For the first time in the Matt LaFleur era, the Green Bay Packers enter the bye week with topics of interest circulating around next season instead of a push to the postseason in the present year.
Sure, the Packers aren’t mathematically eliminated at 5-8, but having odds of 4% to make the postseason doesn’t exactly scream optimism.
Instead of dialogue consisting of a playoff run, head coach Matt LaFleur and general manager Brian Gutekunst on Monday were peppered with questions about the quarterback position. While most of their answers were obvious, it doesn’t mean everything is concrete entering 2023 at that position for the Packers.
When Green Bay forked over a massive extension (three years, $150 million) to quarterback Aaron Rodgers this past offseason, Gutekunst and the rest of the brain trust at 1265 Lombardi Ave. were under the assumption that the championship window was still open.
After back-to-back years of being the top seed in the NFC -- although exiting before appearing in the Super Bowl -- it was natural for the front office to assume in 2022 they’d be right back in the mix even with the loss of superstar wide receiver Davante Adams.
What has happened instead has been a harsh wakeup call across the board that brings about plenty of unknowns and uncertainty.
On defense, it’s hard to make a case that any player from last year’s unit on Joe Barry’s side of the ball has made an improvement this year.
On offense, Green Bay ranks No. 21 in turnover differential, which would be its lowest mark since 2004, and the 17 turnovers on offense are already the most in any season under LaFleur.
Gutekunst and LaFleur said all the right things Monday with both mentioning, without hesitation, that if Rodgers wants to return in 2023, they absolutely will want him back.
It could be that simple, in fact, some will claim that it is.
Rodgers hasn’t posted his usual numbers this year coming off back-to-back MVP campaigns, but his play alone isn’t the only factor, far from it.
There’s clearly gas left in the tank if Rodgers wants to continue to play, that isn’t the issue either.
The concern is that Green Bay committed a large chunk of the salary cap for the next three seasons to a now 39-year-old quarterback and had the championship door closed abruptly without any proper warning and they never saw it coming.
At the moment, Green Bay is expected to be in the negative for effective cap space entering next offseason and the gymnastics the Packers have to do to get in the green would consist of potential cap casualties to key players like left tackle David Bakhtiari, running back Aaron Jones and outside linebacker Preston Smith. In other words, Green Bay won’t be able to add to the roster in a major way or in any way unless it cuts ties with names that it needs to compete. That’s not exactly great news for a team sitting at 5-8 with an aging quarterback who doesn’t have many years left and wants to win another ring or at least be competing for one.
One option would be retirement for No. 12. Rodgers has flirted with calling it a career the last two years and the genuine nature of those thoughts are ones that only the quarterback can answer.
Will Rodgers seriously consider retirement again knowing that it will leave over $55 million on the table for him if he walks away? Money isn’t everything, but it does talk and that’s a lot of money.
All of this would be brushed to the side and would be far easier to navigate for Gutekunst and the front office if not for the Jordan Love factor.
Love, the backup quarterback and former first-round pick, has a fifth-year option for 2024 that the Packers need to decide on by May.
The sample size has been tiny for Green Bay’s 2020 first-round selection but in limited action this year in relief of an injured Rodgers, Love was dialed in against Philadelphia. He showed composure, maturity, and delivered some beautiful throws that opened plenty of eyes.
Was that alone, mixed with what the Packers have seen in practice, enough to convince Gutekunst to pick up the option?
It sure sounded like it Monday.
“I think that it would be really good for him (to play in games), the growth that you need to go through, seeing things for the first time, making those mistakes that you need to make,” Gutekunst said. “But I think from our end of it, we’ve seen what we need to see.”
Where this all gets messy is if Rodgers is to return in 2023 and the Packers pick up Love’s option.
Love was asked recently if he would be alright with sitting again in 2023 – that’d be four straight years riding the pine -- if Rodgers returns. The backup quarterback said that’s something he and his agent would have to discuss.
Who can blame him if he wanted out?
This isn’t a quarterback the Packers took a flier on late in a draft with minimal expectations. They traded up to select Love.
A fifth-year option would come at a cost of around $20 million. Does Green Bay, or any team for that matter, want to be paying its backup quarterback $20 million to hold a clipboard?
When the Packers replaced Rodgers with Brett Favre in 2008 there was drama and chaos but at the end of the day, Favre had decided to retire before digging his own grave and changing his mind.
Then-head coach Mike McCarthy uttered the famous line, “The train has left the station,” in reference to Favre retiring then waffling about a return and not being receptive to the idea of having to compete with Rodgers for the starting gig if he wanted to return to Green Bay.
Imagine if the Packers had rolled out the red carpet for Favre and kicked Rodgers to the curb and sent him elsewhere. It would’ve been an easy choice for then-general manager Ted Thompson but as we’ve all come to learn, it would not have been the right choice.
This isn’t to suggest Love will be the next Rodgers and the mere thought of the Packers hitting the jackpot again at quarterback seems unfathomable, but it’s not impossible.
Love has sat behind Rodgers for three years and by all accounts has soaked up plenty of information. It’s more than understandable for him to want his shot next year, wherever that may be.
The doomsday scenario for the Packers would be Rodgers coming back to finish out his contract while Green Bay remains in salary-cap hell, unable to put a proper product around its legendary quarterback. The Packers run out the clock and live in mediocrity with this reality while sending Love elsewhere where he flourishes.
Nobody can blame Rodgers if the competitive drive is still burning and how the heck would the Packers say no to him wanting to return? This is Aaron bleeping Rodgers.
The flip side shows Love, who appears to have taken steps forward and is champing at the bit for a chance to display what he can do. Nobody can blame Love if he wants out in 2023 if Rodgers is back.
The easiest answer in the world would be for the Packers to welcome back Rodgers with open arms like they could’ve with Favre in 2008 with an unproven Rodgers sitting and waiting. The easy answer in this puzzle doesn’t mean it’s the right choice.
It could be in the best interest of both parties to go their separate ways after this season, but for how often Rodgers talks about legacy and history, it’s likely he wants to retire having only played in one uniform.
It was just last June when Rodgers said he’s “definitely” retiring a Packer, before smiling and saying, “Unless they trade me.”
How relevant that quote could become after this season is to be determined.
Gutekunst and LaFleur said all the right things Monday revolving around the quarterback position moving ahead. They checked the boxes saying yes to a Rodgers return in 2023 while Gutekunst also showered some praise on Love.
For now, the answers to the riddle are easy. Check back this offseason after Green Bay misses the playoffs and realizes its window with Rodgers and what they can (or in this case can’t) put around him won’t suffice or even come close to it. That’s when the future of the quarterback position for the Packers will become a burning topic.
But wouldn’t it be something if Green Bay prepared Love to play in the final four games after the bye?