Dougherty: Can Aaron Rodgers' run as the Green Bay Packers quarterback survive 2022?
GREEN BAY − The Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers have about two months to decide whether their time together has run its course.
Neither has to decide this week, and with how fast things can change during an NFL season, whatever either is inclined to think now could be different by January.
But big decisions loom in the coming weeks, including whether the Packers need a look at Jordan Love at some point to see what his future as a starter might be.
There’s no sugarcoating it, things look bleak in Titletown these days. Much has changed since early last March, when the Packers went all-in to win now and signed Rodgers, 38 years old and coming off back-to-back MVP seasons, to a three-year contract extension that included $100 million fully guaranteed.
Nine weeks into the season, all-in has gone bad. The reeling Packers are 3-6, and the quarterback-coach partnership that's been at the heart of the team's last three years of success is unraveling, which surely is trickling down through the locker room.
Matt LaFleur wants Rodgers to feel comfortable in the offense, so the coach has strayed from his scheme’s roots more than ever this year. The Packers are running less motion and more shotgun because that's what Rodgers prefers. But the results are getting worse by the week, not better. Yes, the Packers’ receiving corps is mostly new and young and not nearly as talented as a decade ago, but is it really any worse than, say, the 6-2 New York Giants’? No.
All seems fine with Rodgers during the week, but on game day on the field he too often looks unhappy. Physically, Rodgers still has plenty left in his arm and legs – he was as good as ever in training camp. But his footwork is slipping, as is his accuracy, which was always a trademark. And in a season filled with lows, he’s coming off his worst performance of the year.
So yeah, the future of the Rodgers-Packers pairing is in doubt, even though they signed the new contract only eight months ago. How this turns out depends on what happens in the coming weeks. But the Super Bowl this season is a pipe dream, and there are more reasons to think things won’t get much better than to think they will, especially now that the team’s best defensive player (Rashan Gary) is out for the year.
How the rest of the season goes likely will determine Aaron Rodgers' future
Keeping the importance of the next two months in mind, there are at least a couple of paths the Packers and Rodgers could take for 2023, with Love looming as a key figure as well.
One path is that CEO Mark Murphy, general manager Brian Gutekunst, LaFleur and Rodgers decide to run it back next year. To do that, you can only presume they’ll need to see signs in the final eight games that things aren’t as bad as they look now.
To make it worth everyone’s while, the Packers would have to think they can rebound and become a Super Bowl contender immediately. Why else bother? But that requires the coach and quarterback to get in lockstep, and right now you can almost feel their tug of war. At this point, it feels more like Rodgers' offense than LaFleur's. The question is whether Rodgers will give up any of the influence he’s gained in the past year.
The Packers do have talent, despite how poorly they’ve played while losing five straight. And windows for championship contention can close fast, so there’s something to be said for taking your shot while you can. Aaron Jones (28 years old in December), for instance, might have only one more year left as a high-end running back. So maybe Rodgers’ play picks up, the Packers see more from the top of this year’s draft class that bodes well for 2023, and they will give it another go.
There’s also a chance Rodgers and the Packers agree ‘23 will be his final season in the NFL. Then the Packers could exercise Love’s fifth-year option (in the $20 million-plus range) by the deadline next May knowing he’ll get his shot in ’24. If Rodgers is still their quarterback, there’s no way the team can afford both on the roster in ’24.
But it’s also worth pointing out the Packers’ limitations in re-tooling their roster next year. They’re only a few million dollars under the salary cap for ’23, give or take what the final cap limit becomes. They face another offseason of mortgaging contracts to the hilt and even then won’t be brimming with cap room to add a couple of new players along with re-signing some of their own.
On the other hand, what if the Packers muddle along in the second half of the season like they have the first? Then there would be a point they’d have to play Love to see what they have. That surely would not go over well with a proud future Hall of Famer. But how could they not take a look, unless they’ve already decided Love isn’t good enough?
As for Love, it’s worth noting linebacker De’Vondre Campbell’s take on the 2020 first-round pick on his weekly Clubhouse Live webcast just this week. When the discussion turned to Love, Campbell matter-of-factly said, “He’s a starting quarterback,” and then, “He’s better than a lot of starting quarterbacks.”
Now, Campbell’s surely not the first teammate to say that about a young backup quarterback, and looking good in practice even against starters is one thing, but doing it in the heat of real games is another.
Until Love shows he can handle blitzes much better than he did against the Kansas City Chiefs in his lone start last year, his prospects as a winning starter are very much in question. The only way to find out is to see him in regular-season action.
If that happens, and if the Packers are intrigued by what they see, then the end of the Rodgers era in Green Bay gets real.
Aaron Rodgers' complicated contract situation will also loom large
Then there’s the matter of his contract. All Rodgers has to do is not retire and the Packers, or a new team, are on the hook for his $59 million guaranteed. It’s hard to believe Rodgers will pass on that and walk away from the game. Who would? But on the off chance he does, he could wait until June to make it official, and the Packers would pick up about $15 million in cap room in ’23, then push another $24 million to their cap in ’24.
Far more likely, the Packers would have to trade him if they're ready to move on to Love. Rodgers would have some say, because any team making a deal would want assurances he’s going to play for more than one year and to re-work his deal, too. You never know who might be in the market next offseason for a talented but 39-year-old quarterback near the end of his career, but Tennessee for one comes to mind.
The Packers face salary-cap ramifications for trading him, too. His contract is complex because of its huge option bonuses (guaranteed this year, not guaranteed until five days after the Super Bowl in ’24). But I went through it with Ken Ingalls, an independent Packers cap expert, and here’s the gist: If they traded him before June 2, they’d add an extra $8 million to their ’23 salary cap; after June 2, they’d gain $15 million in cap room.
The Packers conceivably could eat the extra $8 million in ’23 cap if they had to but surely would prefer gaining cap room instead. That’s a $23 million swing. On the other hand, a team trading for Rodgers would want him for its entire offseason program, not just in June.
Obviously, when it comes to Rodgers’ future with the Packers, there are a lot of factors in play and moving parts galore.
Circumstances have changed drastically, and for the worse, in the past eight months. Whether this is his last season with the Packers now depends on whether they change much in the next two.