Just a few days ago we shared a light laugh when Aaron Rodgers talked about living in the moment. He called his future a "beautiful mystery" as he headed into what may have been his last-best chance at making it to the Super Bowl.
More existential than esoteric, Rodgers discussed the factors he can control and remaining grateful for even being able to have this moment.
So Sunday night, after one of the most crushing defeats of his career, why was it surprising to hear Rodgers openly discuss not knowing what the future may hold?
"A lot of guys' futures, they're uncertain. Myself included," Rodgers said after the 31-26 loss to Tampa Bay in the NFC title game. "That's what sad about it most: getting this far. Obviously there's got to be an end to it at some part whether we make it past this one or not. But just the uncertainties is tough and the finality of it all."
And later, when asked what's the next step for him, Rodgers again had no answer for the future.
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"It's a good question. I don't know; I really don't. There's a lot of unknowns going into this offseason now. I'm going to have to take some time away, for sure, and clear my head and just kind of see what's going on with everything. But it's pretty tough right now, especially thinking about the guys that may or may not be here next year. There's always change. That's the only constant in this business."
Was the line about his future in Green Bay necessary? Of course not. No more than any one of those texts or emails we've all sent that would have been better off as a draft with 24 hours to cool off. But in the immediate aftermath of a legacy loss, Rodgers needed to make a point.
The Packers drafted Jordan Love with the 26th overall pick in last year's draft, and it was then and still is the worst pick of the first round. Love never played a snap for a team that was one game away from the Super Bowl last year. When Rodgers inevitably returns to Green Bay for the 2021 season, which he is contractually obligated to do, Love may only see the field in the preseason as Rodgers defends his NFL MVP award.
Of the four championship-game teams, the Packers stood out as the team surrounding their star quarterback with the least. In Buffalo, Brandon Beane pulled off a franchise-altering trade for Stefon Diggs before the draft. In Kansas City, Andy Reid and Brett Veach continued to stockpile talent in order to "run it back." In Tampa Bay, Bruce Arians and Jason Licht acquiesced just about every Tom Brady request since March.
Should Rodgers have tried to run for it on third-and-8? Perhaps. Should Matt LaFleur have given the offense a fourth-down shot instead of kicking the field goal? Without question. Should the Packers have capitalized on Brady's three interceptions with more than just six points? Of course.
But it's no surprise that what came to the surface for Rodgers in the moments after his defeat was what has quietly motivated him all season. The Love pick, just as much as his squatting this season, has fueled Rodgers' best season at 37. Rodgers had to sit -- first in that draft-night green-room debacle and then later for three years behind Favre -- before he ever got his shot. Why can't this guy wait?
So naturally, it was a shot at Packers management, and it gets more play considering what's happening with the quarterback conversations already in the league. We are all wondering what the cost will be to retrieve Deshaun Watson from Houston. Lions quarterback Matt Stafford made sure this weekend he could get into the trade market before it was too late, as reports emerged that his services will be available for the right price (a first-round pick and maybe something else).
As our Joel Corry laid out in the spring, it'd be very difficult for the Packers to trade Rodgers this offseason and not suffer major financial damage related to their salary cap. He signed a four-year, $134 million extension in 2018 and the dead cap alone for 2021 would be more than $31 million. But what we have seen across sports -- and finally, even more so in the NFL in recent years -- is that if a star player wants out, he can get out.
Where does Rodgers go, if that's the case? I'm reminded of the old Erma Bombeck's book titled "The Grass is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank." To me, it's always meant that, sure, you can look over the fence and see green grass and think the situation is better. But what if the reason it's so green is because of the tank of waste underneath?
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In Green Bay, Davante Adams is both one of the best receivers in the game and one of its best route runners. Marquez Valdes-Scantling improved dramatically from last season. If the Packers re-sign Aaron Jones, Rodgers will have a fantastic ground game behind him with Jones and A.J. Dillon. Rodgers turned Robert Tonyan into a star. The offensive line held up well until David Bakhtiari's injury, and the Packers locked him up to a long-term deal just two months ago.
Meanwhile, the defense turned over Tom Brady three times. The unit ranked in the top-10 in yards, third downs and red zone. Head coach Matt LaFleur, whom Rodgers credited last year for making football fun again, is 28-8 at the helm in regular season and playoffs.
The 49ers would no doubt be better with Rodgers, and the Bay Area connection is obvious. Indianapolis's defense is built for a postseason run, and Frank Reich could get another veteran quarterback in there with the cap space the Colts have. The Bears have a defense and receiver (Allen Robinson) that could sustain a run, but a trade within the NFC North would never happen. And the sort of cap gymnastics that'd have to be done to get Rodgers to the Rams or Saints seem just as impossible.
After that, where could he go? Pair with Bill Belichick where the offensive cupboard is still bare? Kick Ben Roethlisberger out of Pittsburgh? It's hard to place Rodgers in a situation that is unquestionably better than the one he's in now.
The question of whether Rodgers would return to Green Bay in 2021 did not seem like a question at all to LaFleur on Sunday night. More than his words -- like "I sure as hell hope" he's back and "he's our leader" -- you could tell from his facial reaction to the (very legitimate) question from ESPN's Rob Demovsky that there was no clandestine plan LaFleur was aware of that would see the Packers move on from the soon-to-be MVP any time soon.
The Packers drafting Love left them without a player who could help the team in 2020. But it also very likely helped lead Rodgers to this magical season. …But it also likely led to Rodgers' comment we're all now discussing.
The future is indeed a beautiful mystery, but there's little mystery to me where Rodgers will be playing next season.