INDIANAPOLIS — Mark Murphy strode hurriedly through an indoor walkway last Friday evening, fleeing a downtown mall that has seen better days.
In the midst of an NFL scouting combine replete with intrigue surrounding the sport’s preeminent position, the Green Bay Packers’ president and CEO was reminded that the current uncertainty surrounding the future of Aaron Rodgers — a sure-fire, first-ballot Hall of Famer who may be on his way out of Titletown — bore some striking similarities to the Brett Favre Saga, aka the “Summer of Favre,” in 2008.
“Yeah,” Murphy said, without breaking stride. “Some things never change.”
Fifteen years ago, the Packers traded Favre to the New York Jets because they had tired of the constant drama surrounding his football future (Would he or wouldn’t he retire?) and repeated attempts to influence organizational decisions. They rolled with Rodgers, a first-round pick in the 2005 draft who’d spent three years as Favre’s understudy — even after the living legend abruptly ended his months-long retirement and reported to training camp, claiming he wanted his starting job back.
Now, having entered a third consecutive offseason of Rodgers contemplating retirement or relocation while attempting to impose his will on player-acquisition strategy, the Packers appear to be ready to hand things over to Jordan Love. This is not so much because they can believe Love can continue their unprecedented three-plus-decade streak of first-ballot Hall of Fame quarterbacking — though coaches say the 2020 first-round pick has greatly improved from his choppy first two NFL seasons.
More significantly, the Packers are exhausted by the combination of Rodgers’ high-maintenance persona and what they perceive to have been his low-commitment leadership over the past 12 months.
As one high-level Packers source put it to me recently, the days of begging Rodgers to return on his terms — which was essentially the organization’s approach during each of the previous two offseasons — are over. If the 39-year-old quarterback tells his bosses that he wants to return and commit to a single-minded quest for a second championship, they’d be receptive. Anything short of that, however, would leave them less than enthused.
That explains general manager Brian Gutekunst’s much-dissected comment during his combine press conference last Tuesday about “making sure that it’s the right fit” before determining Rodgers’ future with the franchise.
The Packers believe that Rodgers somewhat checked out on them after signing a three-year, $150.8 million contract extension last March, ending weeks’ worth of uncertainty about his future. Two days later, Green Bay traded star receiver Davante Adams, who was approaching unrestricted free agency, to the Las Vegas Raiders. The Packers ended up drafting three receivers and signing veteran free agent Sammy Watkins.
Rodgers, however, skipped the Packers’ voluntary offseason program — not the first time he’d done so, but still a rarity for a franchise quarterback. Whereas the Kansas City Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes made a point of hosting his receivers for informal throwing sessions in Texas before OTAs, Rodgers elected not to do so, interacting with his new targets only at a mandatory minicamp.
Not surprisingly, the Packers started the 2022 season slowly, with Rodgers struggling to develop chemistry with his new receivers — and often appearing visibly frustrated by the rookies. It was almost worse that Rodgers seemed to turn it on down the stretch, leading Green Bay to four consecutive victories with its season on the line before losing to the Detroit Lions on the final Sunday of the regular season, a defeat that cost the Packers a playoff berth.
Some of Rodgers’ bosses felt that the late run proved their point — that had the quarterback been so invested from the get-go, the season would have proceeded far differently.
Rodgers, having emerged from his darkness retreat, is expected to confer with Gutekunst before the start of the league year (March 15). I suppose it’s possible that he’ll tell the GM he’s “all in” and will spend every waking hour chasing another Super Bowl, and that Rodgers will be welcomed back eagerly.
My instincts tell me that a breakup is far more likely, whether it’s Rodgers forcing the issue (he has previously said he does not want to be part of a rebuilding effort) or the Packers essentially telling him, “You don’t really seem that into it. Let’s move on.”
After that, it gets complicated.
Rodgers, if he’s leaving, will likely have a strong preference about which team he’ll join. The Packers, of course, will have preferences of their own — as they did when Favre desperately wanted to join the Minnesota Vikings 15 years ago but was instead traded to the Jets. And it’s still unclear how many teams are gung-ho about trading for Rodgers — and paying him at that salary-cap-gobbling price — despite the fact that he won consecutive MVPs in 2020 and ’21.
Let’s start with the likely suitors. High-level sources at the Raiders and San Francisco 49ers, two teams who’ve been mentioned as potential trade options, have told me that making a run at him is highly unlikely. It’s possible that Raiders owner Mark Davis would spearhead a push for the quarterback, with general manager Dave Ziegler likely feeling out the Packers to see what a deal would look like, but at this point, Rodgers coming to Las Vegas feels like a long shot.
The Jets — who recently hosted a free-agent visit with Derek Carr after he was released by the Raiders last month — have a high level of interest in Rodgers. With a talented team hamstrung by poor quarterback play and a third-year head coach (Robert Saleh) under pressure to win now, the Jets bringing Rodgers to Florham Park makes a lot of sense.
Even if all parties concerned are up for that — the Jets, the Packers and Rodgers — it would still require some haggling.
Because Rodgers has a fully guaranteed option bonus of $58.3 million, one which must be exercised between March 17 and Week 1 of the regular season, he has a lot of power in the equation. If the Packers want to move on without him, they may be so motivated to get that contract off the books that they’d trade him for less compensation than it takes to acquire the typical star quarterback — perhaps not even a first-round draft pick. It’s also possible that Green Bay could increase its haul by agreeing to pay part of Rodgers’ 2023 salary.
Rodgers’ leverage also means he could push the Packers to trade him to a team they’d prefer he not play for, such as an NFC rival.
All of this, of course, increases the potential for a staredown. That’s not ideal, given that the league year starts a week from Wednesday and teams are seeking clarity before jumping into free agency and making trades.
“I feel like the whole league is in limbo,” 49ers general manager John Lynch told me last Friday. “Everybody is waiting for the first domino to fall.”
There are many other dominos, too.
Carr, coming off his fourth Pro Bowl appearance in nine seasons as the Raiders’ starter, has interest from the Jets, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers, with other suitors possibly to emerge. Former Niners starter Jimmy Garoppolo, an unrestricted free agent, is seeking a mid-to-high-level starter’s contract, with the Houston Texans regarded as the likeliest destination among a group of interested teams including the Raiders and Panthers.
The 49ers — depending upon the outcome of incumbent starter Brock Purdy’s elbow surgery, which is scheduled for Wednesday — will be seeking a veteran to pair with 2021 first-round pick Trey Lance. Matt Ryan, Jacoby Brissett and Andy Dalton are among those being considered.
If Purdy’s procedure to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament ends up knocking him out for most or all of the 2023 season, I’d expect the Niners to place a call to Tom Brady to see if there’s any chance they could convince him to end his retirement and play a final season with his hometown team. Given that there are four quarterbacks — Alabama’s Bryce Young, Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud, Florida’s Anthony Richardson and Kentucky’s Will Levis — projected as first-round picks in the upcoming draft, the league-wide QB drama should continue at least until late April and possibly beyond.
There’s also another potentially explosive situation brewing in Baltimore, where the disconnect between the Ravens and franchise quarterback Lamar Jackson has grown deeper.
Jackson, who acts as his own agent, has played out his five-year rookie deal. The Ravens can retain the rights to the 2019 MVP by applying the franchise tag. If they use the exclusive franchise tag, they would have full control of his rights. The non-exclusive tag (which would cost roughly $32 million vs. $45 million for the exclusive tag) would allow Jackson to negotiate a contract with another team. The Ravens could then elect to match or allow him to leave while receiving two first-round picks in return.
Things have been strained between the Ravens and Jackson for months. In early December, Jackson suffered a sprained knee, and coach John Harbaugh characterized the injury as “week to week.” Jackson never made it back to the field, remaining sidelined as the Ravens lost a first-round playoff game to the Cincinnati Bengals in mid-January.
As I wrote at the time, the Ravens basically f’d around and found out.
The tension between the organization and its star quarterback has permeated the locker room, and that brewing distrust was exposed last week, in a manner that did not flatter the team.
During his podium appearance at the combine last Wednesday, Baltimore general manager Eric DeCosta was asked about the team’s struggles at the wide receiver position. “If I had an answer,” he said, “that would probably mean I would have some better receivers.”
One incumbent Ravens receiver, Rashod Bateman, did not take that comment well, firing back with a since-deleted social media message that referenced the organization’s rift with Jackson: “How bout you play to your player’s strength and & stop pointing the finger at us and #8 (Jackson) … tired of y’all lyin and capn on players for no reason.”
It's tough to imagine Jackson not possessing similar feelings.
Keep an eye on this: If the divide continues — or worsens — the 26-year-old quarterback could absolutely try to force his way out by requesting a trade. To be sure, trade talk was rampant at the combine. According to my sources — all of them current general managers — Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry, Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey and Arizona Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins are among the players who’ve been shopped in recent days.
So yeah, there’s a lot going on, and much of it will be resolved by the end of next week.
Rodgers’ situation, presumably, could be settled by then. However, given all the potential complications and leverage points, there’s another scenario — broached recently by ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio — that could extend the saga into the summer.
If Rodgers decided to retire before March 17 (when the window opens for his fully guaranteed, $58.3 million option bonus to be exercised) and then unretired before the start of the regular season, the cap-strapped Packers would have a problem. They’d either have to pay him the bonus or owe that same amount in base salary for 2023 (upping his total pay to $59.465 million) and would have to get into cap compliance by the end of that day. If not, the Packers would have to trade Rodgers under duress — likely to the team of his choice — or cut him. Rodgers’ new team could then spread out the cap hit over four seasons by exercising the option bonus.
Again, it’s complicated, but just know that these situations are all about leverage, and this would be one way for Rodgers to exert his. Ideally, for all parties — and for other NFL teams waiting for dominos to fall — it won’t come to that.
If it does? Well, as Murphy is acutely aware, history has a way of repeating in Titletown. And if nothing else, the Summer of Rodgers would be highly entertaining.