GREEN BAY, Wis. — Aaron Rodgers wrapped his right arm around Randall Cobb’s neck as Cobb put his left arm around his quarterback’s waist, the two best friends walking off the field they’ve called home together for so long, this time perhaps the last.
In a hallway adjacent to the main area of the Packers’ locker room not long after, Rodgers shared a long embrace with another dear friend, left tackle David Bakhtiari, before the two went their separate ways.
Rodgers, when asked on the field by Lions rookie wide receiver Jameson Williams for his jersey after the game, said he wanted to hold on to it and later explained there are “some special ones” he doesn’t like to exchange with opponents.
“It’s a night game, Lambeau, Week 18,” Rodgers said. “There’s just certain jerseys you like holding on to, like playing Chicago or big Sunday night games. It’s just a little bit different. It’s not keeping it. It’s a cool one to give somebody you really care about.”
And Rodgers, when asked what he’ll miss most if he decides to hang up his cleats sometime in the coming months, paused for 10 seconds while sipping from a water bottle at the podium before singling out six reporters that have covered him for the majority. of his career and getting visibly emotional.
“I’ll miss the guys,” he said. “I’ll miss the fans.”
Then he walked off.
— Sunday Night Football on NBC (@SNFonNBC) January 9, 2023
The Packers drafted Rodgers, 39, with the No. 24 pick in 2005. He has been their starting quarterback since 2008, a four-time league MVP and a Super Bowl champion. Like it was after last season ended, Rodgers’ future is uncertain. He has two seasons left on a contract extension he signed last offseason for $58.3 million guaranteed if he plays.
The scenes at Lambeau Field after Rodgers and the Packers fell short in a win-and-in game would have you think this is it for one of the best quarterbacks ever, but nobody truly knows if it is. Rodgers completed 17 of 27 passes for 205 yards, a touchdown and an interception, another mediocre performance compared to the ones we’ve seen from No. 12 in recent years in a season littered with injuries, a diminished supporting cast and his own regression.
What Rodgers said after Sunday’s season-ending 20-16 loss to the Lions sounded similar to what he said after last season’s playoff defeat to the 49ers in the same stadium. He’ll take enough time making his decision that it’s not driven by the raw emotion of another season ending prematurely, but he won’t hold the organization hostage.
“It’s a feeling,” Rodgers said. “Do I feel like I have anything left to prove to myself? Do I want to go back and gear up for another grind? Or is it time? Is it time to step away? Is it time for another voice to lead this team? I think I need to get away and contemplate those things. Those are real to me. I have a lot of pride in what I’ve accomplished in this league, but I’m also a realist and I understand where we’re at as a team. We’re a young team. There could be some changes with some of the older guys and it could be time to step away. But I could take some time and say, ‘Hell no, man. I need to get back out there and go on another run.’ But I’ll have to see what it feels like once I’m away from it.”
Rodgers has said before that he doesn’t want to go out like a “bum.” Asked Sunday if how this season ended and how he played might drive him to return, he answered “not really” before saying he has a lot of pride in what he has accomplished in the NFL and that “it doesn’t always end with rainbows for everyone.” If he does go out this way, Rodgers doesn’t think it’ll be like a bum, anyway. Asked if he feels he still has “it,” Rodgers answered unequivocally in the affirmative.
The first thing he mentioned after that answer: losing wide receiver Davante Adams and the inability to fill the void that remained. Even so, Rodgers might not get the chance to make it work in Year 2 with the likes of promising young receivers Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs even if he wants to play his 19th year for the Packers.
Aaron Rodgers: “I’m not gonna hold ’em hostage.”
Rodgers says he wants to take the emotion out of the decision about his future before making one. pic.twitter.com/p2b4gtl0Mo
— Matt Schneidman (@mattschneidman) January 9, 2023
Rodgers has implied before that the Packers might not want him back, which he did again Sunday night in saying he doesn’t think the decision to return will be all his after a season in which he played through a broken right thumb while plummeting well below his MVP performance level of the last two years.
“I think many times, and I’ve said this throughout my tenure here, the quarterback’s going to take the brunt of the blame when you don’t have success, and a lot of the other times when you do have success, they’ re going to get too much of that praise,” head coach Matt LaFleur said. “It takes everybody on that field, and ultimately, all 11 that were out there throughout the course of the season and then our staff. I think we all collectively have to do a better job, period.”
General manager Brian Gutekunst traded up to draft quarterback Jordan Love in the first round in 2020, and Love has sat behind Rodgers for the last three seasons. Gutekunst said in a news conference during the Packers’ Week 14 bye that he didn’t need to see any more game action from Love before making a decision on his fifth-year option this coming offseason, yet it remains unclear whether the GM thinks Love is fit to be the next starting quarterback in Green Bay whenever Rodgers leaves.
Rodgers was asked Sunday if Love is ready to be his successor.
“You don’t know you’re ready until you’re in that position,” Rodgers said. “I remember the day I was sleeping in San Diego and woke up to 50 text messages that Brett (Favre) had retired. Then the emotions hit you. ‘Oh, man, now I’m the guy.’ But you’ve still got to go out there and find your stride with leadership and withstand the first year of different defenses throwing things at you and all the pressure that comes with everything. But I think he’s done a nice job of improving, working on the little things, done a nice job at practice. I think he’s got a chance to have a long future in the league.”
Rodgers also did not entirely rule out playing for another team if the Packers want to trade him, although he once again deferred any decision about his future until after the emotional well runs dry. Making the finances work for a trade from Green Bay’s perspective is a whole other story.
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) January 9, 2023
Last year, Rodgers’ decision to return became public on March 8. The contract he signed was for three years, but Rodgers said at the beginning of training camp that it’s essentially a one-year deal with two more tacked on and that he would reassess his future again after the 2022 season.
“That’s my brother,” Cobb said of Rodgers. “That’s the man who stood in my wedding. That’s the godfather to one of my kids. It’s way bigger than football for us. Obviously, we’ve had a lot of moments together. We’ve spent a lot of years together on this team here in Green Bay. We’ll see where life takes us.”
All the Packers and anyone else following Rodgers’ decision are left to do now is waiting. It may seem like Sunday night was his farewell, but it has felt that way before in recent seasons, too. It very well could be, but as Rodgers has said in the past, he could also play even longer than just one more season.
In other words, the only thing for sure after Rodgers emotionally left the podium Sunday night is that we don’t know much about Rodgers’ future at all.
“At some point, the carousel comes to a stop and it’s time to get off, and I think you kind of know when that is,” Rodgers said. “And that’s what needs to be contemplated. Is it time? Also, what’s the organization doing? That’s part of it as well. But the competitive fire is always going to be there. I don’t think that ever goes away. Sometimes it gets transferred, I think, to other things that might not ever fill that big void, but like I said, I feel good about what I’ve accomplished in this league and wouldn’t have any regrets walking away. But I gotta see what it feels like once I get away from this.”
(Photo of Aaron Rodgers: Stacy Revere/Getty Images)