Dougherty: How big of a voice should Aaron Rodgers have in Packers' personnel decisions?
GREEN BAY - This offseason, Russell Wilson came right out and said he wants a greater voice in the Seattle Seahawks’ personnel decisions.
And just last week, Aaron Rodgers’ former teammate James Jones revealed that one of the Green Bay Packers quarterback’s biggest beefs with his team’s front office is not having a say on some personnel matters.
In fact, it sounds good in theory that the NFL’s best and brightest quarterbacks should have input on roster decisions. Experienced ones such as Rodgers and Wilson and Tom Brady have as much at stake as anyone else in their organizations. They’ve seen an awful lot of football, live and on video, in their long careers. It’s safe to assume they know something about players.
But that’s in theory. In reality it’s not a good idea for any player, even experienced ones at the game’s most important position, to have more than a marginal voice on who stays and goes. There are things about scouting and roster building that even the most astute players can’t know or appreciate while they’re playing. Some things are learned only the hard way, working daily in a front office or on a coaching staff for years.
Consider this from a recent conversation I had with an NFL scout who also had a solid career in the league: “As a player, I understood what type of players it took to play the game, but I never knew about the intricacies of the game, understanding how the roster is built, building through the draft and all those things. … Players are the worst evaluators. They base everything on their heart and conviction, not common sense, not the film. I’ve had so many players tell me, ‘This guy is real good,’ and I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ”
So Jones’ comments about Rodgers to Fox Sports Radio’s Colin Cowherd give pause. Jones said he talks regularly with Rodgers, and the Packers’ estranged quarterback has been bothered for years by some of the veterans the Packers have let walk out the door.
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“He doesn’t care about who you bring in (via the draft and free agency),” Jones said. “He loves his teammates, he’s always out there ready to ride for his teammates. He wants to keep some of the guys that have been in that building, that help his team win, whether you think they may be done.
“Like I said before, he’s seen a lot of guys walk out of that building and leave and go play very good football. It goes back — it’s not just about this past season. It goes back, it’s a lot built up into it. It goes back to the Charles Woodsons, the Clay Matthewses, the Julius Pepperses, the Jordy Nelsons, the James Joneses. He just wants to make sure a lot of guys like that that may not be scoring 15 touchdowns or getting 15 sacks or 15 interceptions, but hey, these dudes are big in the locker room for the young fellas, they’re key parts of the team to go win a championship.”
There’s the rub. No doubt Rodgers knows what good chemistry and leadership can do for a locker room. But he also feels loyalty to valued teammates. It’s inevitable. And that clouds judgment.
There is no room for sentimentality or personal attachment in personnel decisions. The NFL is and must be a heartless business in that way. There’s a reason for the adage it’s better to part with a player a year early than a year late. It’s true. Replace the descending with the ascending, and err on the side of the young, because when descent hits, it’s often stunningly fast.
Branch Rickey espoused it in baseball going back to the early decades of the 1900s, and he probably didn’t invent it. It applies most especially to the NFL, where churning a roster and replacing the older with the newer is a constant for all successful teams, even with inevitable mistakes along the way.
Now, should Brian Gutekunst, the Packers’ general manager, discuss some personnel decisions with Rodgers? Sure. Rodgers has done more than enough to deserve that. The Packers’ front office should know his thoughts on some players, especially on offense, if he cares to share them. Maybe he has an insight Gutekunst hadn’t considered. It certainly can’t hurt to know what the quarterback thinks.
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But if Gutekunst thinks the franchise should move on from a player he knows Rodgers wants to keep, the GM has to move on from that player. Just do Rodgers the courtesy of telling him why. When Rodgers’ surrogates talk about communication issues and organizational dysfunction, that’s what they mean. This is where Gutekunst and the Packers failed to keep up in a league where quarterbacks are becoming less like subordinates and more like partners with their coaches and GMs. One scout recently told me the Packers’ front office still has a “trust us, we’ve got this” arrogance.
This also isn’t to say GMs don’t make mistakes. They all do. Often. But they have a clearer eye than a player when it comes to veterans and a big-picture view. Look at New England with Brady, the best quarterback ever. He reportedly was “enraged” when Bill Belichick let 32-year-old receiver Wes Welker walk in free agency and grew a beard to show solidarity after the coach traded six-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins to Tampa Bay at age 32. Yet the Patriots won three Super Bowls over the next six years.
So let’s look at the players Jones mentioned, players Rodgers would have retained but the Packers let walk: Nelson, Peppers, Matthews and Woodson.
The truth is, Gutekunst and predecessor Ted Thompson made a solid call on them all.
Nelson was a fantastic player and ranks among the top six or seven receivers in team history. He’s a no-brainer for the Packers Hall of Fame. But by the time Gutekunst released him in 2018, Nelson was a couple months shy of his 33rd birthday and falling off the cliff. He played one nondescript season with the Raiders and called it a career.
Matthews was another outstanding player and game changer as an outside rusher. But he was coming off a 3½-sack season when the Packers let him walk a couple of months before he turned 33, and injuries and age had taken their toll. The Los Angeles Rams cut him after one season and that was the end of his distinguished career.
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The prodigiously talented Peppers defied the odds with an 11-sack season for Carolina at age 37 after the Packers let him walk, but the truth is, Peppers looked like he was in fast decline his final season in Green Bay (7½ sacks). As the saying goes, better a year early than a year late. Thompson’s mistake wasn’t letting Peppers leave, it was doing next-to-nothing to replace him. The GM had no one promising on hand, and the only outside rusher he added that year was a third-round draft pick (Kyler Fackrell).
And Woodson, an all-time great defensive back and 2021 enshrinee in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was going on 37 and coming off a season in which he’d missed nine games because of his second broken collarbone in two calendar years when the Packers parted with him.
He had 10 interceptions in his final three seasons with the Raiders, while the Packers’ safety position became a liability. But how can you fault Thompson for moving on from an injured defensive back in his late 30s even if he was an all-time great? The GM’s greater error was doing next-to-nothing to replace Woodson, which left former undrafted safety M.D. Jennings as the starter.
It’s true that quarterbacks have an outsized say in winning or losing games in the NFL. That means they’re treated differently than their teammates.
But it’s just as true that playing and roster building are two different worlds. A quarterback’s opinion on players is worth knowing, but that’s about as far as it goes.