After months of rampant speculation, linguistic parsing and high-stakes drama with the potential to significantly alter the 2021 NFL season and beyond, Aaron Rodgers is right back where he’s been for the past 16 summers – in Green Bay Packers training camp.
Given what the three-time MVP means to the organization – and Pack brass had made it publicly clear Rodgers wasn’t going anywhere – this always easily seemed like the most likely outcome. Yet the club’s “complicated fella” also rattled his bosses’ cages – along with an entire fan base – while expressing his desire for some environmental alterations.
While careful to say “I’m not a victim here” Wednesday, Rodgers indicated that his situation, financial and otherwise, has not changed significantly. This is to be his second season playing under a four-year, $134 million extension which has no guarantees in 2022 or ’23. He wants to be used as a recruiter during free agency and would have liked long-term financial security beyond 2021 … had the Packers offered it before the parties’ private disagreements became public knowledge.
Yet things appear to be evolving at Lambeau Field, veteran slot receiver Randall Cobb – Rodgers called him a “dear friend” Wednesday – indicating he’ll be traded from the Houston Texans back to the Pack on the heels of an offseason where the team did little to upgrade the roster and let All-Pro C Corey Linsley leave for the Los Angeles Chargers during free agency.
Leaving perhaps the league’s worst team to return to one of its best makes Cobb a clear-cut winner of Rodgers’ offseason odyssey, but he’s hardly alone …
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Aaron Rodgers: He’s enjoyed quite the six-month football hiatus – from his stint hosting “Jeopardy!” to his Hawaiian vacation with fiancée Shailene Woodley and actor Miles Teller to carrying Bryson DeChambeau to victory in “The Match,” ousting fellow quarterback Tom Brady and 2021 PGA Championship winner Phil Mickelson. Aside from largely cryptic remarks shared with ESPN’s Kenny Mayne on the longtime anchor’s final “SportsCenter” appearance in May, Rodgers had shed almost no light on his decision to skip the Packers’ offseason program, allowing others to communicate or surmise his intentions … at least until Wednesday, when he had cathartic news conference and expressed his frustration about how he and some of his former teammates have been treated.
For now, we know this: He will not become the first reigning NFL MVP to join a new team the following season, opting to report to camp on time this week rather than publicly demanding a trade, opting out of the season or even retiring, a la predecessor Brett Favre.
Moving forward, Rodgers will spend a 17th season with a championship-caliber organization, afforded another shot at the elusive second championship often cited as a line of demarcation between the league’s historically gilded quarterbacks and those who are merely elite. But after that?
Asked if he’ll be a Packer in 2022, Rodgers answered, “Yeah, I really don’t know.” Maybe he’s eventually offered a parachute to jump into a new situation – just as Brady did last year – in pursuit of additional hardware, especially if the Pack fall short again in 2021 … or, just maybe, he’ll be pursuing a third Lombardi Trophy in green and gold.
Davante Adams: The All-Pro wideout, who’s also tight with Rodgers and currently in the midst of his own issues with Packers management, is coming off one of the most productive seasons for a receiver in league history – due in significant part to his mind meld with Rodgers. Getting an eighth season with the MVP passer should only boost Adams’ value heading into a walk year after which he hopes to reset the league’s wide receiver pay scale.
Other Packers veterans: From Adams to longtime K Mason Crosby to All-Pro LT David Bakhtiari to RB Aaron Jones, who re-signed with the Packers (4 years, $48 million) during the offseason – and this quartet of players is also close to their quarterback personally – and every other Green Bay player who’s helped form the core of a team that’s lost consecutive NFC championship games, Rodgers’ return brings a collective sigh of relief. With their quarterback returning, a veteran-laden team is set up nicely to make a run at Super Bowl 56; had Rodgers not come back, the Packers projected as a fringe playoff team … at best.
Patrick Mahomes: For whatever the conjecture was worth, those trying to connect dots as pathways to other teams often wound up in the AFC West. Perhaps such conclusions will belatedly have merit, but – for now – Mahomes and the Chiefs need not fear the Broncos or Raiders.
The NFL schedule: The Packers are scheduled to appear in five prime time games this season, the customary amount for premier teams. The league slotted two of Green Bay’s three “Sunday Night Football” dates in the flex window, affording NBC options if Rodgers had not returned – an outcome that surely would have diluted the Packers from contender to curiosity in Weeks 2 (“Monday Night Football” at home against the Detroit Lions) and 3 (at San Francisco on “SNF”).
Brian Gutekunst and Mark Murphy: Green Bay’s general manager and president/CEO, respectively, Gutekunst and Murphy have borne the brunt of a standoff with the face of their franchise. Whether or not Rodgers is the greatest player in the history of this storied franchise is a point that can be widely and legitimately debated, but at least Gutekunst and Murphy won’t suffer the ignominy – at least not yet – of losing the man who’s defined this era of Pack football. The duo was even applauded Monday at the team’s annual shareholders meeting, Murphy reiterating his desire to keep Rodgers for 2021 and beyond. And their role in building a formidable roster that’s had so much success must be acknowledged, even if there have been missteps and communication issues with Rodgers that Gutekunst copped to Wednesday. “I think what he’s done for this organization, he deserves the conversation every year about where we’re headed, where he’s headed,” he said of Rodgers. “He’s earned the right to have those discussions.”
Jordan Love: Pressure’s off, “J Lo.” Love’s arrival as a first-round pick in 2020 largely set this offseason saga in motion, Rodgers telling Mayne: “A lot of this was put in motion last year, and the wrench was just kind of thrown into it when I won MVP and played the way I played last year. This is just kind of, I think, a spill-out of all that.” None of this is any fault of Love, whom Rodgers has praised. Yet as it pertains to a guy who’s never taken an NFL snap or even dressed for a game, it’s probably for the best that he isn’t being thrust into the lineup of a squad that carries such weighty expectations.
Jordan Love: All young players want to play, and Love didn’t even have the benefit of preseason during his COVID-altered rookie season. Yet, similar to Rodgers 13 years ago, increasing chance he’ll eventually become a lightning rod as a legendary and (mostly) beloved player exits town to make way for the new guy … and it now looks increasingly likely Love will not have the three years of prep time Rodgers did while apprenticing under Favre.
Brian Gutekunst and Mark Murphy: Without invoking either man’s name, Rodgers vented his spleen Wednesday, his words aimed squarely at the front office. And while Rodgers explicitly said he wants to participate in free-agent decisions, the environment he described could make it tough for Gutekunst and Murphy to lure players to Green Bay once their longtime quarterback moves on.
NFC: Would the Dallas Cowboys, Seattle Seahawks, Los Angeles Rams, San Francisco 49ers – heck, Brady himself and those champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers – have really minded if Rodgers had been traded, which would have almost surely meant deportation to an already loaded AFC? The Packers have reached the NFC title round four of the past seven seasons – though they haven’t won it since their Super Bowl 45 triumph following the 2010 season – and will again be considered a favorite to advance at least that far once again.
Blake Bortles: Once the quarterback of the future for the Jacksonville Jaguars, he’s now a journeyman backup who’s again looking for a job. Rodgers’ arrival in Wisconsin meant a ticket out of town for Bortles on Tuesday, when unproven QB Jake Dolegala was also released.
Amari Rodgers: If you’d forgotten, there’s another Rodgers on Green Bay’s roster – the receiver drafted in Round 3 out of Clemson three months ago, ostensibly to serve as a new weapon out of the slot. However given Cobb’s imminent arrival – not to mention Aaron Rodgers’ high demands of his targets, no matter how young – good chance Amari Rodgers’ snap count ultimately takes a significant hit during his rookie campaign.
Aaron Rodgers: Say what you want about how Gutekunst and Murphy, who played eight seasons for Washington while earning an All-Pro nod and Super Bowl ring in the 1980s, run their organization, but it’s telling neither has really been demonized by a loyal Packers fan base that recognizes this team has consistently remained among the NFL’s elite – though Rodgers is clearly inextricable from that success.
Still, it doesn’t seem like it’s been a decade since the Favre vs. Rodgers debate really picked up steam following Green Bay’s most recent championship trek. In the aftermath of winning Super Bowl 45 MVP honors, Rodgers seemed a near shoo-in to surpass the legacy of Favre – the first man to win three league MVP awards (1995-97) during the Super Bowl era while guiding the Packers to the big game twice (winning it once) during his heyday, rewriting the passing and ironman sections of the NFL record book for good measure. But Rodgers’ last 10 seasons have been fraught with disappointment, those four NFC championship game setbacks prefaced by a 2011 team that went 15-1 and seemed bound for immortality before going one-and-done in the playoffs thanks to a 37-20 loss at Lambeau to a Giants team that was 9-7 before catching fire in the postseason.
And now? Favre certainly had diva-esque proclivities at the end of his Packers tenure, especially as it pertained to his willingness to continue career – his offseason retirement decisions coming to be known as “Favre Watch.” Yet he never seemed like he wanted out of Green Bay or sought more sway on personnel changes, differences that might fundamentally distinguish him from Rodgers – whose more guarded personality already contrasted with the gregarious Favre – once their unabridged regimes in Titletown are ultimately compared. Though, as with Favre, maybe this is all eventually water under the bridge for Rodgers – especially if he doesn’t make a point of signing with Chicago or Minnesota down the road if he does indeed gain his freedom sooner than later.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Aaron Rodgers: Winners, losers of QB’s return to Green Bay Packers