Down the stretch last season in the Aaron Rodgers vs. Tom Brady MVP race, the debate became a quintessential measure of success in the face of perceived weakness.
Rodgers’ best argument for MVP was that when you looked at Brady’s surrounding pass-catching pieces and offensive line, the collections were far better than anything Rodgers had in Green Bay. One NFC head coach put a finer point on it, labeling the assortment of Rodgers’ wideouts and tight ends “one great player and a bunch of guys.”
“Look at what he’s working with,” the coach said. “He’s elevating everything.”
Roughly 10 months since that conversation, elevating has been transformed into excoriating. That is, if you could accurately read the lips of the Packers quarterback during Sunday’s stunning 15-9 loss to the Detroit Lions. Arguably no other defeat in Rodgers’ career featured such a demonstrative display of anger and frustration. And rightly so, given that this looked more like Green Bay bottoming out on the floor of the Mariana Trench than just losing to a bad team.
In a postgame news conference that was strung together by sighs and painful pauses, Rodgers sounded close to defeated, even in the moments he was trying to project something positive.
“I had some sh**** throws for sure,” he said. “… Yeah, pretty disappointed. Uh, that about sums it up. Just disappointed.”
“This is a lot of life lessons, for sure, this year. But luckily it’s not over. There’s still a lot of games left.”
Frankly, I don’t know how many would count the Packers lucky when they see the remaining schedule. Especially after watching the loss to Detroit, which was exponentially worse than getting “exposed” by the Buffalo Bills just one week earlier. At the very least, it was a clarifying defeat for some speculated theories about this team. Now? Some of the theories are falling into the “accepted facts” column.
Should Rodgers, Packers have parted ways before 2022 season?
First, the “great player” that the NFC coach was referring to, Davante Adams, was holding it all together for Rodgers more than we understood over the past several seasons. Second, whether it’s out of frustration or unfathomable decline from last season’s MVP perfection, Rodgers is making significant on-field mistakes. Third, none of this seems like it’s going to get much better with a remaining slate that has five potential playoff teams in eight games.
Finally, let’s just call last offseason for what it was: A mistake.
If there was no way of keeping Adams in the fold on this team, there was no sense in doing a massive extension with Rodgers, either. Hindsight isn’t a great measure for NFL teams, but it’s a remarkable vehicle for accepting the current state of affairs. And for the Packers, reality looks like this:
Rodgers should have been traded rather than re-signed to the massive extension. Or if it was truly his wish, he should have retired once he knew Adams was heading out the door. Either option would have been better than what he coined on Sunday as “frustration” but not “misery.” He’s right about that distinction. All of this right now — this is frustration. But when the season ends and Rodgers is sitting there staring at another failed year with no easy fix in sight, that will be misery.
It all brings us back to last offseason, a time when Rodgers could have been traded to the Denver Broncos for a package similar to what that franchise gave up for Russell Wilson. All it would have taken is Rodgers meeting with Green Bay’s front office and telling the Packers he believed it was time for a change the week after the team’s playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Jan. 22.
Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Had Rodgers pushed for it, that trade would have come together and this entire timeline of Green Bay’s future would look far different than it does now.
With that in mind, the Packers and Rodgers have to look one more time at whether some kind of fresh start for both can still be salvaged from last offseason’s mistake. Whether this season is spun as a culmination of surrounding injuries and inexperience that pushed Rodgers’ play off a cliff or just a disagreement on the scheme, the play here is for Green Bay to try and get something out of this flickering relationship while it still can. And the play for Rodgers is to shape up how he wants to end his career.
What a 2023 divorce could look like
Some will laugh at that suggestion, but this is the NFL. There will be interest. Not only that, some franchises might even appear to be one veteran quarterback away from something special in 2023. There’s always a buyer for a player who was a back-to-back league MVP only one season ago. More than one. There’s nothing stopping Rodgers from taking the Tom Brady year-to-year approach. Particularly if it’s the right franchise with an ideal set of surrounding talent in need of a quarterback to turn the key.
Yes, his contract would seem to be a problem. Yet it’s not untradable. Rodgers can be dealt prior to June 1 and the Packers would eat a nasty $40.3 million dead salary-cap charge in 2023 and then be done with it for good. Or they could trade him after June 1 and divide the dead charge to a manageable $15.8 million in 2023 and $24.48 million in 2024. While eating that dead cap isn’t an enticing option, it kickstarts a process that avoids doing a patch job in 2023 and hoping Rodgers somehow has one last flourish left. Maybe even a very unlikely Super Bowl flourish.
But consider the flip side. Green Bay’s 3-6 record this season could put the team either directly in play for one of the better first-round quarterbacks in what is considered to be a strong class in the 2023 NFL draft. Or it at the very least could put the Packers into striking distance for trading up in the draft for one of the better quarterbacks if that’s a priority. If developing the young receivers is going to be the goal — which is what it looks like given the lack of a deal at the trade deadline — then why not start grooming those players with the quarterback who is going to be around in 2024 and beyond?
That’s what the Packers and Rodgers need to grapple with now. They need to look at 2023 and ask what's the point of doing this one more year. Is the Super Bowl in reach with this current roster? If not, what significant steps need to be taken for that to happen? Is there money and draft capital to make dramatic difference-making additions?
It doesn’t feel like that right now. If anything, it feels like this is the regression that everyone hoped wouldn’t happen when Adams left. But it did. And now last offseason can be seen for the mistake it was. It turns out the whole “Last Dance” thing probably should have applied to everyone involved.
It still can. Even if it’s one year too late.