Let me preface this by saying Aaron Rodgers would probably want you to know that the headline you just read is probably "clickbait" and might also contain "code words" that were specifically designed to make you, the reader, click on this story while making me, the writer, rich with page views. I don't know for certain that's what Rodgers would want you to know, but based on everything he's been saying recently, it feels like a relatively safe bet.
Over the past few days, the Packers quarterback has set his sights on "fake news" and "clickbait" while defending his relationship with new coach Matt LaFleur, who was hired to replace Mike McCarthy, who was fired in December because his antiquated offense was no longer getting enough out of Rodgers, who some people blamed for McCarthy's dismissal -- something Rodgers has denied.
Why is Rodgers so worked up?
It's only August and already there's been multiple stories written about the possible fragility of his relationship with his new coach, who has brought change to Green Bay in the form of a brand new offense. When Rodgers revealed that he doesn't like joint practices, some considered it to be an indirect criticism of LaFleur, who revealed on the same day that he does like joint practices. When Rodgers talked about his desire to have more freedom at the line of scrimmage in a more rigid offensive system and when LaFleur admitted that "one thing we have to work through is the audible thing," some considered it to be a sign of a possible early schism between quarterback and coach.
That's why Rodgers has spent most of the past week complaining about "clickbait," and talking about things like "code words" and how "the most expensive commodity now is not oil anymore," but "data."
Here's what he told his former teammate, John Kuhn, via the Packers' website:
"It's fake news, John. That's the media cycle these days. Unfortunately, the media -- other than obviously yourself -- there's a lack of integrity, I think. There's a rush to put up headlines that are clickbait because the ad revenue is based on the amount of visits you get to your website. So instead of putting in a title that aptly fits the forthcoming article, it's more lucrative to post something that's going to generate the most commotion so that your site or your story gets the most hits possible. And when you're in a really low news cycle like in June and July, when there's not much football going on, that's the kind of stuff that comes out. We don't need to spend any time talking about it because it's complete ridiculousness."
Here's what he told SiriusXM NFL Radio on Tuesday:
"Especially when there's really slow periods of news. A lot of these sites, you have like eight words to describe what the article's about. What are they gonna do? They're gonna put names and words that's going to draw the most attention to it. And that's what I was bringing to light. I don't think I'm speaking out of turn or ripping on anybody specifically, but it is what it is. That's the way that we ingest our data. It's so quick. We, ourselves, are flying through, whether it's tweets or social media filters or online sites, and we're just looking for buzzwords. 'Oh, oh, that looks fun, I'm gonna do that.' Well, they know that.
"The most expensive commodity now is not oil anymore. It's data. They know what they're doing. They're mining that data, and they're figuring out what people -- preferences, code words, colors, different things to get people to click on their stuff. Because the more clicks they get, the more ad revenue, and the more ad revenue, the more the salary, you know, that the company's making. And that's the way that the whole news cycle works. I'm just tired of being put in that news cycle. Because I've been saying the same thing over and over. Matt and I, it's going to be a relationship that grows over time. We're having a blast. We're friends. Ton of communication. And we're having a great time."
And finally, here's what he told reporters at his locker on Tuesday:
"We have a great line of communication. I'm not sitting up here, wishing people, 'I wish you just knew this.' I don't care. Look, I don't need to go out and prove to anybody how great Matt and I are getting along. Or him stand up there and say how great it's been. Look, we're having a great time. We're communicating. The conjecture is for clickbait news stories you guys can put on your websites. Not you guys, I mean like most of you people in here."
None of this should come as a surprise. It should come as no surprise that the media has spent a small portion of this summer writing about Rodgers and specifically, how he will mesh with LaFleur. It should come as no surprise that Rodgers has heard the outside noise and that he thinks it's all "fake news" and "clickbait." The two go hand-in-hand.
It's no surprise there's been a keen interest in Rodgers' relationship with LaFleur given what we know about Rodgers' relationship with McCarthy. In April, Bleacher Report's Tyler Dunne, who talked to dozens of sources, reported that Rodgers had a toxic relationship with McCarthy -- with Rodgers holding a grudge against McCarthy for his role in his 2005 draft slide, thinking lowly of McCarthy's football IQ, and sometimes going rogue on offense, which is why the "audible thing" between Rodgers and LaFleur turned into a story.
If Rodgers went rogue under McCarthy, how will he respond to having less freedom in LaFleur's system? If Rodgers didn't respect McCarthy, what will his relationship be like with a first-time coach who is only four years older than him? It's not like LaFleur is a proven offensive mastermind. He's been a play-caller only once in his NFL coaching career and things didn't go particularly well, albeit with a shorthanded Titans offense that included a cameo from Blaine Gabbert. Those are legitimate questions and concerns. Asking those questions and writing about those concerns isn't "fake news" or "clickbait." It's the job of sports media.
It's also no surprise that Rodgers has been going on his "clickbait" rants. In April, Rodgers responded to that well-reported story, which was written by a reputable journalist, by calling it "a smear attack by a writer looking to advance his career." By now, this appears to be Rodgers' default response to anything that portrays him in a negative light, even to stories that don't rely on unnamed sources and instead rely on things he and his own coach have said -- direct quotes. As Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio wrote Tuesday night, Rodgers "wants to be able to say whatever is on his mind, without scrutiny or criticism" and to avoid the news cycle even though he is "saying things that naturally flow into that news cycle." As Florio wrote, it's "easier" for him "to shrug at criticism as 'fake news' or 'clickbait' than to address the point that's actually being made."
Fortunately for everyone involved -- Rodgers, LaFleur, writers, and readers -- the season is three weeks away. On Sept. 5, the Packers will kick off the regular season against the Bears in Chicago and in the process, give us our first glimpse at Rodgers in LaFleur's offense.
As is almost always the case in football, sports, and life, Rodgers' relationship with LaFleur will likely be determined by how much success the duo experiences together. If the Packers' offense regains its position as one of the league's top offenses, as it once was under Rodgers and McCarthy, then Rodgers should be fine with having less freedom at the line of scrimmage and LaFleur should be fine with Rodgers changing plays more than he'd normally prefer. We didn't hear much about the schisms between Rodgers and McCarthy when the Packers were contending for Super Bowls and Rodgers was winning MVPs. It was only during and after the decline that we heard the rumblings of discontent.
So, can the Packers win with Rodgers and LaFleur?
What they have going for them is the fact that Rodgers is still one of the best quarterbacks in football and that even at his worst, he's still capable of piecing together a 25-touchdown, two-interception season. Imagine how dominant he'll be in a modern offensive scheme. Add in a defense full of young, intriguing talent and you've got yourself an argument in favor of the Packers winning the NFC North.
What the Packers have going against them is that Rodgers hasn't been operating at his peak for a couple of years now; LaFleur is a complete unknown as a head coach with an unproven track record as a play-caller; their young, intriguing defense ranked 29th in DVOA a season ago; and their competition within the division is Chicago and Minnesota, both of which were better than the Packers last season.
Winning cures almost everything. If the Packers win with LaFleur and Rodgers, nobody will look for cracks in their relationship. If the Packers don't win, Rodgers should be prepared to read more of what he would probably call "clickbait."