GREEN BAY - Over the years, their conversations turned to planning. Aaron Rodgers and Jordy Nelson, having started their journey together back in 2008, having grown old(er) with the Green Bay Packers, wanted to finish their careers in the same place.
No, it was never guaranteed. Rodgers has seen friends move on before. A.J. Hawk, his long-time locker neighbor, last played for the Packers in 2014. John Kuhn left for New Orleans after 2015. Nelson, it seemed, could be different. As more and more friends departed each year, he remained. In the locker room, Nelson was the last vestige of Rodgers’ early career.
So it was jarring when Rodgers learned Nelson was released. He was driving to his workout March 13 when his long-time receiver contacted him. Rodgers didn’t know what would happen later that day, that losing Nelson was the price for joining another friend, tight end Jimmy Graham. Nobody, really, could replace Nelson, the chemistry they’d established over a decade.
The disappointment – Rodgers called that day “bittersweet” – lingered more than a month, into Tuesday’s start of the Packers’ spring program.
“You lose a close friend who you had a lot of success with,” Rodgers said, “and gained another guy who you’ve been friends with.”
Whatever discontentment Rodgers felt this spring, it’s disconnected to Graham’s arrival. Rodgers knows Graham well – better than he knew Jared Cook in 2016, or Martellus Bennett last year. They met at the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, and Rodgers said he has wanted to play with his new tight end for years.
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“Seven years ago now,” Graham said of their first encounter. “He basically got into the bus and gave me the belt, and then sat down. So that was my first interaction with him. We’ve been pretty good friends ever since.
“We had been talking about this for a long time.”
The issue is over how “this” happened, and at whose expense. Back on March 13, new Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said he informed Rodgers of Nelson’s release only after the fact. There was no conversation, no warning.
“This is a professional environment,” Rodgers said, “but as humans we have personal connections to people. Obviously, he was one of my closest friends in the locker room for a number of years, and played together for a long time and talked about really finishing his career here and together, and making the most of the opportunities. The disappointment is when you get close to your teammates, and they're not here anymore – and especially when they're not here, they're playing somewhere else.
“But the organization is making decisions that they feel like are in the best interest for our team, and you've got to trust the process.”
Rodgers had already expressed dismay over his position coach’s departure. At the Super Bowl, Rodgers mentioned how he wasn’t consulted before coach Mike McCarthy allowed Alex Van Pelt’s contract to expire. It was another example of Rodgers not having input.
Rodgers’ lack of involvement in personnel decisions isn’t surprising. McCarthy opened this offseason making clear any changes on the horizon would be made free from his quarterback’s influence.
“I don’t think this is really fair to Aaron,” McCarthy said four days after the Packers' season ended in Detroit. “Players play, and coaches coach. I clearly understand where Aaron is in his career, the magnitude of what he brings to our organization. But it would be really ignorant to try to think, to put any of these changes on him. That’s not right.
“He wants what everybody wants here. He wants to win.”
Rodgers did not ask for more input Tuesday. Yet his disappointment reopens a philosophical debate: whether franchise quarterbacks should be consulted with personnel decisions, especially transactions directly affecting them. It’s a question Rodgers now faces himself, having grown comfortable in his role as face of the franchise.
In the past, Rodgers has declined to publicly hand out directives to former general manager Ted Thompson. That didn’t change Tuesday, now that Gutekunst is in charge. Rodgers said he understands his role within the Packers chain of command, even when decisions made above him are disappointing.
“They’re paying me to play quarterback to the best of my abilities,” Rodgers said, “and their job descriptions are to handle those type of things. So I think you just act accordingly in those situations.”
It’s unlikely Rodgers’ disappointment will have any tangible influence on his negotiations this offseason regarding a contract extension. Players come and go all the time in the NFL, where friendship outlasts employment. In months, if not weeks, the Packers likely will be paying Rodgers more than any NFL team has ever paid a player.
Given the historical significance – not to mention the money at stake -- it’s hard to see an extension not happening this offseason. Gutekunst has indicated he isn’t open to the type of watershed contract that would really catch attention around the league, namely a fully guaranteed contract such as Kirk Cousins signed with Minnesota, or an annually escalating deal tied to a percentage of the salary cap. Still, Rodgers’ extension could set new marks in annual average salary and total guaranteed money.
Rodgers said there’s “mutual interest” for an extension to be signed this offseason. He knows his peers are watching, hoping his new contract continues to push the standard, much as they did with Cousins’ deal. Money is one area off the field where Rodgers can still carry tremendous influence.
“That’s a conversation to be had down the line with my agent,” Rodgers said. “But ultimately, like the last time, although it was large financial numbers, it was a deal that myself and the team was happy with. It gave us the ability to do some things and made my cap number never go above an unmanageable level.
“So, obviously, I want to finish my career here. I’ve said that a number of times, and still have two years left on my deal. So we’ll see what happens this offseason."