Dougherty: Packers, Aaron Rodgers navigating rough waters in contract talks
Last spring, Aaron Rodgers’ contract extension looked inevitable.
Rodgers acknowledged as much Thursday after the Green Bay Packers’ first practice of training camp.
“I think (the Packers) have talked about it enough that there’s an expectation something would have been done,” Rodgers said. “Obviously judging by the questions here there’s kind of an expectation before we started (the season).”
Now, though, it’s not looking so inevitable for 2018.
Former Packers vice president Andrew Brandt came out with a column for The MMQB this week predicting there won’t be a deal this year. He thinks there’s not enough pressure on both sides to get a deal done because Rodgers has two years left on his current contract. That’s an opinion not to be taken lightly, because this subject is in Brandt’s wheelhouse.
Still, there are five weeks from now to the start of the regular season, so even though there’s no sign a deal is close, I’m guessing the odds are a little better than 50-50 that a deal gets done. That’s a long way from inevitable, but I have to wonder if the start of the regular season just might provide enough incentive to get a deal done.
Not much has leaked about agent David Dunn’s talks with Packers vice president Russ Ball, so we don’t know for sure the sticking point or points. But Brandt no doubt is right that the remaining two years of Rodgers’ current deal, plus the threat of the franchise tag for two or three years thereafter, are making this a tough contract to consummate.
All we have to go on is the sides’ public comments, and the Packers aren’t saying anything other than they’re still optimistic of getting a deal done: “I don't want to put a time frame on it,” team CEO Mark Murphy said after the Packers’ shareholders meeting Wednesday night, “but I'm confident we'll work it out.”
Rodgers didn’t say anything illuminating about the negotiations in his media session after practice Thursday, so the most interesting hint he’s provided publicly about what he’s looking for was in an interview with Peter King of NBCSports.com a couple weeks ago. He told King he wants a “non-traditional contractual agreement.”
“Non-traditional” in the NFL means keeping his pay among the premier quarterbacks a couple years down the road, after a couple quarterback contracts surpass his. That implies something like opt-out clauses or tying his pay to a percentage of the salary cap. Based on what Rodgers told King, Rodgers is thinking more the former than the latter.
“I never said anything about (tying the contract to] the cap,” Rodgers said. “I just think there’s ways to do contracts where you can still be competitive so the team is happy about it, but have some more freedom.”
This could be posturing, or it could be genuine. I’m sure Rodgers looks at the premier players in the NBA with envy. LeBron James and a few other NBA stars have opt outs — the “freedom” Rodgers likely is referring to — that allow them to renegotiate their pay or at least the leverage to have some say in the franchise if they’re concerned about how things are going.
But the Packers agreeing to an opt-out deal is a non-starter. Rodgers doesn’t have the leverage. The Packers essentially have him for up to five years. Not that they want to go the franchise-tag route. Every year they don’t do an extension potentially jeopardizes the relationship between the team and its indispensable player. They should do all they reasonably can to avoid that.
But they have him for five more years if they want, and there’s no escaping that fact.
Rodgers’ leverage is that sometime down the road he could sit out games or disrupt team building by refusing to take part in offseason work. The former seems highly unlikely for a guy who will be making at minimum more than $20 million a year. The latter is more plausible but would come with potential PR risks of its own for Rodgers.
That’s not to say the Packers don’t have other strong incentives to do an extension. Rodgers is one of the two best quarterbacks in the game and gets the Packers about 80 percent of the way to Super Bowl contention on his own. It’s hard to overstate his value, and with the way quarterbacks are protected in today’s game, he probably has five or six good years left in him, maybe more, assuming he avoids major injury.
The Packers very much want and need him to feel fully appreciated by and invested in the team. They still have a chance to do something special in the final third of his career. It would be malpractice to screw that up.
But if an opt-out or short-term extension are out of the question, then what might get a deal done in the next five weeks, before Rodgers takes the injury risk of playing in games?
The guess here is, the Packers will have to offer a huge amount of fully guaranteed money, far more than the NFL record-setting $94.5 million guarantee Matt Ryan signed for in May. Without getting lost in various numbers by which NFL contracts can be measured — new money average versus old money average and all that — it’s fully guaranteed money that matters most in these deals.
What might make Rodgers bite? Hard to know. But you’d have to think $115 million guaranteed on a five- or six-year deal that averages $30 million or more would give pause to a guy who’s had two broken collarbones in the last five years. That would obliterate Ryan’s guarantee and prove just how much the Packers value Rodgers.
It’s also worth remembering that last year Rodgers bought a small stake in the Milwaukee Bucks. This is purely speculative, but maybe someday he’d like to front a group that buys an NBA team. That would take a lot of capital. That kind of guaranteed money would have to be attractive financial security if, in fact, Rodgers harbors those ambitions.
Just to be clear, the Packers have the cash — about $300 million in their rainy-day fund — so they’d have no problem meeting NFL requirements that they put in escrow the guaranteed money beyond what they’d pay him this year.
But would they actually guarantee that much money? Or is that too risky and rich for Murphy, general manager Brian Gutekunst and negotiator Ball? The Packers, after all, have to think about Rodgers’ injury history, too. A career-ender, or even diminisher, early in a new deal would be devastating financially.
And yes, a $115 million guarantee would push the Packers’ financial limits. But I’d argue it doesn’t cross the line, it’s the cost of doing business in this league, and Rodgers is the rare player worth the risk.
The time pressure isn’t acute — again, the Packers essentially hold rights for five years — so it’s not imperative they get a deal done this year. But this is something the Packers’ don’t want hanging over the team. They’re in the business of winning football games and Super Bowls. A new deal with Rodgers will only help there by keeping that critical relationship in good shape and establishing some cost certainty for the team’s future salary caps.
Now, maybe Brandt is right in implying that the Packers won’t make that kind of offer because of the leverage they hold with Rodgers’ current contract. And maybe he’s right that Rodgers will decide he can do better than whatever the Packers offer by waiting until he’s a year closer to the franchise tag.
So maybe camp comes and goes, and there’s no new contract. That’s not a disaster as long as the relationship doesn’t rupture.
But the Packers might not be in this position, with a quarterback this good, for a long time. They need to make a lot of hay in the next five or six years. And Rodgers at some point has to decide, among other things, how much money is enough?
Maybe that will be enough to get a deal done this year.