GREEN BAY, Wis. — One word to describe Aaron Rodgers right now, at this moment, at 37, after five months of tumult, entering a Packers season he had serious doubts that he’d be part of a month ago:
You thought I might say blunt, or vindictive, or, if using a compound word, told-you-so. No. None of those.
Coach Matt LaFleur, in fact, was so impressed with the mindset and mien of this Aaron Rodgers who showed up on the eve of training camp that he asked him to break down the team after the first practice of camp. For the team that’s lost the NFC title game two years in a row, this camp is the start of a vital season, and so this first practice of camp is a big deal, for setting the tempo of the six weeks to come. And LaFleur chose to hand the first-practice message to the biggest headline-maker of the NFL’s 102nd season. Of course I wanted to know what Rodgers said. LaFleur hesitated, not wanting to disclose personal, team stuff.
“Ask Aaron if he’ll tell you,” LaFleur said.
Rodgers, on his first vet off-day of the summer, was sitting in the shade on a bench at the Packers’ practice field across the street from Lambeau Field, when I asked him about it. Wearing a ballcap and featuring the faintest spritz of gray around his chin in his customary scruffy short beard, Rodgers thought about that post-practice session. “I can’t remember the exact words,” he said, “but I said your thoughts are becoming real things. I talked about a positive mindset. I did want to assure the guys how special it was to be back, how committed I am to the team, how special the relationships are to me, how focused I am on this season and accomplishing all of our goals. But I talk a lot about positivity, about a mindset, about manifestation, about embracing the journey. That stuff that’s really important to me. Be present. This is a great time in our lives.”
When we look up at the ceiling at night, and we think about everything, of course we think about what the future holds. Rodgers too. But in 17 minutes together, he wouldn’t go there, to 2022. No speculation whether he’ll be traded somewhere, or whether he’ll stay in Green Bay, or the remote chance he’ll retire. His feet will stay where they are, as they say.
He did, however, say something I didn’t expect: “Last year at this time, I was looking at the season as my last year in Green Bay.”
The info dump on what I know about Rodgers and Green Bay’s future at quarterback:
• Rodgers wanted out. The Packers held firm. Rodgers didn’t want to retire. Strip away everything about the terms of engagement going forward, and it comes down to this: In 2022, he will either agree to stay in Green Bay (and perhaps sign an extension) or request a trade, likely with some say about his landing spot. The Packers, I am told, will not release him in 2022. If Rodgers finishes 2022 in Green Bay without an extension, he will be an unrestricted free agent in 2023, at age 39. In that case, the pursuit of him would be even more intense than it was for 42-year-old Tom Brady in March 2020.
• I don’t think Rodgers knows what 2022 will bring. The Packers certainly don’t.
• His airing-of-grievances press conference 19 days ago angered Packers brass that had laid down olive branches to him since his offseason of discontent began. But it’s been harmonious in Packerland since that afternoon. “This is the best Aaron’s been around the team since I’ve been here,” coach Matt LaFleur told me. “I turn around at practice sometimes, and I see him with his arm around [rookie center] josh myers or maybe [right guard] Lucas Patrick, explaining everything they need to know.”
• Jordan Love, the pivot-point first-round pick of all the discontent, hasn’t wowed the team. Good days, shaky days. But I’d be cautious about saying the 26th pick in the 2020 draft is in trouble. Rodgers, the 24th pick in 2005, had more than his share of lousy moments in years one and two behind Brett Favre. Love’s decision-making must improve. But some quarterbacks take more nurturing than others. One of the biggest problems in football today is impatience with young quarterbacks, and I got the sense the Packers think Love’s not ready for prime time yet.
• No sign of any lingering pissed-offedness in Rodgers, on or off the record. The surprising thing, one confidant told me, about the rancorous offseason is that Rodgers never seemed angry about it. He controlled what he could control, and when he figured the Packers wouldn’t cave and trade him, he had to decide whether to come back or sit the season or retire. At one point, he was 50-50 about walking away from the game, at least for now. “I thought if he did come in, we’d get the best version of Aaron,” said LaFleur.
• Taking the temperature of the building—with execs, LaFleur, players, Rodgers—left me thinking this team’s going to be really good again. Every word Rodgers says will be micro-analyzed all season, but I’ll be surprised if he leaves many crumbs on his trail to 2022. I’ll be surprised if he’s a distraction. Green Bay should be the class of the NFC North again, and then, particularly with star left tackle David Bakhtiari projected to return from his knee injury before midseason, Rodgers-Brady II for the NFC Championship isn’t far-fetched.
“Let’s face it,” LaFleur said. “It would have been bad for the game of football if Aaron wasn’t here.”
I don’t know this, but I believe Rodgers was leaning toward coming back for a while before he walked into the building July 27 for the first time in six months. Though he has so many other interests, nothing would have replaced football for him.
“I really do love it,” he said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have come back. I’ve got so many other things that I love and I’m passionate about. I love competing. I love practice, still. I’ve had a really good camp. Last year I felt like I started a little slow and then something clicked. I’ve actually had a really good camp here. I feel good about where I’m at.
“It was a little strange the first couple days. I came back knowing . . . Really, the reason I came back is because I felt like I could be 100 percent committed to the team and 100 percent focused and locked in. Knowing all the different responsibilities that I have, including side conversations with the Josh Meyerses of the world. I was ready for that and that’s why I decided to commit, come back.
“I think a lot of how I’ve felt is perspective. Perspective leads to a lot of the happiness in your life. If we’re looking for things to be upset about or pissed off about, I’m sure we can find them in our own life. If we’re looking for what we don’t have, I’m sure we can find it. But if we can focus on the thing we do have and the things we’re grateful for, then every day can be a little more special than the last because you realize how great of an opportunity we have.
“For me to still be playing, to still have these relationships, to grow relationships with guys like Davante Adams and Allen Lazard, David Bakhtiari and Marcedes Lewis, Jaire Alexander and some of these guys I’ve gotten close to the last few years. Part of what I love is getting to know these other guys—our tight end, Bronson Kaufusi, I love him. One of the happiest guys ever. My locker mate, [backup linebacker] Oren Burks, who’s a super-sweet, genuine, good human. Or the younger guys that we brought in off the street who are still trying to figure out how to talk to the old guy with some gray in his beard. You watch the speeches from the Hall of Fame guys and they talk about how the relationships are the most important thing. And when I walked in that first day, I wanted to reassure all of them where I was mentally—not that they really needed to hear it. I felt so much love from those guys.”
At practice, the wry Rodgers returned. If you’ve seen the legs of 247-pound running back A.J. Dillon, you’ve seen the thickest running-back legs in the NFL.
“Your legs get smaller this offseason?” Rodgers deadpanned to Dillon one day.
“Nope,” Dillon said. “Put four pounds on each of ‘em.”
Rodgers actually enjoys training camp. “Camp hasn’t really been a drudgery since they outlawed two-a-days,” he said. “Some of these young kids don’t realize how good we got it. The meetings can be beatings at times, as my old buddy Favre used to say. But, perspective. I can’t be upset about training camp because any old player like myself has been through some s— that it’s just not the same anymore. How can you be upset when you’re not practicing twice a day? And you’re not in there at 7 and out at 11? I mean, shoot, I get back to my house on a late day at 8 o’clock? That’s pretty damn good.”
The occasional vet day off helps in a player’s 17th year. “I was teasing Matt,” Rodgers said. “I said, Mike [McCarthy] used to say, ‘Hey head out to the golf course, man. Take a personal day.’ So I asked Matt, Is this a real vet day or a fake vet day? Matt was like, ‘I think it’s a fake vet day.’ So I did a workout, stretched, hung out with Marcedes Lewis. It wasn’t crucial for me. My arm feels really great.”
I said: “Today’s August 11. If you weren’t here, playing football, where would you be? What would you be doing?”
Rodgers responded, “I’d definitely be in another country, doing something. Traveling, outdoors. Maybe Europe. I’d like to go to parts of Europe I haven’t been to—the south of France, then some of the historical stuff in Germany, Poland, Belgium. Something like that.”
I asked about GM Brian Gutekunst and president Mark Murphy, and whether he’d be able to have civil or good relationships with them after the fluff of this offseason.
“I mean, the people I have to deal with every day is the staff, my teammates,” Rodgers said. “I have a really good relationship with the staff. Once you get into the football season, those are the most important relationships because you’re talking with them every day. I’ve always had a good relationship with Matt when it comes to play-calling and installs and stuff I like. Then obviously having [offensive coordinator Nathaniel] Hackett, who’s a close friend, in the room, and [passing game coordinator Luke] Getsy. Those are the most important relationships.
“The other one [Gutekunst], you know, I leave space and optimism for growth and change. But, you know, at this point, my focus is just on the football staff and making sure those conversations and communication are right going into the season.”
Maybe Rodgers said somewhere that a year ago he approached the season as if it was his last in Green Bay; I hadn’t heard that. He said it when I asked him if it was hard for him, or distracting, to know this might be his last year as a Packer. “Last year, I need to look at the year that way for perspective,” Rodgers said. “Just to enjoy all the little things that I’ve been able to be a part of over the last 15-plus years at the time. Helped me have a great season, mentally, quality-of-life-wise, happiness-wise. And I had so much fun.
“I think because of that experience, I got a template for how to have the right perspective on things this year. For me, it really starts with gratitude. I’m not bitter about anything. I might not agree with some of the decisions that are made or the way things have been carried out. I have a ton of gratitude for this city, and the organization, the opportunities I’ve been given here. That’s what I choose to focus on—the things that I do have. That’s a lot of great relationships in the building, an incredible fan base that comes out and watches us every day in training camp. It’s been 16-plus really special years.
“The future? Who knows what’s going to happen. Right now I’m focusing on how special this moment is and this opportunity is.”
The opportunity, of course, is the chance to win the first Super Bowl for this franchise in 11 years. Rodgers is already an all-timer at his position. He’s won two-thirds of his career starts, and his touchdown-to-interception margin (412 to 89) over 16 seasons is positively insane. But he’s in the same place lot of the great ones—Favre, Drew Brees—are in. One Super Bowl. It’s not a donut hole in his résumé, but it’s something certainly he’d like to add to.
In order to do that, lots will have to go right, of course. One of those things that must go right is what I’d call the sound of silence. Rodgers’ words, for years, have been parsed like Russia-watchers parse Putin. Rodgers can’t have even harmless musings about his future, lest they become grist for the 24-hour sports cycle, possibly infecting his own locker room. My feelings is he’s too smart to let something like that happen, but we’ll see. When I asked him if he might talk about all of this in a book one day—I mean, the real stuff—he said he didn’t know. Then he paused for a moment, looking out at the practice field.
“Some things are better left unsaid.”
Good words to keep in mind this season.