Spare a thought for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. No really, hear me out.
The NFL draft is Goodell’s centrepiece, his keynote moment. Yet when he triumphantly returned to the stage in Cleveland on April 29th, after being forced by Covid-19 to conduct 2020’s draft via videoconferencing from his basement, he would have been utterly crestfallen that he did not capture the full attention of the assembled nation’s sports media.
Instead, NFL owners, executives, management and observers from around the 32 franchises were glued to their phones or nearby TV screens as the fallout from Adam Schefter's report via ESPN that the league’s current MVP wanted out of Green Bay after 16 years received blanket coverage across all networks.
As Goodell did his best Taylor-Swift-at-the-Grammys impression, Schefter loomed large in the background like a malignant chattering Kanye, choosing to release a news bombshell that it was later revealed he had gleaned some days previously, thoroughly upstaging the forlorn Commissioner.
The seeds of discontent between Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have been widely documented; from the “four fingers of tequila” draft night when the Packers selected QB Jordan Love with their first pick in 2020, to January's NFC Championship game versus Buccaneers, when down 8 points at the 8-yard line of Tampa with 2:30 left to go, head coach Matt LaFleur brought on the field goal unit rather than trust his MVP to make the crucial play.
Famously the Packers never got their offense back on the field, and Rodgers spent the bulk of the offseason sulking; referring to his future as a “beautiful mystery”, guest-hosting the US gameshow ‘Jeopardy’, reportedly contemplating retirement, then skipping his team’s mandatory minicamp in June.
He pointedly remarked in an interview about how he had been “working on myself”, an ambiguous enterprise that seemed to consist of vacationing with his celebrity fiancé, ostentatiously attending the Kentucky Derby and being photographed playing golf with his celebrity pals. All very zen, I’m sure.
“I’ve focused on the offseason about how to take care of myself. The total package, not just my physical self, the workouts, but my spiritual self with my own mindful practices. My mental health as well.”
However despite his recent engagement to actress Shailene Woodley, the relationship that seems to be consuming Rodgers’ emotional energy has been his fractious rapport with Packers GM Brian Gutekunst.
Rodgers had specifically asked for ‘help’ to take the pressure off star receiver Davante Adams and elevate the Packers offense to Super Bowl winning-level, after falling at the final playoff hurdle four times in the last seven years.
Instead he suffered draft night disappointment once again as the Packers selected a defensive player with their first round pick; the 9th time in their last 10 first round selections that the Packers have chosen this path, the exception being when they picked Jordan Love. No wonder Rodgers’ chi is so off-kilter.
Cue a whole summer of psychodrama, as Packers fans began to contemplate what life would look like without AR12 under center, and the rest of the NFC North revelled in the possibility of seeing Rodgers suiting up in faraway places like Denver or San Francisco.
However Gutekunst always held all the aces and when he refused to countenance trading Rodgers, no matter the price, Rodgers found himself without any leverage due to the $37 million in salary cap space and multiple future first-round draft picks that would have been required by a potential trading partner to persuade Gutekunst to change his mind.
No player has ever been traded after winning MVP the previous season, and the only time a player has not returned to his team the following season was due to retirement, which became the only feasible option if Rodgers was that hell-bent on never playing in Green Bay again.
Despite Rodgers leaking a series of juicy titbits to the media, including how he’s taken to calling Gutekunst “Jerry Krause”, in honour of the former Chicago Bulls GM and villain of “The Last Dance” Netflix documentary, it came as no surprise when the inevitable compromise was reached off-camera, and a restructured deal that would allow Rodgers the ability to leave at the end of the season if he wished was agreed.
On his return to Green Bay for training camp, Rodgers was able to air his grievances against the Packers organisation during a packed press conference that required a king-size bucket of extra salty popcorn to do it full justice.
He outlined his general dissatisfaction with the organisation, his unhappiness at the manner in which several veterans had been released, how he wants to be a part of free-agent discussions, and the possibility he may finish his career somewhere other than Lambeau Field.
“Green Bay isn’t a huge vacation destination, people are coming here to play with me, to play with our team, and knowing that they can win a championship here. The fact that I haven’t been used in those discussions is one I wanted to change moving forward. I thought based on my years and the way I can still play that that should be a natural part of the conversation.”
He also insisted that he did not try to get Gutekunst fired and that their relationship was “professional” whilst reiterating that he wanted a bigger voice in the room when it comes to personnel.
Of course, the root cause of Rodgers’ angst is the knowledge that a certain Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. has enjoyed exactly these privileges upon leaving the Patriots and joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where Brady has been allowed huge influence in building a roster of offensive weapons that provided the springboard for the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl triumph in 2020, including their NFC Championship triumph over the Packers.
However it’s worth noting that the Packers did not lose that game due to a lack of talent on offense to support Rodgers, but the actual differential was the Packers’ then Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine calling for man-coverage on a critical play at the end of the second quarter, with the intention of preventing a short out-pattern for the receivers that would have allowed the Bucs to get out of bounds and kick a field goal.
But the man-coverage call also left cornerback Kevin King vulnerable for a deep shot, which Brady put on a dime for Scotty Miller and the rest is history.
In fact, the most significant change for the Packers heading into 2021 is the departure of Pettine, whose contract was not renewed at the end of the season, much to the delight of the Packers’ fanbase. His replacement will be Joe Barry, a coach with 25 years of college and NFL experience, who most recently served as the assistant head coach/linebackers coach of the Los Angeles Rams and worked alongside Matt LaFleur as part of Sean McVay’s staff in his first season with the Rams in 2017.
It’s likely that this will mean an entirely new scheme on defense, where Pettine resolutely stuck to the dime formation with six defensive backs, playing the least amount of nickel out of any team in the league at just 27 percent of snaps.
Barry desperately requires a corner to line up alongside Jaire Alexander, and with Kevin King a liability in zone coverage, the success of their first round pick, Georgia Bulldogs’ CB Eric Stokes will be pivotal.
Stokes, who was taken 29th overall by Green Bay, has worked almost exclusively with the first-team defense during pre-season training camp.
"He’s got rare speed. He can flat fly. He’s done a lot of good things, but has had some tough matchups going against Davante so much, but I am excited about him.”