Dougherty: It might be time for the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers to part ways
GREEN BAY − It might be time for Brian Gutekunst and Matt LaFleur to start over.
The Green Bay Packers general manager and coach have as big a decision to make at quarterback as Aaron Rodgers has for whether to play in 2023.
The Packers’ 20-16 loss Sunday night to the Detroit Lions in a win-and-in-the-playoffs game, at home to an NFC North division rival, was NFL truth serum. The four-game winning streak that got the Packers back into the thick of the playoff hunt wasn’t a mirage, but it did camouflage the issues that had plagued this team much of this disappointing 8-9 season.
The way the Packers played Sunday night, sputtering on offense, was the way they played most of the season. And if that’s who they are, then Gutekunst and LaFleur have to look the truth squarely in the eyes. That means recognizing that Rodgers can’t lift this team like he used to, and to consider whether it's time to give 24-year-old Jordan Love his chance at the helm.
On Sunday with a playoff berth on the line, Rodgers put up an 83.1 rating, threw for only 205 yards and piloted an offense that scored only 16 points.
“Certain things can get covered up by winning games,” LaFleur said summing up the season, “and I think everything has been exposed right now.”
Rodgers' lucrative contract complicates the matter of his future
The question of Rodgers’ return for next season is complicated by his contract, which includes a guarantee for about $58 million. It’s not like the Packers can just cut him and move on, because they’d still be on the hook for the $58 million.
Gutekunst and LaFleur could easily convince themselves that they can run it back with Rodgers and their promising young receivers, add a couple of pieces in free agency and the draft, and be back in contention. Because in fact the Packers really do have something going with rookies Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs. Bringing back Rodgers is the safe play, because the Packers probably would win their share of games. But there's a pretty good chance they'd ultimately be spinning their wheels with a quarterback at the end of his career.
With the way this season went, the Packers need to let the emotion of Sunday night's defeat subside. Then they need to think seriously about turning their offense over to Love and his upside. Unless they’ve already decided Love isn’t good enough, it might be time to give him his shot and look to the future rather than go through another season with Rodgers that probably won’t end up much better than this one.
For the record, LaFleur after the game said he wants Rodgers back, and that it’s up to the coaching staff to develop young players faster to get the most out of their quarterback.
“Put them in better position so that the learning curve is expedited,” LaFleur said, “and we can maintain that high level of play that we’re so accustomed to seeing from (Rodgers).”
But it’s hard to take to heart anything LaFleur or Rodgers, for that matter, says publicly right after a crushing defeat that ended their season. Maybe LaFleur meant it, or maybe it’s what he thought he had to say in the moment. Same for Rodgers, who considered retiring last offseason and will decide in the coming month or two whether to return for 2023.
"I understand where we’re at as a team," Rodgers said. "We’re a young team. There could be some changes with some of the older guys, and it could be time to step away. But I could take some time and say, ‘Hell no, I need to get back out there and go on another run.’ But I’ll have to see what it feels like once I’m away from it.”
If the Packers want to move on, just like they did 15 years ago when they pushed Brett Favre out the door to make room for Rodgers, then the question is whether they can make it happen. Because Rodgers’ guaranteed contract for next season gives him a lot of leverage.
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To part ways, Rodgers would have to retire or be traded.
Maybe he’ll retire on his own because he thinks it’s time, though that still seems hard to believe, because who’s going to walk away from that kind of guaranteed money? Even if Rodgers said after the game he could.
“I have made a ton of (money),” Rodgers said, “and I am very thankful for this organization, for the generational wealth they have offered me. Hopefully they feel that I’ve earned a lot of it. But yes, for sure, I could definitely walk away from that.”
Retirement is on the table, but that decision won't come quickly
Or maybe if LaFleur and Gutekunst tell him they want to move on to Love, Rodgers would retire rather than force himself on the Packers or start anew elsewhere. He sounded as though he wouldn’t be blindsided if that’s what the GM and coach prefer, though it’s hard not to think it would still surprise him.
“I’m going to be a realist here and understand that there’s a lot of different parts to this,” Rodgers said. “Like I’ve said, I was aware of the possibility of them going young if it got to the point where we were out of it. And I’m aware of that possibility (now) as well. It wouldn’t be the best reality, but I know it’s a possibility.”
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Whether that would be enough to convince him to walk away from the game is a different matter. Again, that $58 million would be awfully hard to pass up, no matter what he says immediately after a season-ending loss.
Perhaps then he’d be open to a trade. The problem is a new team would surely want to work out a new contract with assurance he’s going to play more than one season before making a deal. It’s hard to see anyone shelling out almost $60 million for him to play but one more year. In that case, Rodgers would have to cooperate, give that assurance and make a new deal.
“I don’t like saying never,” Rodgers said of playing for another team, “but I’ve got to see how I’m feeling first once the emotion is out of it and then have the right conversations and see what the best direction is.”
But first things first, and first for the Packers is deciding whether it’s time to move on to Love.
Rodgers is coming off his worst season statistically since he became a starter in ’08 – his 91.1 rating was his career-low as a starter. Granted, the Packers suffered a big loss at receiver when Davante Adams forced a trade last offseason, but it’s hard not to think that even a little bit younger Rodgers would have made do with the young receivers he had this year. Rodgers still has some mobility, but what always set him apart was his devastating passing outside the pocket and on the move, and that just isn’t there like it used to be.
Before making any big decisions, Rodgers and the Packers surely need to let the emotion of this season-ending disappointment wear off. Then they need to look reality in the face and decide whether to give it another run next season.
And that truth just might be it's time to move on.
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