The annual Aaron Rodgers will-he-won’t-he saga

You could be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu. With the end of the regular season comes the return of the NFL’s most tedious soap opera: what does Aaron Rodgers want to do?
Will he force a trade away from the Green Bay Packers after two years of will-he-won’t-he? Will he leave? – Rodgers put an end to all speculation when he signed a three-year, fully guaranteed, $150 million contract last offseason, making him the most expensive quarterback in the league and, it was assumed, a Packer for life.
Not so quickly. Rodgers spent the final seconds of the Packers’ 20-16 loss to the Detroit Lions on Sunday doing what he does best: sending cryptic messages.
Rodgers walked down the tunnel with Randall Cobb, pushing aside a videographer to enjoy the moment with his pal. He refused to swap jerseys with Lions receiver Jameson Williams, telling him, “I’m going to keep this one.” It didn’t take Benoit Blanc long to figure out Rodgers was hinting at retirement yet again.
The Packers limping out of the playoff race with a listless performance has become an annual tradition at this point. The quarterback is playing small in key situations. The quarterback has indicated his desire to leave Green Bay or the NFL entirely. The Packers throw money, hosannas, and pleas at the quarterback’s feet, and the quarterback aw-shucks his way back into the building. What were you all so concerned about? I never considered leaving. Instagram posts that are cryptic? Are you kidding? Can’t a global celebrity declare that he’s thinking about retiring in peace?
Rodgers took things a step further this time. He stated after the game that he is “unsure” if it is time to retire. When asked for a timetable, Rodgers stated that he was “not going to hold the franchise hostage,” implying that a decision could be made as soon as this week after completing his annual exit interview with the team.
It’s a rocky road for both the player and the team. Rodgers’ retirement would devastate the Packers’ cap situation in the short term, and given the structure of the contract he moped his way into last season, a trade would be just as perplexing. Rodgers will cost the Packers $31.6 million if he plays next season. If he is traded or retires, that figure rises to $40.3 million in dead money.
Green Bay’s situation is complicated further by Rodgers’ contract, which worsens if he chooses to return and then retires after next season. The $40 million in dead money they’d absorb next season would be chump change compared to the $68 million on the books if he retired after next season or the $77 million (!) in dead money if he left after 2024. It’s now or never for the Packers, and Rodgers understands that.
Rodgers has 59.5 million reasons to play football in 2019. And $59.5 million seems like a lot of money to throw away until you consider the booming sports broadcasting market or that Spotify would pay Rodgers a fortune to host “Aaron Rodgers: I’m Just Asking” on their service.
If Tom Brady can command a $37 million annual salary from Fox, what can Aaron Rodgers command from Amazon, NBC, or FanDuel? Late in the season, when hits from September and October continue to nag and throb in December and January, earning less but avoiding physical punishment may appear to be the more logical choice.
Rodgers must be tempted to retire at 39, after another disappointing season, with plenty of non-playing options on the table. Is he really willing to go through the grind of a season with a talented but inexperienced roster, lacking the tools (or organization) to make splashy upgrades this offseason, putting his body and mind through the challenge of a 20-odd week season, only to fall at an early hurdle?
Green Bay has a chance to call Rodgers’ bluff this time. Jordan Love’s rookie contract is about to expire, and the front office may be eager to give him a chance.
Last year, the team worked tirelessly to persuade Rodgers to return on a lucrative contract. They talked him out of his rage after drafting his replacement and trading away his best receiver, Davante Adams. They agreed to call in his former quarterback coach from the cold. And they did so knowing they were securing the back-to-back MVP. Securing Rodgers for three more years (at the very least) made sense. At best, he remained a top-five passer. And his game had all the hallmarks of aging gracefully.
A year later, the calculus has shifted. Rodgers struggled throughout the season, due in part to roster constraints and in part to his own decline. Elements of his game that were once the centerpiece of the Packers’ offense have faded.
Rodgers’ fastball has lost zip and accuracy. In terms of adjusted completion percentage on throws of 20 yards or more, he finished 30th among eligible quarterbacks. He now ranks fourth in a category he used to dominate, trailing Mac Jones, Jacoby Brissett, and Jimmy Garoppolo, a trio of quarterbacks not known for gunning.
Throughout the season, he cut a frustrated figure. The offense appeared to be out of sync. Rodgers was unable to establish chemistry with his new receivers. We hadn’t seen so much pouting, smoldering, or passive-aggressive glares since the Mike McCarthy era’s low point.
The Packers’ ability to string together any sort of run owed as much to an opportunistic defense, the run-game, and the elevation of a young receiver as the four-time MVP.
Rodgers has long been regarded as a one-man avalanche. He dragged bad Packers teams to the postseason. But he’s no longer that player. That has left him with two options: redefine his game or accept that as he approaches 40, he will no longer be able to conjure magic as consistently.
Rodgers may decide to make a change. Alternatively, he could blame his decline on the Packers and a lack of a supporting cast.
And what if Rodgers isn’t done with football but just the Packers? There will be plenty of suitors.
It makes sense to reunite with Adams in Vegas. But would the self-described free-thinker want to collaborate with the prickly, my-way-or-the-highway Josh McDaniels?
Returning to California to work with Kyle Shanahan on the San Francisco 49ers makes sense as well. Why stick with a group of young, talented players when you can walk into a room with George Kittle, Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk, and the league’s most dynamic offensive core?
How about joining forces with Bill Belichick in New England? Or will you be joining Sean McVay in Los Angeles? Or becoming New York’s darling by assisting in the development of a talented Jets core into a legitimate contender?
The question is whether Rodgers has the motivation to improve his game in Green Bay, whether with a new team or a new roster. “Do I believe I still have anything to prove to myself?” Rodgers posed a rhetorical question to himself on Sunday. “Do I want to go back and prepare for another grind? Or is it the right time? Is it time to take a step back? Is it time for someone else to lead this team?”
Those questions can only be answered by one person. We’ve entered another offseason of gossip, innuendo, ayahuasca, and introspection.