Packers GM puts positive spin on Aaron Rodgers standoff: 'I do think he'll play for us again'
This story was updated on Jan. 18, 2022 to make it free to all readers.
GREEN BAY – Against a Green Bay Packers backdrop, general manager Brian Gutekunst could have been dressed for a funeral. He wore a black suit jacket. Black shirt. Black tie. A fitting ensemble on maybe the darkest day of his three-year tenure.
The storm clouds that had built since the NFC championship game loss three months ago – and, behind the scenes, escalated in the past six weeks – finally became a downpour Thursday afternoon. Aaron Rodgers has grown so disgruntled with the Packers, the quarterback informed some within the organization he will not return. A stunning, franchise-shattering decision hours before the NFL draft.
Now it was shortly before midnight, and instead of parading his first-round selection of Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes, Gutekunst used the podium to pitch his quarterback.
“We have a very good football team here,” Gutekunst said, sounding as if he were reading from a script designed to change his quarterback’s mind. “And we have a great organization. We’re very committed to him. I think as the lines of communications have been open, I’m just optimistic that’s what’s best for the Green Bay Packers, and I truly believe that’s what’s best for Aaron Rodgers as well.”
There are no accidents in Aaron Rodgers’ world. The most careful passer in NFL history is as calculated off the field as he is in the pocket. So breaking the levy before Thursday’s first round, one year after the Packers traded up four spots in the 2020 first round to draft heir apparent Jordan Love, would make for an awfully big coincidence.
The leak must have stunned the Packers' front office. For weeks, the team tried to smooth over its relationship with its quarterback. As tensions escalated following the NFC championship game loss, president Mark Murphy, Gutekunst and head coach Matt LaFleur each made separate trips this offseason to meet with the quarterback in person. The Packers did not convert any of Rodgers’ roster bonus or, to this point, base salary into guaranteed money. No, they negotiated a new contract with Rodgers entirely, offering more money after his third MVP season.
RELATED: Unhappy Aaron Rodgers wants out of Green Bay
SILVERSTEIN: Aaron Rodgers, Packers seem headed for ugly divorce
DOUGHERTY: How Aaron Rodgers could force his way out of Green Bay
Gutekunst went as far late Thursday night as to acknowledge regret over his handling of last year’s draft. Rodgers notoriously learned the Packers were drafting his potential replacement not from the GM, but from the TV. The quarterback then poured himself “about four fingers of scotch” after watching the Packers draft Love, he told Kyle Brandt of NFL Network in August.
“I certainly look back to last year’s draft,” Gutekunst said Thursday, “and just kind of maybe some of the communication issues we could have done better. There’s no doubt about it. The draft is an interesting thing. It can kind of unfold differently than you think it’s going to unfold, and it happens pretty fast. But certainly looking back on it, certainly where we sit today, there could have been some communication things that we did better.”
Where the Packers sit today is a stalemate with their MVP quarterback. It’s taken time to get here. Rodgers went on a rampage last fall, completing more than 70% of his 526 passes for the first time in his career. He added 4,299 passing yards, 48 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 121.5 passer rating that was the second highest in NFL history, behind only his own 122.5 rating from 2011.
He was a Hall of Fame quarterback at the top of his game. Rodgers led the Packers to a 13-3 record for the second straight season. He led them back to the NFC championship game, where they lost to Tampa Bay 31-26 at Lambeau Field.
In the aftermath, Rodgers caused a stir referring to his future.
“A lot of guys’ futures that are uncertain – myself included,” Rodgers said. “That’s what sad about it, most, getting this far. … The uncertainty’s tough and finality of it all.”
Days later, with a storm brewing, Rodgers attempted to smooth over his postgame comments on the "Pat McAfee Show.' He hinted at a return to the Packers this season, though left the door open that he might not.
“After the season I had,” Rodgers told McAfee in January, “and potentially winning MVP, and we obviously made another good run, I don’t think there’s any reason why I wouldn’t be back. But, look, there’s not many absolutes.”
Teams around the league have noticed the rift between Rodgers and the Packers. First, the Los Angeles Rams reportedly inquired about trading for Rodgers in January, before settling for the acquisition of Matthew Stafford. Before the draft, the San Francisco 49ers reportedly were prepared to offer the third overall pick, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and other assets to trade for Rodgers. After Thursday’s news broke, Gutekunst said one team called him inquiring about a trade around 5 p.m. The GM described it as a “very brief” call.
Gutekunst said it was "absolutely false" the Packers told Rodgers earlier this offseason he would be traded, as Pro Football Net reported Thursday.
“We’re not going to trade Aaron Rodgers,” he said.
The question is how long the two sides can remain disjointed. Rodgers got some leverage recently when he landed the “Jeopardy!” guest-hosting gig. It’s his favorite television show, and Rodgers has said it would be a “dream job” to become the show’s permanent host, following in the footsteps of Alex Trebek.
Rodgers, a driven, highly ambitious person, was unlikely to walk away from his legendary football career for nothing. Now he might see a potential escape door, a worthwhile second career. If it seems far-fetched – one of the greatest quarterbacks ever walking away for a game show – a source who knows the quarterback said Thursday he could envision Rodgers being enamored with "Jeopardy!" enough to walk away from the Packers, even football.
“Jeopardy!” the source said, “would give him big-time leverage. That’s why he wants the gig.”
If Rodgers is willing to walk away from the sport, he might force the Packers’ hand. They can’t lose their three-time MVP quarterback with three years left on his contract and get nothing in return. At some point, Rodgers’ leverage might be enough to end the stalemate.
Gutekunst wasn’t ready to let his mind go there Thursday night, at least not publicly.
“Our desire,” Gutekunst said, “is to have Aaron as our quarterback and leading this team and competing for championships. So it's a little bit of a hypothetical. So we'll get to that. We'll cross that bridge when we get to it.”
DOUGHERTY: How Jordan Love compares with 2021 top QB prospects
DOUGHERTY: No contract change creates questions about Aaron Rodgers' future
FREE-AGENCY TRACKER: Live updates, latest breaking news
In the meantime, Gutekunst will continue trying to change his quarterback’s mind. The former small-college linebacker is in the fight of his career now, trying to sway his franchise quarterback into returning. At times Thursday, Gutekunst sounded like a GM who was defeated. Other times, he sounded determined.
He might oscillate between the two in coming months.
“I do think he’ll play for us again,” Gutekunst said. “We’re going to work towards that, and we’ve been working towards that on a number of different fronts. The value that he has for our football team is really immeasurable, you know what I mean? He brings so much to the table, not only as a player but a leader, so important to his teammates, to his coaches. So, yeah, that’s the goal.
“It may take some time, but he's the guy that kinda makes this thing go. He gives us the best chance to win, and we're going to work towards that end.”