In this era of roving superstars, Aaron Rodgers doubles as an original malcontent and merely the latest flaky legend. The Green Bay quarterback is a different dude, but he’s following the same path that led several of his rare breed out of their towns.
The drama, simmering for years, may appear to be a stand-alone soap opera pitting the mercurial Rodgers against the rigid Packers, who seldom stray from their sustainable team-building model. Rodgers may be determined to do his own thing for his own reasons. But in this period of fleeing franchise players, his discontent also increases concern that transience is not a fad, but rather a generational attitude shift that will permanently change the calculus of what it means to be a superstar and what it takes for a team to retain one.
The math used to be simple. Money, winning and adoration added up to a happy superstar. What more could the face of a franchise want?
Well, there is the one thing he can’t have: the franchise.
It is lazy to consider this merely an era of enhanced ego and greed. This is an era that craves creative freedom, and it extends far beyond sports. The dream job isn’t a destination, but a vision to build a franchise around your exceptionalism.
Collaboration is coveted. In sports, that can lead to two paths: a desire for more voice in helping the team construct a possible championship roster, or a desire to escape and join forces with other creative geniuses. The footprints of the nomadic LeBron James are all over both methods.
Now the superstar NFL quarterback, the most irreplaceable asset in sports, has joined a party once exclusive to NBA greats. Tom Brady left New England after six Super Bowls and immediately won his seventh championship – his way – with Tampa Bay. For several months, Russell Wilson hogged the spotlight with his dissatisfaction in Seattle. Deshaun Watson is still upset with the Houston Texans, but he faces major legal problems that could derail his career now that 22 women have filed civil lawsuits against him alleging sexual misconduct.
But Rodgers’ fight with Green Bay defies even the evolving logic of this time. Even if you know the history of his increasing mistrust of the Packers, it’s hard to figure why the success of the past few years hasn’t improved the relationship.
Rodgers, the unquenchable quarterback, wants out of Green Bay three months after winning his third MVP, after advancing to the NFC title game for a fifth time, after posting a 26-6 record over the past two seasons. He wants out despite playing for a young coach, Matt LaFleur, who has restored the franchise’s offensive ingenuity. He wants out one season into a $134 million contract extension.
For him to consider coming back, Rodgers wants the team to fire general manager Brian Gutekunst, according to a Yahoo Sports report. A year ago, Gutekunst used a first-round draft pick to select quarterback Jordan Love. It was a classic Green Bay move, the same kind of move the franchise made when took Rodgers in 2005 even though Brett Favre was still the starter. Rodgers sat for three seasons and then took over after Favre’s messy exit, creating perhaps the most remarkable QB handoff in league history.
As a result, the Packers have had a Hall of Fame quarterback on the roster for 30 years. This is their way. They are in constant pursuit of continuity at the position. No matter who’s running the front office, they remain strategic and value-based in roster construction, not all that into making splashy free agent signings or tweaking draft decisions to placate their quarterback.
Their way works. But it is not Rodgers’s way. And it hasn’t delivered a second Super Bowl during his Hall of Fame career.
The tension had been building for years, but the news of his hard line stance still has been jarring. And the wait for conflict resolution could end up being longer and more complicated than any turbulence we’ve encountered in the last decade.
What does Rodgers want? Do you ever know with him? He operates at his own frequency. His is an incomprehensible brilliance, one that inspires awe when he concocts some kind of original, astounding play on the field, one that leaves brows furrowed when he can’t restrain his mercurial nature.
He wants what he wants when he wants it, and then he might change his mind. He’s different like many superstars are different. Extraordinary. Challenging. Defiant. But they’re all meeting at the same place. There’s little apprehension anymore about divorcing their teams.
Separation is becoming the expectation. If money, winning and adoration can’t satisfy Rodgers, if he doesn’t crave the comfort of 16 years of a very good thing in Green Bay, then do franchise players come with anchors anymore?
Rodgers has long been a freelancing maestro. He is the king of breaking plays, of drawing up game-winners in the huddle, of making Hail Marys seem like certainties and using his imagination to make up for any of his team’s shortcomings. His way works, too.
But Rodgers turns 40 in about 2½ years. “Jeopardy” is more likely to offer him the power of influence before Green Bay does.
Last season, it seemed like Rodgers was digging the collaboration with LaFleur. It seemed like, perhaps, their success would be fulfilling. His performance was disciplined and spectacular. He threw 48 touchdown passes and just five interceptions, completed a career-high 70.7 percent of his passes and directed the NFL’s highest-scoring and most balanced offense.
Assuming Green Bay doesn’t acquiesce to his demands and Rodgers doesn’t follow through on a threat to walk away while still at the top of his game, this Packers and their legend will be forced to live out the misery of competing for a championship together. The Super Bowl is within arm’s reach, if this silly wrestling match ever ends.
The Lombardi Trophy doesn’t guarantee healing now, however. Try reconciling that thought as this superstar independence movement expands.
Rodgers has a dream job. It’s not dreamy enough, apparently.