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Aaron Rodgers is back where he wants to be: In the middle of the drama

Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers lost their finale to the Detroit Lions, missing the playoffs entirely. (Morry Gash/AP)
7 min

Green Bay is again the NFL’s epicenter of offseason drama, turmoil and palace intrigue. Another Packers season ended sooner than expected — without so much as a playoff berth in the lackluster NFC to show for it — and Aaron Rodgers, the Packers’ unquestioned leader in passive aggressive performative arts, is at it again, only bereft of any MVP votes to his name this time around.

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Not an hour had passed since the Lions shattered the Packers’ playoffs hopes Sunday night, and already Rodgers was oscillating about his future, this after consecutive offseasons of warring with Green Bay’s front office and hinting at retirement only to sign a record three-year, $150 million contract 10 months ago. Somehow, the future of this iconic organization again teeters on the whims of its 39-year-old quarterback, whose contract’s largesse, language and unique structure give him all the leverage over whether he plays and for whom he does it. Many NFL executives believe Rodgers ultimately will angle for a trade, with the Packers’ roster no longer special, several of his closest allies in the locker room probably moving on and the Green Bay brass desperate to get a look at 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love after Rodgers completed his worst season since he became a full-time starter in 2008 (when Love was 9).

“He holds all the cards with the contract,” said one NFL executive, whose team will be in the quarterback market this offseason and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not permitted to publicly discuss players under contract to other teams. “I think he wants out, and I think he wants to show them he can still play somewhere else,” the executive said. “They would give him away now just to get out of that contract and play Love. They wouldn’t get much for him.”

One NFL general manager, under similar restrictions, said: “He’s going to try to do what [Tom] Brady did [when he left New England] and get where he thinks he can win a Super Bowl right away. But he looks old to me. I think he’s done.”

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Rodgers — who ranked 16th in passer rating, 23rd in yards per attempt, 20th in completion percentage and 14th in touchdown-to-interception rate this season — pocketed $42 million along the way, the fifth-most cash earned in the league, according to Spotrac. He is due a staggering $59.5 million fully guaranteed in 2023 — nearly $20 million more than MVP favorite Patrick Mahomes. By avoiding taking his upfront money via a traditional signing bonus, opting for huge roster and option bonuses instead, Rodgers could retire without having to pay back anything, and he would make $49 million under this deal if he’s still playing in 2024. He carries an impossible $100 million dead cap hit in 2023, so he would have to agree to massage the contract to consummate a trade, meaning Rodgers can call his shot and also play the retirement card should the Packers want him back.

“It’s essentially three one-year deals,” one longtime NFL contract negotiator said, “and he has total control of what he wants to do every year. And they can’t really do anything about it.”

Based on his age and 2022 performance — and the fact that he seemed to hit a wall in the postseason the previous two years — what is Rodgers actually worth? “You’d have to be crazy to pay him more than $20 million,” the executive said. The general manager posited his worth at $20 million to $25 million, “with significant playoff incentives” for postseason wins. That’s a far cry from $60 million. On the other hand, one agent who has done many high-end quarterback contracts suggested those numbers seemed low. “He’d still do okay in this quarterback market but nowhere near what he got a year ago,” the agent said.

Even with at least half the league either in dire need of a quarterback or with at least one eye on a potential upgrade, it will be difficult for the Packers to force much compensation in return if Rodgers is dealt. His already poor statistical season actually got worse down the stretch, he has become accustomed to dictating personnel decisions to the front office, and he carries what might be the second-worst contract in the NFL. (Deshaun Watson is firmly entrenched at No. 1.)

While Rodgers was crowing about Green Bay’s four-game late-season winning streak — after a horrendous 4-8 start — he didn’t really have all that much to do with it besides at best managing games. Over Green Bay’s final five games — and despite benefiting from a Week 14 bye — Rodgers ranked 20th in passer rating at 86.3, behind Baker Mayfield and Desmond Ridder, among others. He had five passing touchdowns to three interceptions in that span, ranking 16th in yards per attempt and completion percentage. Do we really think a young, mobile Love couldn’t have been as pedestrian — at a fraction of the cost?

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The Packers weren’t leaning on their $50 million passer in their last-ditch playoff push; a revamped defensive scheme and the running game carried them, until they didn’t. Over those final five games, Green Bay ran the ball 30.6 times per game — ninth most — and also threw it 30.6 times per game (21st). This despite facing five teams with suspect passing defenses during that stretch: the Chicago Bears, Los Angeles Rams, Miami Dolphins, Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions.

Green Bay needs to start reconfiguring its offensive line, and this feels very much like a team in need of a youthful turn, but the aged quarterback will dictate the pace and direction of another pivotal offseason. Oh, yeah, and a decision on Love’s fifth-year option looms as well, and the Packers still have not gotten a sustained look at him. (The fool’s gold of that late-season run ruined any chance of that, though many rival executives espoused benching a beat-up and ineffective Rodgers when Green Bay was 4-8).

The dirty little secret of this Packers plight is that, if team officials had not told all-pro wide receiver Davante Adams a few years ago that they needed to put his contract talks on hold until they had clarity from Rodgers about his future, they could have kept them both, according to several individuals with knowledge of those negotiations. It was officials’ dismissive handling of Adams then that led him to vow not to return to Green Bay last March, when the Packers did have a massive offer on the table. Adams wanted a trade to Las Vegas as Rodgers cashed in again. For all this roster’s faults, it probably would have been playoff caliber with Adams.

“I kind of feel bad for Gutey,” the GM said, referring to Green Bay GM Brian Gutekunst. “Another year of this? I can’t even imagine. He’s a really good dude, and a lot of this, I think, comes from over his head. But, man, they let [Rodgers] box them in again.”

He might not be a franchise quarterback any longer, but nobody puts Aaron Rodgers in a corner. As the Mayor of Tumult-town, he is undefeated.