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Dougherty: It's Aaron Rodgers' turn to make the Packers squirm


GREEN BAY - So now we’ve got a better idea of what Aaron Rodgers probably was talking about after he and the Green Bay Packers lost the NFC championship game Sunday.

It looks like his comment about his future being uncertain is about his contract. Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, citing an NFL source, said Rodgers wants a new deal. ESPN.com’s Rob Demovsky and ESPN Milwaukee’s Jason Wilde reported Rodgers could be looking for a commitment from the Packers beyond this year.

So it’s contract-related, and what makes the most sense outside looking in is the latter, that he wants a guarantee he’s not playing year to year. The Packers drafted Jordan Love with their first-round pick last year, and Rodgers felt like he was being pushed out the door. He responded with an MVP season. Now he has the leverage to get them to commit to him, and he’s going to use it. Nothing wrong with that.

It’s also appears that Rodgers still resents the Love pick despite the equanimity he showed week in and week out this year. He surely wishes the Packers had used last year’s first-rounder on a player who could help him win games, not on one who won’t see the field until he’s gone.

But if all Rodgers wanted was his contract adjusted, he could have tried to do it privately, and if the Packers balked then he could have turned up the heat by going public about possibly not returning next season. Instead, last week he talked about the “beautiful mystery” that is his future, then after Sunday's game casually dropped that he was unsure whether he’d be back for the 2021 season.

Rodgers of course knows there’s no way the Packers wouldn’t bring him back next season. He’s coming off one of his best years, and they still don’t have a clue whether Love is any good. It’s hard not to think the league’s presumptive MVP doesn’t mind seeing general manager Brian Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur squirm publicly, just as they made him squirm when they picked Love last year.

So where does this go from here? If Rodgers wants a big pay raise -- he's tied for fifth-highest paid on average -- that could be problem. The Packers are already $31.5 million over the projected salary cap, according to SpoTrac, and putting together a roster that can win a championship will be hard enough with Rodgers' salary as it is. But if it’s future guarantees he’s after, the Packers should be very much open to a deal.

In 2018 they moved early and offered Rodgers a contract extension even though he was coming off a broken collarbone and had two years left on his previous deal. It paid him $82.2 million in the first two years alone and made him the highest-paid player in the league at the time. He took the cash in hand ($66.9 million in the first year) rather than wait to maximize the money a year or two down the road. He knew other, lesser quarterbacks would pass him quickly.

The new-money average of his deal, which runs through 2023, is $33.5 million. If he’s looking to have the best roster around him as possible late in his career, that should be enough. You can slice up these contracts a lot of different ways, but it's worth noting that while league-salary leaders Patrick Mahomes ($45 million) and Deshaun Watson ($39 million) far eclipse Rodgers in new-money average, both signed their deals in 2020, and from '20 through '23 (when Rodgers' contract runs out) they're averaging $25.9 million and $27.9 million. 

If what Rodgers' looking for is guaranteed money — he has no guarantees left on his deal — then the Packers should be open for business. They historically don’t do guarantees beyond signing bonuses, but you bend the rules for quarterbacks.

If I were Gutekunst and team president Mark Murphy, I’d be willing to somehow, someway restructure Rodgers’ contract to guarantee it through at least the ’22 season. There are future cap implications, but those can be resolved with voidable years tacked on. A guarantee through ’22 would mean Love sits until at least his fourth year, the same as Rodgers more than a decade ago.

Guaranteeing all three remaining years, through ’23, is a tougher call. Rodgers, after all, has had two broken collarbones and multiple concussions in his career, and as players get older, they’re more likely to get hurt, not less. Three years out is a long time for a guy who turns 40 late in the ’23 season.

The Packers need salary-cap room now anyway, so they were likely going to do some kind of signing-bonus conversion with Rodgers this offseason. They also have no clue whether Love can play — as the No. 3 quarterback, the only snaps he took during the season were a handful on scout team each practice (the No. 2 takes almost all of those) and in an extra period conducted for him some days with practice-squad and young players.

Considering how raw Love was coming out of college, and how well Rodgers played this year, there was a good chance Love was going to sit three years regardless. 

“To be prudent you’d probably stop at two (years guaranteed)," said a high-ranking front-office executive for another NFL team. "Now, he hasn’t shown much sign of slowing down, it’s not like he’s one of these older guys that’s lost his arm, lost his shoulder flexibility, isn’t athletic anymore. I’d be more inclined to think about considering all three (because of that)."

As for how far Rodgers might push things, either for the contract or to pressure the team to do the “all-in” in his remaining years, as some pundits have speculated is his goal, he has leverage most players don’t. All franchise quarterbacks do. If they really want out for whatever reason, they can force a trade by threatening to retire, as long as they’re willing to actually sit out. 

But is Rodgers willing to go that far? Does he really want to burn a year learning another new offense after finding out in 2020 it takes until the second season to gain command? Are his chances of winning a Super Bowl really that much better with another team that the Packers after having made it to the NFC championship game with the Packers the last two years? And as Packers News columnist Tom Silverstein wrote Tuesday, is he really willing to jeopardize the enormous goodwill he has built in Wisconsin — among other things, he’s a part owner of the Milwaukee Bucks — and Packers fans around the country?

Only Rodgers, his agent and perhaps a close friend or two probably know that. Maybe he is.

"They’re not going to get rid of him, he understands his legacy," the executive said. "He looks at what (Tom) Brady did and probably is intrigued by that. But I’d say the grass isn’t always greener, and he’s smart enough to consider that too. ... I just can't see either side thinking the best thing would be to change teams. I just can’t see that being the outcome here."

For what it's worth, nothing Rodgers has said or done before this suggests he's likely to take the nuclear option either, and his most noteworthy comment Tuesday on “The Pat McAfee Show” turned down the heat.

“I don't think there's any reason why I wouldn't be back,” he said.

If the issue is the Packers committing to him for the next couple years, they should be willing and able to accommodate. After the season Rodgers had is there really a good reason not to?

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