Aaron Rodgers is back in Green Bay, eliciting consternation among the Packer faithful.
To recap for the sports-unobsessed, Rodgers — reigning MVP of the NFL and quarterback of the Green Bay Packers — has been involved in a monthslong spat with Packers management about his future with the team. At 37 years old, it’s difficult to ascertain how much longer he’ll play at a superior level. Because of the uncertainty, the Packers drafted his replacement two years ago, creating a seemingly irreparable rift between the aging star and management. No man, especially one as talented and necessarily egotistic as Rodgers, likes to consider himself replaceable. So this past off-season, he went radio-silent, using proxies to voice his displeasure with the team while keeping the door open to better offers.
The standoff ended when Rodgers showed up to training camp with a deal to shave a year off his contract and a guarantee that the Packers will not franchise-tag him — a way by which a team can extend a contract without a player’s consent. The most likely scenario is that he plays a final season as a Packer and then is traded to a Super Bowl contender, with the Packers getting draft picks in return. This would be bloodless enough were it a corporate restructuring, but this is Green Bay, and the fans are hurt.
The incomparable sportswriter Vic Ketchman once described Packer fans as “winsome” — appealing, with a childlike charm — and it’s an apt description. To many supporters of the green and yellow, the Packers are family. We enshrine their numbers on the walls of our stadium, streets are named after them, local kids ride bikes with the team, and the city turns into a gigantic picnic on home-game Sundays.
This winsome nature is endearing and a joy, but when unpleasant business decisions come to the fore, fans find it difficult to remove feelings from the process. If it were up to a majority of Wisconsin, Donald Driver would still suit up, and Brett Favre would be the second-string quarterback. It would be the Geriatric Gridiron Gang coming to you live from Green Bay.
What offsets these impulses to keep and protect players beyond what is wise is the institution that the Packers have become. Because of its history, fan investment, and longevity, the Packers organization knows that unpopular but necessary personnel decisions made today will not adversely affect tickets sales. Fans will keep buying out seats at Lambeau Field because they always have, with the backlog for season-ticket opportunities being decades-long. Less established teams do not enjoy the luxury of perennially sold-out stadiums and often enter into ill-advised contracts with popular players to coax fans into the seats. The freedom to cut deadwood is a competitive advantage for the Pack and contributed mightily to the past three decades of success.
However, every system has its weaknesses, and the Packers’ flaw is one of structurally indecisive leadership. The Packers are the only team in the NFL without an owner. Mark Murphy is the team president, but he answers to the executive committee, which is selected by a board of directors elected by shareholders. Suffice it to say that Murphy does not have the same autonomy that Jerry Jones and Stan Kroenke wield. When Rodgers started acting out after the NFC Championship loss, they had little recourse but to placate the man. Had they an owner, the Packers could have had Rodgers on his way that evening. Instead, Rodgers and the team treated the fans to six months of standoff and petty sniping, a poisonous embarrassment.
Pundits will argue about who is to blame for the situation, but it comes down to Packer leadership looking out for the franchise’s future at the ostensible expense of the present and Rodgers navigating the end of a storied career. Both sides have valid self-interest; what’s changed from three years ago is that the Pack’s and Rodgers’s visions of the future are in tension. The Packers have to protect their finances from an aging quarterback, and Rodgers doesn’t have years to burn on rebuilding projects.
This next year will be Rodgers’s last unless circumstances shift dramatically because of injury or a lack of viable succession to the next quarterback. The hope is that the hurt that went along with Favre’s departure can be avoided this time around with a mutually advantageous trade that gets Rodgers another Super Bowl shot with a contender and sets the Pack up with a stockpile of draft picks. All we can do is hope and cheer, beer in hand and posteriors frozen to the same bleachers upon which our forefathers sat. GPG.