Disappointment radiated from quarterback Aaron Rodgers after the Green Bay Packers lost to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in this year's NFC Championship Game. But the defeat only added to a precarious position because Rodgers had already uttered what could turn out to be prophetic words before the meeting even occurred.
"I hope there's more opportunities, but I don't know. I really don't," he told reporters of his future with the Packers during the week of preparation. "That's outside of my control. My future is a beautiful mystery, I think."
Two months later, little clarity has developed. If anything, the Packers appear to be preparing for life without their longtime quarterback.
Don't believe it?
Instead of restructuring Rodgers' current contract to create more salary-cap space in the short term or even converting last week's $6.8 million roster bonus into a signing bonus, Green Bay chose to leave the deal as-is. As a source told ESPN's Rob Demovsky, "[The bonus] vested Friday like it was scheduled to."
A restructure would have created short-term salary-cap space and long-term clarity for the 37-year-old signal-caller. Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio explained the potential repercussions of the creative accounting the Packers could have used to change the direction of the entire franchise:
"Rodgers has a $14.7 million salary and a $6.8 million roster bonus. That's $21.5 million in compensation. With the minimum base salary of $1.075 million, the balance of $20.425 million could have been treated as a signing bonus. Adding two voidable years would have created $16.34 million in 2021 cap space.
"That also would have dramatically increased the cap consequences of trading Rodgers after 2021. Already, the Packers would incur $17.204 million in dead money if the Packers trade him before June 1, 2022. A full restructuring would have increased the cost of a pre-June 1, 2022 trade to $33.544 million."
By redoing the reigning MVP's deal, the Packers would have kicked the can down the road for a couple of years, all but guaranteeing his standing as their quarterback. And league sources have told Demovsky that Rodgers "wants assurances" he'll be with the franchise beyond the upcoming campaign.
By not reworking his contract despite having only $4.2 million in available salary-cap space, per Spotrac, the organization opened the door for possibly moving on from the all-time great after the 2021 season.
As it stands, the Packers can trade the nine-time Pro Bowl selection next offseason and save $22.6 million toward the 2022 salary cap, according to Over the Cap.
That timing isn't coincidental. Jordan Love, who the Packers drafted in last April's first round, will enter the crucial third year of his rookie contract. Green Bay must find out whether he's actually the quarterback of the future before picking up his fifth-year option the following offseason.
An argument can be made about whether it's smart to waste the final few seasons of Rodgers' career in hopes of transitioning to a younger unknown, but a near-$40 million salary-cap hit in 2021, which would increase in the event of a restructure, will make roster-building difficult.
As such, the upcoming season appears to be Rodgers' last run in Titletown. If so, numerous teams around the league should be champing at the bit to maximize the gunslinger's final years.
Four immediately jump to the forefront. Each has ample salary-cap space to take on Rodgers' $25 million base salary in each of the next two seasons or the flexibility to provide a new deal. Plus, none of them are selecting in this year's top 10, which would have given them an opportunity to draft a top quarterback prospect.
Sorry, Chicago Bears fans. It's funny you even thought about the possibility.
San Francisco 49ers
The idea of Rodgers playing in his home state has existed since the San Francisco 49ers originally passed on him for Alex Smith with the first overall pick in the 2005 draft.
In this hypothetical, the veteran quarterback could thrive in Kyle Shanahan's system.
Shanahan is a maestro at developing the game's best running attack. As a result, he relies heavily on the play-action passing game and pocket movement. Rodgers excels in both areas. Last season, the three-time MVP threw a league-best 22 touchdowns and graded better than anyone else in the play-action game, per Pro Football Focus.
San Francisco isn't enamored with its current quarterback, either.
Jimmy Garoppolo has played in only 25 of 48 possible games since signing a five-year, $137.5 million contract prior to the start of the 2018 campaign. His subpar performance in Super Bowl LIV certainly didn't help his case. The 49ers can cut him outright after the 2021 season and save $25.6 million.
The Packers may balk at the idea of trading Rodgers within the conference, but San Francisco should be his preferred destination.
John Elway may not be calling the shots as Denver Broncos general manager anymore since he decided to step away from those responsibilities after last season, but the idea of making a strong play for Rodgers would be an organizational decision.
General manager George Paton could be less than a year into his tenure and tasked with moving on from the team's young quarterback, Drew Lock, while making the league's biggest move since Elway signed Peyton Manning nine years ago.
Elway's fingerprints were all over that acquisition, and his demeanor likely lured the all-time great to the Mile High City.
"In the end, John Elway, I think, was the difference," Manning's father, Archie, told The Athletic's Nicki Jhabvala and Lindsay Jones. "John didn't pressure him. He told him, 'You take as long as you want. Look at everything thoroughly.'"
Manning was a free agent, whereas the Packers would be trading Rodgers. Moreover, Elway's handling of the situation will be different with Paton taking point. However, the president of football operations knows how to seal the deal.
In doing so, the Steelers could position themselves to transition from one Super Bowl-winning quarterback to another.
Pittsburgh had financial problems this year but has worked to ensure it has the league's fourth-most salary-cap space going into next offseason. The losses of outside linebacker Bud Dupree, nose tackle Tyson Alualu and cornerbacks Mike Hilton and Steven Nelson certainly hurt, but the Steelers have reloaded.
Defensively, they should still rank among the league's best. They can add to their offensive line and running back stable during the draft. And general manager Kevin Colbert is excellent at identifying wide receiver talent, which Rodgers certainly isn't accustomed to.
Colbert and Co. own this year's 24th overall pick. They're almost certainly not going to be in a position to draft Roethlisberger's replacement. Plus, they are still good enough to post a winning record this fall, which would mean they miss out on next year's top quarterback prospects.
A Rodgers trade would help the Steelers continue to operate at their normal Super Bowl standard.
New England Patriots
Oh, the thought of what Bill Belichick could do with Rodgers behind center.
The New England Patriots have an outside shot at one of the top-five quarterbacks in this year's draft class, though the leaguewide demand for signal-callers could have all five off the board sooner than later. They will likely enter another season with Cam Newton at quarterback after the one-time league MVP agreed to a one-year, $5.1 million deal prior to the start of the new league year.
With no long-term commitment behind center, the Patriots can make a strong play for a quarterback next offseason. Amazingly, they will still have money to spend even after this year's free-agent shopping spree.
Owner Robert Kraft acknowledged last year's blip after a pristine 20-year run affected how the franchise has operated.
"Nothing is guaranteed, and I'm very cognizant of that. But we're not in the business to be in business. We're in this business to win," he told NBC Sports' Peter King.
No individual would be more likely than Rodgers to get the Patriots back in the Super Bowl hunt.