When it was over Sunday night and the cameras turned to Aaron Rodgers walking off Lambeau Field in defeat against Detroit, it was difficult to keep from reading into his body language and where his eyes were traveling. It was easy to see that he seemed to walk a little slower, linger a little longer, stare a little deeper, like someone meticulously absorbing a moment that needed to last.
Judging whether it’s the end for an elite player like Rodgers feels like football meteorology. You study the front office and coaching atmosphere around him. You take note of the emotional currents in the locker room. Then you forecast what it all means for the end of his career. In reality, only he knows where it’s all going. And sometimes, as we saw with Rodgers on Sunday night, even the player can’t fully grasp what lies ahead.
That doesn’t mean Rodgers hasn’t given a preview to everyone looking in. Despite still feeling his way through the disappointing end of a frustrating 2022 season, the Packers quarterback provided enough information to boil this all down to three questions that will either layer on top of each other and culminate in another season, or collapse entirely and spell the end of his career in Green Bay.
1. Does Rodgers have enough desire to ramp up another season?
This is usually the first question that opens the door to the end for top echelon NFL players. Particularly those whose bodies are still healthy enough to continue.
It stops being a question of whether they can play and starts being a function of whether or not they want to play. While the 2022 season wasn’t his finest performance on record, Rodgers’ arm talent is still near the top of the NFL. But he lost something dynamic with the departure of Davante Adams and the Packers were never able to consistently replicate it down the stretch, even with Christian Watson blossoming the second half of the season.
Now Rodgers has a feel for how difficult life can be without Adams. He also knows there isn’t a guarantee that will change in 2023. This was the place that appeared to frustrate him at times this season: Trying to wean along younger pieces of the offense while watching the team fail stupendously at times when it came to playing complementary football. Few players want to finish like that, especially quarterbacks who are watching the sun set on their careers (see: Tom Brady).
Rodgers summed it up nicely Sunday when talking about knowing if the end has arrived, calling the moment of clarity “a feeling.”
“Do I feel like I have anything left to prove to myself?” he asked. “Do I want to go back and gear up for another grind? Or is it time? Is it time to step away? Is it time for another voice to be leading this team? I think I need to get away and contemplate those things. Those are real to me.”
If the answer to a return is yes, that conjures the next question.
2. Is the front office going to embrace a youth movement that leaves Rodgers on an island?
There should be no secret now that Rodgers prefers to be surrounded by his guys — veterans he knows, trusts and enjoys playing with. That’s not remotely unusual for quarterbacks who play into their mid-to-late 30s. As the locker room around them continually gets younger, their circle around them tends to get smaller. Soon enough, they almost become another tier of the coaching staff, expected to teach as much as play. And that can become especially hard when a quarterback sees his friends go out the door due to the march of time.
Rodgers showcased an aspect of this before the 2021 season, when he asked the Packers to go get his longtime friend, Randall Cobb, from the Houston Texans. It should have been clear to everyone then how much he values having important confidants in the fold. It's a reality that could present some problems next season, given the Packers’ tight salary cap and some of the free agents who are on the horizon.
Consider the Rodgers confidants who are slated to hit the market: Cobb, who is not close to performing near his recent pay scale; kicker Mason Crosby and tight end Marcedes Lewis, who will each turn 39 this year; and wideout Allen Lazard and tight end Robert Tonyan, who will each draw solid free-agent offers in March. It’s also worth mentioning left tackle David Bakhtiari, who is under contract through 2024, but carries a hefty salary and a laundry list of injuries over the past three seasons.
If those players are erased from the 2023 roster, Rodgers loses a significant number of the veterans he values. And that sounded like it mattered to him Sunday, when asked about what the makeup of the team would look like if he returned.
“That’s part of it,” Rodgers said. “It definitely is part of it. You know, Big Dog [Marcedes Lewis], who knows what he’s going to be thinking? Obviously Randall [Cobb], Mason Crosby, a lot of guys I’ve played a lot of football with over the years, [David Bakhtiari]. So that would definitely go into it because that’s a big part of what we do. It’s not just the playing. It’s the guys you play with and the chemistry and the love and the friendship that we have for each other because that makes a difference.”
If Rodgers wants to return and the team is going to be comprised of the players he wants to go to battle with, then this all comes down to the final question.
3. What kind of commitment will the Packers show Jordan Love this offseason?
Tied up in all this talk from Rodgers about needing to know the organization's direction is the continued question about Love's future. Drafted in the first round in 2020, a decision is approaching about the fully guaranteed fifth-year option on Love’s rookie deal. Green Bay has until a spring deadline (likely early May) to lock Love’s fifth-year into place. The price will be steep, expected to land north of $19.5 million for that season.
If the Packers commit to that option, they’re essentially signaling to Rodgers that 2023 will be his final season in Green Bay. There’s virtually no chance the franchise will put itself on the hook for more than $60 million in quarterback pay in 2024, which is the dollar figure that Rodgers’ salary and Love’s fifth-year option would amount to. Most especially when Love’s salary would make it a necessity for him to play that season.
As of this moment, there is belief inside the Packers that the team’s front office has already come to the conclusion that Love’s option will be picked up. Combine that with the ability to step out of Rodgers’ contract after the 2023 season for a net salary-cap savings of nearly $16 million, suddenly the writing is clearly on the wall. Effectively, it would start the clock on Rodgers' final year with the Packers and begin the clock on the ramp-up to Love taking over as the starter in 2024.
If the team is already moving toward more youth in 2023 and preparing for Love to take over in 2024, do the Packers really want Rodgers back for one last awkward hurrah next season? Right now, he’s not assuming the team is absolutely committed to another year. Asked on Sunday about whether he’s sure Green Bay wants him back, Rodgers suggested that’s still up in the air.
“It’s just a feeling,” he said. “I think to assume it’s a foregone conclusion [the team wants him to return] would be, probably slightly egotistical. So I’m going to be a realist here and understand that there’s a lot of different parts to this. Like I said, I was aware of the possibility of them going young if we had gotten to a point where we were out of it and I’m aware of that possibility as well [now].”
When you step back and consider all of those questions, the total picture is nothing but an ocean of moving parts. Maybe the team wants Rodgers back and he declines. Maybe Rodgers wants a return and the Packers are ready to move on. Maybe they both want another crack at it together in 2023, but can’t agree on what that roster should look like.
Very little of this can be answered in the next day or two. This might be a timeline of many weeks, with Rodgers looking at the March free agency period as the moment when the Packers need to have some finality in place about 2023. Whatever that stretch looks like, it first begins with whether Rodgers feels like he’s done. Until that is answered, nothing else really fits into place.
As Rodgers said Sunday, “At some point the carousel stops and it’s time to get off. And I think you kind of know when that is.”
As he departs to the offseason, that decision doesn’t feel certain. But the clock is ticking and the pivotal questions are fairly clear. Soon enough, the answers will fall into place — and the next step (or last step) of Rodgers' career will be close behind.