Now that we've finally heard from all the key players in the ongoing drama that has been the Green Bay Packers' offseason, let's focus on the first major takeaway from what has played out over the last three months:
This team isn't winning a championship this season.
That might seem like a bold statement about an organization that has been to the NFC title game two years running. But there's been too much chaos, too many questions about poor relationships, too much speculation that still exists about where star quarterback Aaron Rodgers will be employed at this time next year. That all doesn't change with some candor and a trade for Randall Cobb. Green Bay is basically about to pay a heavy toll for all the transgressions that contributed to this circus.
This isn't a question about talent. The Packers have loads of it, as much as any roster as you'll find in the NFL. This is about chemistry, that ultra-critical component that ultimately decides how far a team flush with ability goes in this league. From everything the Packers just discussed on Wednesday -- when Rodgers, general manager Brian Gutekunst and head coach Matt LaFleur all spoke to the local media in separate press conferences -- it still sounds like this squad has a long way to go before it can sell the notion that it's connected.
Yes, it was encouraging to hear Rodgers deliver a timetable on how his frustration festered so much this offseason that reports began spreading of his disinterest in remaining with this organization. Gutekunst and LaFleur also did their best to supply reassuring answers to hard questions. What we didn't hear throughout all these sessions was a concrete statement about whether this is going to be the last year Rodgers spends in Green Bay. The most we got, from all involved, was that this season is going to be the sole focus of everyone right now.
When Rodgers was asked if he expected to be in Green Bay next year, he said, "I really don't know. I mean, I think things are … in that direction, haven't really changed at all. I think I'm just going to focus on this year. There's a lot of moving pieces besides myself -- expiring contracts for a number of guys, so there's gonna be a lot of tough decisions at the end of the year."
Gutekunst, speaking earlier in the day, was similarly ambiguous when he received the same question about what happens to Rodgers after this year. "Right now we're just really focused on 2021," he said. "It's kind of a year-to-year business, as you guys know. We'll hopefully have a really successful season, we'll get to the other side of it and we'll figure those things out."
These are the two most important comments that came out of all those press conferences. Rodgers and Gutekunst told us they agree on one thing -- that this is all about buying time. It's about the Packers trying to do whatever is possible to hold on to their future Hall-of-Fame quarterback, a player just one year removed from winning his third career MVP award. It's also about the 37-year-old Rodgers trying to wrestle away control of his future, likely because he'd like to follow the same path that Tom Brady just took when Brady walked out of New England after 20 years and immediately won a championship with Tampa Bay at age 43.
As this column was being written, the Packers and Rodgers were still presumably hammering out the details on the changes that NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported would be made to Rodgers' contract in an effort to appease the QB. We will soon have more concrete information about what Rodgers can do following 2021.
Gutekunst seemed to acknowledge that there is some truth to the reports that the team will review its situation with Rodgers after this year, in the event he wants to be traded. "Aaron, with what he's done for this organization, I think he deserves at least the conversation every year about where we're headed, where he's headed, and to get together, and we'll make decisions," Gutekunst said.
The problem with that approach is that it's basically kicking the can down the road. It means the Packers are hoping they can spend the next six months placating their star quarterback. This certainly explains why news emerged within hours of Rodgers walking into the team facility Tuesday that the team was attempting to trade with the Texans for Cobb, a 30-year-old slot receiver who played in Green Bay from 2011 to '18. That move, which was agreed to Wednesday, was the first public gesture to affirm that Rodgers will be listened to far more often this season.
Rodgers made it clear that one of his frustrations with the team stemmed from how it treated key veterans in the past. He talked about his disdain for losing stars -- popular figures like Charles Woodson, Jordy Nelson and Clay Matthews -- while saying that these "were exceptional players for us, great locker room guys, high character guys, many of whom weren't offered a contract at all or were extremely low-balled or were maybe, in my opinion, not given the respect on the way out that guys of their status and stature and high character deserve."
Rodgers explained that the team's decision to select quarterback Jordan Love in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft without notifying Rodgers didn't play a role in his ire. The team not talking to him about an extension, coming off his MVP season, until May apparently was far more annoying.
These aren't the kind of things that are easily resolved. Winning may help, but the Packers have been winning for the last two years. They've won 26 of their last 32 regular-season games and nearly played in each of the past two Super Bowls. If winning was the ultimate deodorant, this summer wouldn't have been as tumultuous as it ultimately became.
The Packers are good enough to capture their third straight NFC North title after a difficult offseason. I just wonder if they're connected enough to do much more than that. The issues that Rodgers revealed are the kind of things that build up over years, which means they calcify in ways that impact every player in that locker room and certainly could lead to Rodgers becoming more disillusioned if changes don't happen quickly. What Rodgers did was give every other frustrated player in that franchise -- notably, star receiver Davante Adams also spoke frankly Wednesday about his desire for a significant raise in his next contract -- the right to believe this organization really won't have their backs when it matters most.
If you don't think that stuff matters, then consider what happened to a really good Seattle Seahawks team when some star defensive players started complaining about their contracts a few years after winning Super Bowl XLVIII and nearly winning Super Bowl XLIX. Just remember how drama entangled the Pittsburgh Steelers when relationships between the franchise and Pro Bowlers like Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell went sideways. Hell, look at what happened to New England once Brady started thinking about greener pastures. All those teams were still playoff-caliber. They just weren't championship-caliber.
The Packers are about to face the same fate. They're just at the point where they're putting a happy face on everything and talking about all that can happen if this team lives up to its potential.
To some extent, they should be thrilled about how their training camp opened. The other possibility of how the Rodgers saga would play out was far worse: that the QB wouldn't show up at all.
Now that he's back, it's fair to expect him to play at a high level, because that's what he does. It's also important to remember something Gutekunst said in his press conference when asked about the possibility of Rodgers moving on after this season: "The club will always determine what's best for the Green Bay Packers, but I think he's earned the right to have those discussions." That sounds very much like a man who knows he has a few more months to figure things out. The problem is that too much has happened to see a happy ending for the Packers when this year eventually ends.