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Brian Gutekunst is the captain now
Uh, "risk?" The risk is convincing yourself an apathetic 39-year-old quarterback finds the fountain of youth. Green Bay's GM is finally trading Aaron Rodgers, and the team is in great hands.
The truth doesn’t require a soliloquy of an answer. Nor dramatics. Nor an inkling of emotion.
From Day 1, Brian Gutekunst has handled a brutal task — severing ties with a future Hall of Fame quarterback — with conviction, class. Yes, Aaron Rodgers is being traded to the New York Jets. His run as the Green Bay Packers’ starting quarterback, as first reported by Go Long, is over after 15 seasons. Moments before the general manager’s annual pre-draft press conference, terms of the trade were leaked.
But, uh. Come again? Risk?
What sort of risk is involved with this trade?
Gutekunst cut to the heart of the matter as swiftly and devastating as Rodgers’ dagger-through-sternum Super Bowl throw to Greg Jennings on Feb. 6, 2011.
“There’s risk in the National Football League. We were 8-9 last year. We’re trying to get better. So, I think that’s important.”
He could’ve nodded and walked away from the podium with those words. That’s been the thorny factoid conveniently omitted through four months of discourse. How easily we forget the Packers were an average football team in 2022 and the No. 1 reason why was their average quarterback. This time of year, teams typically strive to improve their rosters. The Packers have finally chosen to upgrade at this position — basic, wise roster management. Had they ripped the Band-Aid off after the cross-body, third-and-goal incompletion vs. Tampa Bay in the 2020 NFC title game or the total no-show vs. Jimmy Garoppolo in the 2021 divisional round, the return would’ve likely been a minimum of three first-round picks.
If the Packers were willing to absorb the bullets then, they’d really be living like kings now.
Alas, this was the best possible scenario in the now.
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For the rights to a quarterback who could quit after this season (and a fifth-round pick), here’s what Green Bay receives from the New York Jets.
A flip of 13th and 15th overall picks in 2023.
A 2023 second-round pick (42nd overall).
A 2023 sixth-round pick (207th overall).
A conditional 2024 second-round pick that becomes a first if Rodgers plays 65 percent of the snaps. (Likely.)
The Packers also no longer need to pay Rodgers his $59.1 million guaranteed in ‘23.
Nearly every team falls into the same trap, as Hall of Famer LeRoy Butler pointed out. Too many clutch to their iconic quarterback too long and pay for it. That is the risk — fooling yourself into thinking an aging quarterback has one more run in him. Pretending that Rodgers would have an offseason epiphany in that Oregon cave and truly acquiesce to the team dynamic. The risk is sending a toxic message to your locker room that it’s A-OK to blow off the offseason. (Remember, other players followed Rodgers’ lead in skipping OTAs.) The risk is all of the collateral damage. Crippling the financial state of the franchise by cutting the QB’s fat check after check after check through another 4-8 slog is bad enough. But the Packers would also be trashing the career of the player who’s been preparing for this exact moment.
Jordan Love’s Year 2-to-Year 3 jump is what gave Gutekunst the conviction to move forward.
Trotting out the descending, disinterested 39-year-old who’s been flirting with retirement for three years at this expense is bad business.
Accountability was a must. It was Rodgers’ time after his comatose performance vs. Detroit at Lambeau Field in Week 18 last season. The sappy walkoff with Randall Cobb isn’t what the GM will remember most from that defeat, rather his quarterback going 2 of 6 for 12 yards with an interception in the fourth quarter. At home. With a playoff berth on the line. On the heels of so much playoff heartache. While he wouldn’t go as far to say Love should’ve finished out the 2022 season as the starter after Rodgers’ injury in Philly — citing the fact Green Bay remained mathematically alive — it’s time to see what another quarterback can do in January games.
Gutekunst might’ve even used Rodgers’ vanity against him. Judging by this trade haul, it’s fair to wonder if Rodgers’ defiance on The Pat McAfee Show did in fact give the Packers leverage in trade negotiations with the Jets. A desperate team with a desperate owner in the world’s largest media market was clearly down to one option at quarterback.
Everyone with a pulse knew the Packers didn’t want Aaron Rodgers as their quarterback and they still managed to get a second, a (probable) first and move up two slots in this year’s first.
That’s how you run an NFL team. By being bold, by believing the “risk” of saying goodbye is 100 percent worth it.
Gutekunst correctly noted Rodgers’ age before adding that he would’ve loved Rodgers’ input this offseason.
“That didn’t happen,” the GM said, “and that was a little bit unfortunate and disappointing for me. But at the same time, I just think as we move forward, we’re really excited with where Jordan can go. He needs to play. Having him sit another year, I think, would’ve really delayed where we’re going and what we’re trying to build.”
There’s time for a darkness-retreat podcast and an airing of grievances with McAfee, but the quarterback wasn’t able to squeeze in a conversation with the GM. Not particularly a surprise. For years, those closest to Rodgers have said he avoids face-to-face confrontation. One person who used to be close to the QB before getting cut out described Rodgers as “conflict-averse,” in my 2019 Bleacher Report story. Back then, he chose to stuff problems deep down inside. So even though he did ascend to an Assistant to the Regional Manager position two summers ago — when push came to shove, when the Packers wanted to engage in difficult conversations — Rodgers hid.
Gutekunst said he only conversed with the QB’s agent, David Dunn.
What now? The Detroit Lions are built to seize this opportunity, especially with the No. 6 and No. 18 overall picks. The Minnesota Vikings, for all their cap constraints, are the defending division champs. But there’s no reason the Packers cannot win the NFC North. This is a solid roster and that’s what made left tackle David Bakhtiari’s “rebuilding” comments on the “Bussin’ with the Boys” podcast so strange. Granted, Bakhtiari must straddle a delicate line as Rodgers’ friend. As someone right at the QB’s side back at the Kentucky Derby two years ago when the atomic bomb was dropped. What a weird predicament he’s in. But, as constructed, there’s no reason the Packers should brace for a 3-14 season.
Good on Gutekunst to bat away that question, too.
“No, I don’t ever look at it like that,” he said. “We’re excited about this football team and where it can go. Obviously, we’re a long ways away from what our 53-man roster and 16-man practice squad is going to look like. But we’re really excited about it. It’s going to be new obviously — specifically at quarterback. At the same time, the goals don’t change around here. It’s going to be the same goals we’ve always had. There’s one goal here every single year no matter what. Just like it was the last time we moved on from one quarterback to the other. The goals are the same. It’s going to be on those guys to put in the work and it’s going to be exciting to see. Nothing’s really changing.”
This isn’t GMspeak. He is correct.
The 2023 Packers aren’t quite the 2008 Packers — Rodgers was handed a well-oiled machine that came within one overtime of the Super Bowl the year prior. The receiver room is obviously ultra-young — Christian Watson (23), Romeo Doubs (23) and Samori Toure (25) all enter their second seasons. Even if the Packers draft wide receivers and tight ends, yes, they’re green.
“Maybe letting those guys play a little bit more in their second year,” Gutekunst added, “maybe that’s a good thing.”
The Packers are now quarterbacked by someone who genuinely cares about working with young receivers. That wasn’t the case in 2022. All those audibles and adjustments don’t fly with receivers who hadn’t received their high school diploma the last time you ran that play. Last season, a young nucleus was quietly growing behind the scenes. Love worked with the No. 1 offense plenty the final two months of the season in practice, and receivers frankly felt more comfortable conversing with Love about the offense than Rodgers because they could speak the same language. Matt LaFleur’s language.
Maybe there’s not a fancy, familiar name at wide receiver on the roster. There will be a pack of hungry players with everything to prove.
A No. 1, in Watson, who flashed star potential. A No. 2, in Doubs, who had a rapport with Love all summer long.
The 13th pick could net the best wide receiver or tight end in this year’s draft.
The team still boasts one of the best 1-2 punches at running back in Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon.
A defense left for dead after getting gashed in Philadelphia rallied. Last year’s first-rounders, linebacker Quay Walker and defensive tackle Devante Wyatt, looked like building blocks.
Love is ready to be The Man.
“We’ve seen steady growth through his first three years here,” Gutekunst said. “Last year, I felt through practice or a number of times because of Aaron’s injuries, when he had to take over the one’s during practice and some of the competitive areas, I just think we saw him grow and grow and grow. He didn’t get nearly as many opportunities as we would’ve liked last season during games but, when he did, he certainly answered the bell. I think it’s the natural maturation as a person, too. What is put on the quarterback in the National Football League’s plate is significant. There’s a lot to that. Not only on the field. And they’re going to go through a lot of challenges. But I think we started to see him grow into that role and felt more confident.”
This experiment in New Jersey has a better chance of combusting than leading to a Super Bowl title. The Jets have mostly been a farce of a franchise since the 60s. Rodgers could easily hit that 65 percent benchmark in a 7-10 season, handing the Packers a top 10 pick in 2024. At worst, Gutekunst gets another second.
The New York media won’t be forgiving. Playing in the cozy corner of northeast Wisconsin incubated the quarterback in ways he likely doesn’t understand yet. This new media contingent just may ask Rodgers about his 9-11 denial or other topics previously deemed taboo. Either way, the Packers have officially washed their hands of it all: the lethargic play, the albatross of a contract, the theatrics.
Most superstars in sports come with baggage, but this has to get old. Considering all the shrapnel Gutekunst has caught these last three years, his restraint is extraordinary.
Two years ago, Yahoo! Sports reported that Rodgers needed Gutekunst fired to end his boycott. He never did refute that report, instead returning to town with a list of demands that the GM met.
Rodgers used to tell his friends he’d “never be like Brett.” All the drama at the end of Brett Favre’s tenure? That’d never be him. Now, he’s also off to New Jersey.
Now, like Ted Thompson in ‘08, everyone sees who’s in charge in ‘23. Gutekunst is keeping the Packers at the forefront of his mind… with the same calm, steady hand. Former Packers exec Andrew Brandt made an excellent point in the lack of a true owner being a good thing for Green Bay as trade talks slogged along. “There was no owner to get impatient or emotional and demand a trade get done,” Brandt wrote on Twitter. “It seems that happened with the Jets.”
Gutekunst knows Rodgers supplied fans many unforgettable moments and — in the long run? — that’s what everyone will remember most. His number will be retired, he’ll get a street named after him, etc. If Rodgers chose to cut Gutekunst out forever, like he has to so many family and friends, whatever. He’ll be the bigger man.
“I have so much respect for Aaron and the person and player that he is,” Gutekunst said. “There’s so much gratitude for what he’s done for this organization. Again, it would have been nice to have those conversations, but at the same time over the last few years, I kind of understood that may not happen. So it’s different, and it will probably hit me a little bit at some other juncture when I don’t have a lot on my plate. But I know this: He’ll always be a Packer. He’ll be one of the best to have ever done it around here, and I have a lot of respect for how he went about it. He’ll be missed, there’s no doubt about it. Players like that don’t come around very often. But, at the same time, I’m really excited where we’re headed and what we’re going to do, and wish him nothing but the best.”
Like the quarterback, Gutekunst chooses his words carefully. Sure, he cites that the paperwork of this trade isn’t finalized, preventing him from dishing on any details.
He still made a point to bring up Green Bay’s record a second time.
“We’re chasing Super Bowls, and that’s an important thing. That’s what this is about. It’s not going to always be easy. It’s not going to always go smoothly. We were 8-9 last year. As we move forward, it was more about what we’re going to do to get better and have a chance to win this thing.”
The best GMs are devoid of emotion. And when you remove sentimentality from the equation, this is as easy as decisions get in pro football.
Green Bay is a better football team in 2023 and beyond with Jordan Love.