In each of the last two years, the Green Bay Packers have notched 13 victories, won the NFC North and advanced to within one game of the Super Bowl. The Pack sports the reigning NFL MVP in Aaron Rodgers and a roster that appears more than capable of hanging with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks in the NFC.
Draft weekend should have been a time of hope and enthusiasm for the Green Bay fanbase, an opportunity to add the missing pieces in a championship puzzle.
Instead, there is a cloud of dread hanging over Titletown so palpable that it tastes like a wheel of sharp cheddar that has been sitting in the Wisconsin sun for a week. Rather than rallying together for a run at SoFi Stadium and Super Bowl LVI, the Packers are coming apart at the seams.
Green Bay's Super Bowl window is slamming shut. By the time the regular season opens, the playoffs may be a pipe dream.
And fingers are being pointed in all directions as to why it is happening.
The news that spurred this Packers panic attack came the day of the first round of the NFL draft. Just as folks were getting a good laugh at the idea of Tim Tebow playing tight end, ESPN's Adam Schefter dropped the bombshell—per sources, Rodgers was so dissatisfied by the situation in Green Bay that he didn't want to return to the team in 2021.
This news was met with a flood of denials from Green Bay management. First it was general manager Brian Gutekunst:
"As we've stated since the season ended, we are committed to Aaron in 2021 and beyond," Gutekunst said, via Schefter. "Aaron has been a vital part of our success and we look forward to competing for another championship with him leading our team."
Then, per ESPN's Rob Demovsky, team president Mark Murphy posted a column on the team's website that reiterated Green Bay's commitment to their star signal-caller.
"This is an issue that we have been working on for several months. Brian Gutekunst, Matt LaFleur and I have flown out on a number of occasions to meet with Aaron. We are very much aware of Aaron's concerns and have been working with him (and his agent Dave Dunn) to resolve them. We remain committed to Aaron in 2021 and beyond."
But the story won't go away. Those multiple overtures to Rodgers (overtures that reportedly included offers of a contract extension) were rebuffed. Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reported Friday that Rodgers was considering walking away from football altogether (and sacrificing tens of millions in bonus money) "unless the situation [in Green Bay] is repaired to his liking" (h/t John Breech of CBS Sports). Pro Football Talk tweeted that Rodgers attitude toward Green Bay's front office is … not good.
Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports took things one step further Saturday, with a report that Rodgers has no plans to play in Green Bay so long as Gutekunst is the GM.
"The reigning league MVP remains adamant that he won’t return to the team under the current stewardship of general manager Brian Gutekunst, a source in Rodgers’ camp said, and that he’s willing to weigh hardline options at his disposal — from refusing to show up for offseason activities to holding out of training camp and possibly retirement."
If fans were hoping the whole thing was overblown, those hopes were dashed Saturday. As Mike Florio reported for PFT, Mike Tirico of NBC Sports spoke to Rodgers at the Kentucky Derby.
"He expressed a couple of times how much he loves Green Bay, loves the fans, loves the franchise," Tirico said. "There is a fissure. There is a chasm between management and the reigning NFL MVP."
These revelations have caused quite a bit of backlash against Rodgers. And it can be argued that at least some of it is deserved. The timing of this story (and some of the details) isn't an especially good look for the 37-year-old three-time MVP.
That's the thing though. Rodgers is a three-time MVP. One of the best quarterbacks of his generation. A no-doubt, first-ballot Hall of Famer. When you have a resume like that, likability takes a dive on the list of priorities.
Also, it's not like Rodgers and the Packers just met. The Pack knows full well that Rodgers does not take kindly to slights, real or perceived. This is a guy who has used his draft-day slide as motivation since 2005.
It's 2021, if you don't have a calendar handy.
That makes Gutekunst's decision-making dating back to last year's draft all the more incomprehensible.
Yes, it's Gutekunst's job to both improve the team in the present and look toward the future. Had Utah State quarterback Jordan Love just fallen to the Packers in the 2020 draft, perhaps it would have been a different story.
But coming off an NFC Championship Game appearance, Gutekunst didn't just use Green Bay's first pick in 2020 to draft Rodgers' successor. He traded up to No. 26 to do it. In a draft where wide receivers like Clemson's Tee Higgins and Michael Pittman Jr. of USC were both still available.
And he did so without saying a word to Rodgers about it until after it happened.
Per Mollie Walker of the New York Post, Gutekunst admitted that he could have handled the situation better.
"I certainly look back to last year’s draft and just kind of maybe some of the communication issues we could have done better. There’s no doubt about it. The draft’s an interesting thing. It can kind of unfold differently than you think it’s going to unfold, and it happens pretty fast. But certainly, I think, looking back on it sitting where we sit today, there could have been some communication things we did better."
Do ya think, Brian?
The Love fiasco may have been the biggest gaffe of the past two drafts, but it wasn't the only one. Gutekunst would go on to add exactly zero passing-game weapons for Rodgers in 2020. Despite the fact that wide receiver was once again a major area of need for Green Bay again in 2021, Gutekunst didn't add one until Amari Rodgers of Clemson in the third round.
That's right. A. Rodgers. A coincidence, I'm sure.
It also marks the second straight year that Green Bay's draft class (headlined by Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes, who was perceived as a reach by many), while not terrible, isn't especially impressive either. After a free agency period in which Green Bay signed exactly no one of note and lost Pro Bowl center Corey Linsley, this isn't a franchise that is better now than it was in January.
Now, should the Packers necessarily feel like they have to make a draft pick to placate a player? In a perfect world, no. But Aaron Rodgers isn't just any player. If using a pick a year on a pass-catcher will help to keep a smile under his mustache, then it's a price worth paying—especially when the picks Green Bay is making aren't blowing anyone's socks off.
In any event, you damned sure don't draft Rodgers' heir apparent without bothering to give a heads-up that you are considering it.
It's not too late to salvage the relationship, and it's in the best interest of both sides to do that. Leaving Green Bay amid all this brouhaha would leave a sizable stain on Rodgers' NFL legacy. And while the Packers can talk up Love until their lips fall off, if Rodgers leaves he takes any chance Green Bay had of making a deep playoff run with him. It's rebuild time.
We're talking about a quarterback with 51,245 career passing yards versus a guy with the same number of regular-season pass attempts as me.
But the Packers also can't let this drag on throughout the summer and into the regular season. Firing Gutekunst (at least right now) would both set a terrible precedent and likely draw the ire of the league's other owners, so like it or not it's highly unlikely to happen.
Can I interest you in a nice resignation?
If Rodgers really is 100 percent dead-set on leaving Green Bay, then the Packers need to get what they can and trade him. The alternative is unending distraction. Endless negative publicity. And when the day comes that Rodgers is traded, a lesser return than what the team could have gotten earlier in the process.
It's a nightmare scenario. But one the Pack has to be prepared for.
Maybe it won't come to that. Maybe fences will be mended. Pride swallowed. Apologies offered. Perhaps even that resignation tendered. Even then, damage has been done, to the reputation of player and organization.
If Rodgers does return, it's fair to wonder if at least some of his teammates will question his commitment to the team. If he doesn't, then one of the most successful eras in Packers history will end in the most inglorious fashion imaginable.
The Packers need to deal with this. Now. Yesterday, even. Every day this mess festers and grows, Green Bay's Super Bowl window narrows.
One day soon, it could slam shut for good.