Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers shouldn’t be here.
The 16-year marriage between one of the most storied franchises and greatest quarterbacks in NFL history shouldn’t have reached the point where it dangles by a thread just months after Rodgers earned MVP honors for a third time.
But here they are: Rodgers unhappy and wanting out, per multiple reports, and the Packers as a result teetering, with general manager Brian Gutekunst in danger of committing one of the most egregious displays of mismanagement in sports since Jerry Krause broke up Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
All good things come to an end. Few legendary sports figures manage to spend their entire careers with one team. But a bitter end is completely unnecessary here. Packers officials could have completely avoided this drama by applying one of the most basic tenets of relationship building and maintenance.
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That’s what all of this boils down to: the failure on the part of Green Bay management to communicate with the face of their franchise entering the 2020 NFL draft. A simple phone call to Rodgers in advance of the first-round selection of quarterback Jordan Love could have ensured the continued stability of the franchise and an eventual smooth transfer of power from one signal-caller to the other at the proper time.
But instead, Gutekunst surprised everyone (coaches included) when he made the Love pick. Rodgers learned that the organization he led to a Super Bowl and 10 playoff appearances in 13 seasons drafted his replacement – after the fact.
Any frustration and bewilderment on the part of Rodgers was completely understandable — not because teams don’t draft rookies with veterans in place. (Rodgers was that selection when Brett Favre still had plenty left in the tank.) But Packers brass lacked the professional courtesy and respect for Rodgers to give him a heads-up and explain their plans for him, Love and the future.
It wouldn’t have been hard. Earlier this spring, San Francisco general manager John Lynch reached out to Jimmy Garoppolo after the 49ers traded for the third overall pick of this year’s draft. The team would be drafting a quarterback, but Lynch wanted Garoppolo to hear it from him and to explain where he fit into the franchise’s plans. If Lynch could extend that courtesy to the oft-injured and far less accomplished Garoppolo, surely Gutekunst could have provided the same assurances for Rodgers.
Despite the slight, Rodgers used the Love selection as motivation. He orchestrated one of the finest seasons of his career and brought the Packers within one game of reaching the Super Bowl.
But it was clear that even last year’s success and the improved comfort with head coach/play-caller Matt LaFleur hadn’t set Rodgers at ease. Asked about his future following the NFC championship defeat, he responded, “That’s outside of my control. My future is a beautiful mystery, I think.”
And as the offseason ensued, Rodgers’ frustrations persisted. That’s where Packers officials made their second mistake.
Gutekunst should have known mishandled the 2020 draft. If he didn’t, team president and chief executive officer Mark Murphy should have seen to it that he did. And on the day after the NFC championship game loss to Tampa Bay, the Packers should have approached Rodgers and his camp about his contract, which has three seasons left on it but no remaining guaranteed money.
Reworking the contract to include guaranteed money over the life of the deal as a thank-you/atonement could have made a difference. (And considering the fact that Love didn’t dress for a single game, Green Bay’s plans of competing now and developing for the future could have continued).
The Packers have repeatedly said they’re committed to Rodgers beyond 2021, but actions seal deals and reflect commitment. Communication and appreciation keep relationships afloat and partnerships intact. But for whatever reason, those two principles have been neglected in all of this, and that’s why any discontentment in Rodgers’ mind only festered.
Fittingly, the bombshell of Rodgers wanting out dropped on the one-year anniversary of the day that the organization embarrassed him. And now the NFL world watches and waits to see how this will play out.
Gutekunst and Murphy must do everything in their power to convince Rodgers to forge ahead. Every move they have made this offseason is centered on positioning this team for a Super Bowl run. Rodgers’ departure, and Love’s incomplete development, would set the franchise back dramatically.
They can try to appeal to Rodgers’ fondness of Green Bay history, but that alone likely will not suffice.
The only other element the Packers have on their side is time. Nearly three months remain between now and the start of training camps. There’s plenty of time for negotiations toward a contract extension. Guekunst should travel to wherever Rodgers is spending his offseason and hear the quarterback out. He could even bring LaFleur, although the coach didn’t make this mess, and Rodgers’ beef is not with him.
The Packers neglected the basics a year ago and now they’re paying the price. Now they must be willing to take drastic measures to make amends.
Follow USA TODAY Sports NFL columnist Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.