A brutal dance routine continues to play out in the NFL.
A star quarterback in the twilight of his career is cast aside, unceremoniously, by the team he carried for years. He’s discarded for the new, cheaper talent.
It happened to Tom Brady in New England and Cam Newton in Carolina this year. Last year, it happened to Joe Flacco in Baltimore, and before that, Peyton Manning in Indianapolis and even further back with Joe Montana in San Francisco.
Eventually, it will happen to this sterling new generation of young quarterbacks. Whether it’s Patrick Mahomes, Russell Wilson or Lamar Jackson, at some point their salaries will outweigh the value they bring to the franchise, and they’ll be let go. The reaper comes for everybody in pro football, no matter who they are.
That’s why Brett Favre’s thoughts on Wednesday about Green Bay’s decision to draft Utah State quarterback Jordan Love were not surprising.
Speaking on “The Rich Eisen Show,” Favre said he didn’t understand why Green Bay traded up to take Love in the first round of last week’s draft after reaching the NFC championship game in January, and that the Packers’ decision sent a “disrespect message” to Rodgers.
Favre is the ultimate competitor, so there’s a part of him that feels like given how much Rodgers has offered the franchise, like himself, it should be Rodgers’ choice when to move on.
That’s not how the NFL works. And yes, it stinks. But if history has proven anything, it’s that the best time to take or develop a quarterback is when a team absolutely doesn’t need to take one.
Think of how Brady landed in New England. Granted, he was a sixth-round draft pick in 2000, a developmental guy. The Patriots still had Drew Bledsoe, and this gave Brady ample time to quietly improve without the weight of expectations. In 2017, the Chiefs were coming off a 12-win season with Alex Smith, but they still moved up to draft Patrick Mahomes, vowing to sit the rookie for an entire season. Expectations were high for the Texas Tech gunslinger, but getting to sit and watch gave him time to refine his skills and contributed to him becoming the eventual 2018 MVP.
Even Jackson, the 32nd overall pick in 2018, had time to develop under Flacco. The same can be said for Rodgers, who sat behind Favre for three seasons before emerging as a legend in his own right.
So given the proven track record of this tactic, it makes sense why Green Bay couldn’t pass on the chance to select another gifted gunslinger in Love. He’s a superb fit in head coach Matt LaFleur’s offense as his arm talent is perhaps the best in this year’s draft.
Love made plenty of bad decisions at Utah State last season as he tried to make up for a poor supporting cast. He constantly tried to force completions into coverage. LaFleur’s preferred scheme is based heavily on play-action and boot concepts, so that should simplify Love’s reads while amplifying his ability to move and use his arm to make big-time throws.
Far less talented quarterbacks have thrived in this system. So if Love is given time to learn the plays and figure out what throws he can and cannot make — all while serving as the scout team quarterback against his No. 1 defense this year — he has the potential to be a Pro Bowl quarterback for years to come.
That makes his draft selection worth the risk. And there indeed is risk, especially in the short-term. Rodgers has the right to be furious, since he wasn’t given enough weapons last season and likely won’t have enough again this year. Green Bay once again passed on taking a receiver high in the most WR-rich draft in a decade, and the lack of premium resources the organization has poured into the position over time is infuriating. I’ll always believe Rodgers could have won more than one Super Bowl in his career if he had more weapons to throw to, and it would be hard to blame him if he feels the same way.
So if the Packers start out poorly, it will be difficult not to point fingers at the front office for failing to get him sufficient receiver help, a theme in his career.
However, even taking a first-round receiver this year might not have been enough to fix this. The lack of on-field activity leading up to training camp could make it difficult for a rookie receiver to make an instant impact in 2020, which is basically the sole reason they would have taken one that high this year. By 2021, when this would-be receiver would almost certainly be more equipped to contribute, even a receiver I loved — like Michael Pittman Jr. — still wouldn’t be enough to get the Packers over the Super Bowl hump if Rodgers really is on the decline.
And that’s what this has to be all about. Green Bay’s front office would never admit this, of course, but in a league that stands for “Not For Long,” it’s hard to believe that the Packers would have drafted Love if they thought they were just a few plays away from the Super Bowl last season with Rodgers. If you believe that’s the case combined with the fact Rodgers turns 37 this year, then you also have to believe that releasing the future Hall of Famer before the 2022 season, when the Packers can create $22 million in salary-cap space, looks mighty appetizing.
We also can’t rule out the chance Green Bay’s next quarterback transition could happen as soon as 2021. For starters, LaFleur’s offensive system is more plug-and-play than most, meaning athletic quarterbacks like Love have an easier time adapting to it than other systems.
The biggest reason the Packers might be motivated to start Love in 2021 is because teams have to decide whether they want to extend a fifth-year option to every first-round pick after their third year in the league, and most prefer to make that choice after evaluating a quarterback for two years as a starter, opposed to one.
Rodgers’ play hasn’t declined enough for the organization to start planning for the future like this. But this is the move an organization makes if it feels like the quarterback’s play has dipped.
That’s the thing about pro football. Whether Rodgers’ decline comes faster than we expect or slower — and given his legendary competitiveness, I’d personally bet on slower — we can rest assured that the reaper will come for him in Green Bay, leading to the same divorce between superstar and team that we’ve seen play out, one that Favre even went so far as to directly predict was coming.
“He was surprised they went in that direction … I think Aaron will finish somewhere else,” Favre said. “That’s my gut.”
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