The Thread: NFL teams must separate facts from feelings

This has been the offseason of the Unhappy Quarterback. Some got what they wanted. Others, like Aaron Rodgers, have not. How teams navigate this all will change the NFL as we know it.

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For a moment, let’s give Aaron Rodgers what he wants in this space. When the quarterback woke up Tuesday morning and picked out a shirt to wear at his virtual press conference for The Match, he chose a shirt that read… “I’m Offended.”

This, of course, came 72 hours after Packers team president Mark Murphy quoted the late Ted Thompson in referring to Rodgers as a “complicated fella.” The quarterback cares about massaging a public narrative more than just about anything else so, surely, this wardrobe decision was calculated.  

He knew people would lose their minds.

Is he genuinely upset about Murphy’s comment? Maybe. Is he being a child? Of course.

Right down to another swipe at his head coach for kicking that late field goal in the NFC Championship and a trolly declaration of how much joy he’s taking in having zero responsibilities this offseason, the presser was vintage passive-aggressive Rodgers. For months, he’s had a chance to say exactly what is upsetting him and why he wants out of Green Bay. Instead, this is how sources described his personality back in 2019. He is “conflict-averse.” He’d rather let issues fester and fester and toy with his adversary in front of a camera than address the issue head-on, than tell the world what he has a problem with.

Until the Packers declare that enough is enough — until he’s traded — we can probably expect more subtle shots.

More videos of Rodgers singing Taylor Swift in Hawaii. More “about the people” soliloquys that meander into no man’s land a la Billy Madison’s Puppy Who Lost His Way speech. Because what we do know is that his displeasure isn’t about the indisputable facts. The Packers are willing to make Rodgers the richest QB in the game. (It’s not about money.) The Packers have one of the most talented rosters in the NFL. (It’s not about winning.) The Packers have granted him all the freedom he wants at the line of scrimmage. (It’s not about the playbook or the coaching.)

The Packers have done just about everything they can.

The No. 1 storyline of this NFL offseason is not about facts, no, this is all about feelings.

Rodgers’ feelings are hurt.

He doesn’t like his boss, GM Brian Gutekunst, so he wants his boss fired.

This whole melodrama can get tiresome. We’ve tried to cover every angle of it at Go Long — and will absolutely continue to — but I certainly understand if folks are Rodgers’d out here in mid-June. By now, fans on both sides of the debate seem to want the same exact thing: For this charade to end already. It’s also true, however, that this all has hinted at the direction of pro football itself. Rodgers has taken this to the extreme but most all franchises with a talented quarterback will face something similar to this down the line. Owners and GMs must also make this same distinction between facts and feelings. Which do you emphasize over the other? With NFL stars taking their cue from NBA stars? The teams capable of striking a balance are bound to be more successful.

How teams navigate this all will tilt the balance of power in the league itself.

On one hand, you certainly don’t want to be a cold-hearted franchise that prefers its players conduct themselves as mindless robots. You cannot treat QB1 the same as, say, your long-snapper. On the other hand, you also don’t want QB1 demanding your general manager be fired.

It’s important to resist the urge to paint this all with a broad stroke and declare all the quarterbacks right or all of the organizations right. Each situation is different.

But we saw more QBs than ever want out in 2020. (Fully expect another round in 2021, too.)

Carson Wentz had every reason to be pissed in Philadelphia. The talent around him was pathetic. GM Howie Roseman (unlike Gutekunst) has made a string of egregious mistakes but, of course, is never fired because he has ingratiated himself to ownership. So JJ Arcega-Whiteside is drafted over D.K. Metcalf, Jalen Reagor is taken over Justin Jefferson and Roseman gets a shot at drafting another receiver the next year.

This QB was also sacked an NFL-high 50 times in 12 games.

Everything around Wentz burnt to the ground.

Russell Wilson was sacked a bunch, too. Forty-seven times, to be exact. And while that did fuel his desire to be traded, as one source in the know explained, a desire to be an NFL owner is why he wanted out most. Chicago. Vegas. Dallas. For one reason or another, Wilson believed getting to one of these teams could’ve accelerated him toward that life goal. Bringing the Bears back to glory, making football matter in Vegas, being around Jerry Jones. Eh. Maybe he’s right. The NFL is such a monstrosity, a player can build a legacy that lasts in any city. As for Wilson’s desire for more personnel say on this roster, he does have a pair of studs in Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf and that defense quietly became a force late last season.  

How bad of a job are John Schneider and Pete Carroll doing picking players with a team that’s won at least 10 games in eight of the last nine seasons?

The facts outweigh the feelings here, which Wilson seemed to realize himself. He decided not to take his unhappiness to Rodgers’ extreme.

Now, everyone’s lovey-dovey in Seattle.

Deshaun Watson felt lied to in Houston. When he signed his massive extension ahead of the 2020 season, he was told he’d have a say when it comes to big decisions, yet was boxed out through the hiring process that led to an uninspiring hire (David Culley). An owner turning his back on a promise — on a reason Watson signed a contract to begin with — seems to justify the hurt feelings here. At least a hell of a lot more than a team simply drafting a player at your position. Even worse, the talent around Watson drained to a sad, sad low. If Rodgers has one of the best rosters around him, than Watson easily has the worst.

The former Clemson star had arguably the best season of any QB in the league last season and his team still went 4-12… while also getting sacked now 188 times in 57 career games. He’s been a punching bag to Andrew Luck proportions.

The thinking here was that Watson had every reason to want out of Houston to reset his career.

Of course, things changed in a hurry. Since Watson made his intentions known, 22 women have filed civil lawsuits alleging some lewd, awful sexual behavior. Nobody wants him as their quarterback at the moment.

Matthew Stafford wanted out of Detroit and Detroit was ready to move on. Everybody got their wish with the first QB domino that tipped.

Then, there’s Rodgers.

His team has gone 13-3 in back-to-back seasons and was one third-down scramble into the end zone away from the Super Bowl.

The Packers want Rodgers to be their quarterback and as long as Rodgers plays anywhere near his 2020 level? He’ll be the guy. He’ll force the GM he dislikes to trade Jordan Love a year or two down the line like New England did Jimmy Garoppolo. The ball’s in his court. And for what it’s worth, Tom Brady never skipped minicamp after that draft selection.

Instead, he’s into his feelings.

Considering this is an infamously sensitive player, Murphy’s “complicated fella” line probably wasn’t the best thing to say. But, please, what he actually said was harmless. Murphy’s always been someone who (really) likes to talk and crack jokes in public settings. Watch the quote in its entirety below. Any player legitimately hurt by these words is unequivocally soft.

Of course, nothing will stop the Feelings Police on Twitter from fighting the good fight. The backlash to Murphy’s comment is a reflection of society itself. Right on cue, the usual suspects made this out to be much more than it was. The truth is that Murphy’s quip is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s probably far more he could’ve said about his quarterback.  

Hey, it’s always worth putting up with drama to an extent. It’s worth taking feelings into account when these are the feelings of a future Hall of Famer. Phil Jackson ripped one of his Hall of Famers in a book (“The Last Season”) and returned to coach Kobe Bryant again. Yet you have to think the Packers are inching closer… and closer… to saying internally, To hell with feelings. Enough. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out. There’s nothing else the Packers can really do, it seems, to make Rodgers happy because the facts are all on their side.

It’s on the team now to declare those facts are on their side, go on the offensive and trade him. As one person once close to Rodgers who has since been cut out of his life puts, this is a rare personality. This is someone who has zero problem eliminating people from his life “over nothing.”

“He would rather sink with his own ship,” this source says, “than confront anything directly or make a concession.”

The bet here, still, is that Rodgers doesn’t blink, that he is OK losing millions of dollars this season.

The Packers should live in their world of facts and send the QB (and his feelings) to Denver, to Vegas, to whoever’s willing to fork over the most picks and players.

Elsewhere? Don’t be surprised if one of the (justifiably) unhappy quarterbacks lights it up in 2021. Wentz is already turning heads in Indianapolis and sure sounds like a rejuvenated man.

In Philly, he was throwing to receivers who shouldn’t be on NFL rosters. He was running for his life. He appeared to be in a bad mental space.

In Indy, Wentz won’t need to play Superman. At all. This is one of the best offensive lines in football. Jonathan Taylor was arguably the best running back in football the final month of his rookie season. His blend of power and speed is rare. And the defense is loaded with a true game-breaker at every level — DeForest Buckner to Darius Leonard to Kenny Moore, the best player nobody knows.

Wentz simply wanted out of an awful situation. Wentz is now in a perfect situation.

His hurt feelings made all the sense in the world, he did something about it, and now we shouldn’t be surprised if the Colts win the Super Bowl.

“You try to not think too much about that, you try to live in the moment, live in the present,” Wentz told SI’s Albert Breer. “But like you said, when you look around and see not just the talent, but the young talent. And then you combine that young talent with what we just talked about, a lot of good dudes, a lot of not just good players, but good people? It’s exciting. Don’t get me wrong, it’s exciting. There’s something special brewing here.”

One other thought on this all. With more star quarterbacks clearly willing to do everything they can to force their way out — regardless of contract status, NBA-style — you cannot help but wonder if there’s a boomerang effect in front offices next offseason and beyond. Up to this point, the next quarterback in line to get paid almost always gets paid and the QB market only goes up, up, up to astronomical levels.

That obviously makes it more difficult to do business everywhere else on the roster. And, now, maybe GMs wary of quarterbacks wielding so much power decide to adopt a totally new model. The best teams are often piloted by quarterbacks on rookie deals, anyways. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more teams try to get by on the cheap at quarterback, build like crazy everywhere else and completely avoid this whole Facts vs. Feelings conversation. When there isn’t a $150 million contract at stake, these problems would disappear.

It’d take belief and patience from ownership, of course, to let a GM do this but maybe the time is now for a new, outside-the-box, Money Ball-like evolution. Enjoyed looking into the future on this with Spotrac’s Michael Ginnitti here if you want to check it out.

In truth, we might already be seeing a team give this a shot.

The New England Patriots went wild in free agency but decided to go cheap at QB, for now, with Cam Newton and Mac Jones. Considering the NFL Quarterback influences wins and losses more than any position in sports, it’s risky business. If an AFC Championship boiled down to a shootout between Cam vs. Mahomes, I think we all know how that’d end. But someone’s bound to do something different as that number keeps rising and as more quarterbacks wear “I’m Offended” t-shirts.

Mo Money, Mo Problems?

There are millions upon millions of dollars to be had. It was only a matter of time before the NFL embraced gambling. Still, there’s a reason it took until 2021 and I think Paul Tagliabue is dead-on to be concerned about potential point-shaving. The former commissioner, who retired in 2006 after 17 years running the league, didn’t mince words with USA Today.

In April, the NFL announced multi-year agreements with sportsbook partners Caesars Entertainment, Draft Kings and Fan Duel.

This is completely new territory.

“I worry about that,” Tagliabue said. “It’s interesting to me. The thing that always made me too hesitant to draw too many conclusions was that there were a lot of scandals (over the years), but they were always in basketball, where the idea is that if you get to one or two players, you can affect the outcome.

"Football, if you get the quarterback in football, presumably you can affect the outcome of the game. But if it’s not the quarterback and you get one or two guys, it may not affect the outcome of the game, which is why people explain there’s (been) point-shaving in basketball but not football.”

Again, we can’t recommend “America’s Game” by Michael MacCambridge enough here — it’s worth the $11.99 on your Kindle right here. One chapter zeroes in on one of Pete Rozelle’s greatest acts as commissioner in modern pro football’s fragile early stages. In 1963, Rozelle swiftly suspended Paul Hornung and Alex Karras for gambling. He knew he needed to secure the public’s trust in the sport. If anyone has any doubt in the purity of the product, they’d tune the sport out.

What came next were a good six decades of the league distancing itself from gambling.

Tagliabue, his successor, helped with this. In ’91, he even testified on Capitol Hill to stop the spread of sports gambling beyond the state of Nevada. While the NFL cannot pretend like gambling doesn’t exist — sports betting is now legal in 25 states, the District of Columbia and soon to be legal in many more — this sure is one hell of a hard right turn for the league.

Let’s hope we don’t see a scene straight from Blue Chips play out on Sundays.

Public trust is a delicate thing.

No Huddle

  • Maybe this is crazy talk but I kind of love the news that Tua Tagovailoa threw five interceptions at his first minicamp practice. It was just that… practice. Quarterbacks should be taking chances in this setting. Rodgers, for one, used to throw picks in practice all the time to test out new plays and new throws to new receivers. And if any quarterback in the NFL should be taking more chances in practice, it’s someone who played far, far too safe as a rookie. It’s Tagovailoa.

    Tagovailoa needs to gun it downfield to Miami’s horde of weapons this season. This is a huge year for Tua, as we covered two weeks ago.

    So, why not take these chances in the monsoon-like conditions he had Tuesday?

  • Only four players are still on the Raiders team that Jon Gruden inherited in January 2018 — Derek Carr, Nicholas Morrow, Jalen Richard and Karl Joseph. Gruden has gutted this roster and sure doesn’t have much to show for it. Maybe that’s why Carr made headlines in saying he’d “probably quit football” if he had to play for anyone else. In truth, he’s an the eternal optimist, has said similar things before and if we see more losing from Gruden and from Carr, even Mark Davis would have to consider hitting reset again. This is Year 8 for Carr and he has one winning season.

    As noted here, Carr’s 63 losses are the most ever for a QB in his first seven years.

    Of course, he’s also had Wentz-like disastrous decisions going down all around him but the pressure should be at an all-time high in Sin City. In a division with Patrick Mahomes and Justin Herbert and (maybe) Rodgers, it’s hard to imagine the lowly Raiders winning more than five games.

  • Stephon Gilmore didn’t report to Patriots minicamp. Scheduled to make $7 million in base salary this season, the 2019 defensive player of the year likely wants a new deal. He has a strong case to make, too.

    This is the final year of the five-year, $65 million deal Gilmore inked back in 2017. At the time, this contract raised eyebrows, especially in Buffalo. Now? It’s a bargain. The cornerback market has absolutely exploded with Jalen Ramsey averaging $20 million per year. Gilmore turns 31 in September and clearly has plenty to give. After seeing how much Bill Belichick spent in March, he probably wouldn’t mind being paid what he’s worth.

  • We probably shouldn’t freak out over a picture tweeted by a team, but let’s freak out over a picture tweeted by a team…