GM Brian Gutekunst’s failure to do the bare minimum in managing his star could cost Green Bay a legendary quarterback still in his prime.
The Packers’ choice of Jordan Love was such a colossal blunder that it turned into the worst pick in two drafts. It was the head-scratcher of 2020, and now it is the talk of 2021, with ESPN’s Adam Schefter reporting that Aaron Rodgers wants out of Green Bay.
Pinning the Rodgers/Packers rift entirely on the Love pick is reductive. But picking another quarterback in the first round last year was the pivot point, and that was the decision that illustrates just how poorly the Packers have managed this situation. Rodgers registers every slight and he can be petty almost to the point of vindictive, but also: He is Aaron Rodgers. If keeping him happy is too annoying for you, you shouldn’t be running an NFL team.
This is how pro sports work now. Players have power and they use it. The general managers who have had the most success with LeBron James all understood that this is a line they have to walk. Having James is rarely easy, but he is always worth it. Former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin always appreciated that he had—these are his words—the Babe Ruth of basketball. Pat Riley understood it and did everything he could to make James happy and successful with the Miami Heat. Now Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka understands that part of his job is “serving the guys.”
Keeping Aaron Rodgers happy is not a nuisance. It is a critical part of the job for anybody running the Packers. Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst has done a lot right, but he has botched this.
And keeping Rodgers happy does not mean “draft a receiver in the first round.” That is also reductive. Rodgers wants to win Super Bowls. He is brilliant and crafty, and he loves sending messages through the media while retaining plausible deniability, but he isn’t doing it for some illogical reason. It is very easy to watch Rodgers and think he should have won four Super Bowls by now. It is also very easy to imagine Rodgers thinking the same.
Players like this are so rare that teams need to do everything they can to keep them happy, because finding another like that is pretty much impossible. Think of the other quarterbacks who have hinted at unhappiness this year. Russell Wilson? Hall of Famer, Super Bowl champ, not as good as Rodgers. Matthew Stafford? Deshaun Watson? Great players, both. Neither one of them is as great as Rodgers. The Packers have surrounded Rodgers with talent. They have paid him well. But they should have done everything they could to build the best team in the league, and instead, they assumed Rodgers could keep them in contention while they planned for the future.
Drafting Love without even telling Rodgers ahead of time, as ESPN reported, was gross mismanagement. That is just not how great franchises operate these days. But drafting Love at all was also gross mismanagement. The more you look for logic behind that move, the less you find.
If the Packers think drafting Love while they had Rodgers was just a repeat of drafting Rodgers while they had Brett Favre, they don’t know their own history very well. Favre was already pondering retirement when the Packers drafted Rodgers. It was an ongoing conversation topic in Wisconsin. Favre’s favorite receiver, Donald Driver, said publicly that he thought Favre would retire, and Favre did not tell the team until March that he planned to come back. Drafting a potential replacement a month later made complete sense.
When the Packers drafted Love, Rodgers was coming off a two-season stretch during which he threw 51 touchdown passes and six interceptions. Green Bay had just gone 13–3 and made the NFC championship game. Rodgers was 36, in a league where the best quarterbacks can play into their 40s, and he had openly discussed wanting to play that long.
The Packers did not have to draft a receiver for Rodgers. They did not even have to draft an offensive player. But they used a first-round pick on the only position that cannot help Rodgers win the Super Bowl. Of course he was angry.
Love will surely contribute more to his team than fellow first-rounder Isaiah Wilson contributed to the Titans; Wilson seemed incapable of being a professional football player and is no longer in Tennessee. But that debacle just cost Tennessee a draft pick. The Love pick was worse because the moment it happened, it was guaranteed to make the franchise worse.
Consider how this could have played out. If Rodgers bit his lip and kept going, Love would never play for Green Bay. Rookies sign four-year contracts, and it was clear a year ago that Rodgers probably had at least four excellent years left. Trading Love at some point would not recoup a first-round pick. Waiting for years would force the Packers to either pick up the expensive fifth-year option on a backup quarterback, forfeiting the advantage of starting a quarterback on a rookie salary, or let Love leave.
The more likely possibility is what we are seeing now. Rodgers feels wronged, and anybody who knows Rodgers knows that he doesn’t shake that feeling easily.
If the Packers keep him, they have a great but bitter quarterback, instead of a great and happy one—and Love still does nothing for them. If they deal Rodgers, they will get a nice haul, but then they don’t have Aaron Rodgers anymore. They are just another team hoping their quarterback is good enough to win. Ask the 49ers and Rams how that feels. Love might be a viable NFL starter. He might even be a very good one. He is not going to be as good as Rodgers. Very few quarterbacks in history are as good as Rodgers.
The Packers are a delightfully old-school franchise in many ways, from the fact that a team in Green Bay even exists to the uniforms to Lambeau Field to the draft-and-develop philosophy. But they still must compete in modern times. Joe Montana did not like Bill Walsh’s Steve Young obsession, but he had to put up with it because he had no choice. Favre did not like the Rodgers pick, but other than flirting with retirement and trying to use public opinion to shame the team, he couldn’t do much.
It’s a new era. What can Rodgers do to get out of Green Bay? We’re about to find out. This is the situation Gutekunst created. He was the one who wanted to think beyond Aaron Rodgers. How is he enjoying that now?