership didn’t listen to his input on key hires after vowing it would.
Star players have grown more strident in dictating their situations, and in some cases teams have stumbled in response.
“It’s bizarre what’s been going on,” former New York Giants personnel executive Marc Ross said. “Number one, [the quarterbacks are] just being more vocal about it. You really hadn’t seen that before. I just don’t understand it from a team standpoint. You can’t bend over backwards from a team standpoint, and you can’t do everything they say. But there are situations going on now that could have been avoided.”
The NFL’s star quarterbacks watched in 2020 as Tom Brady left New England in free agency after several years of the Patriots declining to extend him the long-term contract he sought, then led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl victory. The Buccaneers surrounded Brady with a wickedly talented roster, including some players Brady pushed them to sign. Coach Bruce Arians pointedly remarked that unlike Patriots Coach Bill Belichick, he let Brady serve as a de facto coach during practice.
The Buccaneers’ ability to recruit and mollify Brady while winning a championship illustrated a new line teams may have to straddle. They have to placate their quarterback without sacrificing their team-building vision, and they have to make hard decisions without upsetting their quarterback.
“As an advocate for players, there’s a part of me that always wants to stand up for players,” said one prominent agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But as someone who loves football, this is ridiculous what’s going on. We got a bunch of big damn babies.”
Referencing the release of reserve wide receiver Jake Kumerow last year, which reportedly angered Rodgers, the agent added, “They cut your buddy, and now you’re going to pout about it?”
Even still, the agent acknowledged the reality: Teams must cater to their star quarterback to stave off controversy.
“I don’t know if they owe it to him, but it is 2021,” the agent said. “We’re in an era where social media has given us instant information. It’s a different time. Teams that are living in the old way of doing things are going to alienate players. You have to communicate, especially with a franchise quarterback.”
Peter Cappelli, the director of the Center for Human Resources at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, studies and teaches how to manage talent. The nature of football and the structure of NFL organizations are not analogous to the business world, but many concepts of managing employees are universal.
“There’s an art to giving people the perception of influence without giving them control,” Cappelli said. “Some of that is when you take their advice, let them know you took their advice. Which is a simple thing, but it matters. In the world of sports, the coaches are not always the most modest people in the world, either. You’ve got big egos on both sides. Both of them want respect and recognition from the other.”
Elaine Farndale, associate director of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State, said employers and employees enter into two contracts. There is the financial contract, which is straightforward, and there is the psychological contract, an unwritten pact.
“It’s what you expect in a workplace,” Farndale said. “You expect to be treated fairly, not have tasks dumped on you, not to be asked to perform tasks completely out of your skill range.”
Cracks in the psychological contract form when each side has separate expectations, and it is easy to see how that could happen in today’s NFL. Before his recent turmoil, Watson may have looked around the league — or to the NBA — and seen other star players have an influence on their franchise’s power structure. NFL owners are likely to view their teams as theirs to control in full and may not understand the influence quarterbacks possess in public perception.
“The star has a lot more power in the relationship,” Farndale said. “… They can kind of use that psychological contract more in order to try to force the hand of their employer.”
Ross recalled that the Giants “bent over backwards, almost too much” to make sure Eli Manning — far from a high-maintenance quarterback — felt “wanted and needed.” After Manning’s bad games, Coach Tom Coughlin would publicly accept blame. Ownership frequently spoke with Manning, keeping him in the loop on crucial decisions.
“It wasn’t as if we’re going to do whatever he wants,” Ross said. The trick was “making him feel a part of things even though he wasn’t making decisions.”
The key was simple: “Communicate,” Ross said. “Just communicate.”
The Packers seem to have failed with Rodgers in that fundamental job. Rodgers’s ire reportedly boiled over not only because the Packers chose Love last season but because they never told him they would even consider taking his eventual replacement, let alone trade up to do it in the first round. Rodgers reportedly believed the Packers and General Manager Brian Gutekunst plotted to move on from him after the 2020 season, a thought the Packers invited — even if it wasn’t true — by not communicating.
“If you’re going to make a decision that has an adverse impact on somebody, they shouldn’t hear it from the press,” Cappelli said. “You should explain why. We know from all employees, when you don’t tell people why you’re doing something, they make up an explanation. They attribute. And the explanation is almost always worse than the reality.”
Rodgers had lived through the scenario on the other side. The Packers drafted him in 2005 as a successor with Brett Favre still in his late prime. He should understand as well as anyone the importance of the quarterback position and how it demands the Packers plan for a post-Rodgers future. But dropping Rodgers into an awkward situation without warning was a mistake.
“That is an example of a broken psychology contract,” Farndale said. “It’s all related to trust.”
“I do think the Packers have not shown the level of compassion and care that they should for such a superstar,” Andrew Brandt, a former Packers executive who was there when the team drafted Rodgers, said in a video he posted to social media. “And that’s what you do in this game. You cater to your superstars that drive the product. They did that with Brett Favre, and they should be doing that with Aaron. I think they are to an extent but maybe not to the level that was needed.”
During the 2017 draft, the New Orleans Saints held the 11th pick. As that choice approached, the two prospects they coveted remained on the board: cornerback Marshon Lattimore and quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Taking Mahomes would provide them Drew Brees’s heir apparent, but Brees was still playing at a high level and was the clear leader of the franchise.
After the ninth pick, Coach Sean Payton invited Brees, who happened to be at the team’s facility, into the draft room and told Brees the Saints would consider taking Mahomes if he remained available.
“Drew was great,” Payton told Nola.com in 2018. “It didn’t faze him a bit. He always thinks of the team first.”
The Saints did not have to navigate quarterback coexistence — the Kansas City Chiefs traded up to take Mahomes 10th, and the Saints took Lattimore, who has become a top cornerback. Two years later, a reporter asked Brees whether he would have been okay with Mahomes as his understudy.
“Yeah,” Brees replied. “As long as he’s okay to sit for a few years.”
After the first round this year, hours after Rodgers’s unhappiness surfaced, Gutekunst acknowledged he should have been more open with Rodgers.
“Certainly it’s something you think about,” Gutekunst said during a news conference via Zoom. “I certainly look back to last year’s draft, and maybe some of the communication issues, we could have done better. There’s no doubt about it. The draft is an interesting thing. It can unfold differently than you think it’s going to unfold, and it happens pretty fast. But certainly looking back on it, there could have been some communication things we did better.”
Gutekunst, along with Packers President Mark Murphy and Coach Matt LaFleur, has been adamant the Packers will not trade Rodgers. It will presumably be primarily his decision to make but maybe not if Rodgers has his say. According to a Yahoo Sports report, Rodgers would consider playing for the Packers if they removed Gutekunst. Listening to Rodgers in that case may cross the line of what it takes to cater to a star quarterback.
“It’d be irresponsible for them to fire him,” Ross said. “You just can’t have a player coming in there and saying, ‘Fire people.’ I just can’t see that.”
Ross expects Rodgers will ultimately return to the Packers. He said he believes that the Packers’ front office will be more vigilant in its communication with Rodgers, and that Rodgers lacks the contractual power to extricate himself without forfeiting millions of dollars. Quarterbacks, like all NFL players, lack contractual leverage. But they have enough power to get what they want.
“It’s just a new era of athletes,” Ross said. “They realized their power. Unfortunately for NFL players, they don’t have a lot of leverage like NBA guys. I guess this is the way of having leverage — being more public about it.”