Aaron Rodgers is the latest (and greatest) quarterback to hit the I’m-out-of-here button.
Earlier this week, the future Hall of Famer escalated his stand-off with the Packers by failing to show up for the team’s mandatory minicamp, costing himself $93,000 in the process. Whether or not Rodgers continues to take the financial hit by ditching the team’s upcoming training camp remains an open question. But Rodgers has finally put his actions to the (leaked) words that circulated during the draft. He wants out of Green Bay, and he wants out now.
Over the past 18 months, we’ve seen a shift in the NFL landscape. Star quarterbacks have looked at the player empowerment movement in the NBA, and decided they want a piece of the action. Not the nonstop movement. Not even the Nets-style super-team building (a true hard salary cap disincentivizes that), but to be partners with the decision-makers, not the help. To work with management, not fall in line with the rest of the huddle. The pressure is different; the privileges should match that.
It’s ultimately about control. It’s why Tom Brady walked out of New England (via free agency) in order to end his career on his terms; it’s why Deshaun Watson demanded out of Houston; it’s why Russell Wilson took his long-held grievances against the Seahawks hierarchy public.
But it’s not just top-tier stars. Middle- to upper-band quarterbacks are using their power and influence to move to more desirable landing spots. Matthew Stafford engineered a move to Los Angeles; Carson Wentz, fresh off the worst season of any starter in 2020, was able to wiggle his way out of Philadelphia and back to his old coach in Indianapolis.
The trend will continue. At some point, there will be a conclusion to the Rodgers saga. Once his future is sorted, the countdown will begin on finding the next quarterback who is willing to torch his way out of a franchise. Let’s take a look at the possibilities.
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks
It has been all quiet on the Wilson front since a report from The Athletic in February chronicled a rift at the heart of the Seahawks franchise. Wilson, the report stated, wanted a larger say in personnel and coaching decisions. After finally indulging in the Let Russ Cook movement at the start of last season, the Seahawks reverted back to an old-school, fuddy-duddy offense over the final third of the season. Wilson wasn’t just disappointed; he was ready to walk away from the franchise entirely.
The situation is still percolating. Seattle’s head coach, Pete Carroll, has doubled down on his commitment to the coaching that has been a hallmark of his career. Play good defense. Run the ball. Limit turnovers. Be strong in the kicking game. Those are the central tenants of Carroll-ism, and Wilson’s newfound sense of self – wanting to be a 30 pass attempts a game, put-the-game-on-my-arm star – does not fit with Carroll’s core philosophy.
At some point, something will have to give. Either Wilson asks out formally, or he’s able to pressure the Seahawks into making more substantive changes to the franchise. Given that Carroll’s contract runs until 2025, it’s more likely to be the former.
Matt Ryan, Atlanta Falcons
Ryan finds himself in a similar situation to the one that faced Matthew Stafford this offseason. Stafford had been through so many regime changes and reboots during his 12-year run in Detroit that he was unable to muster any sense of excitement when the Lions hired the knee-cap eater. Given his age, it was best for the player and franchise to move on.
It’s the same in Atlanta. The Falcons faced a crucial decision heading into the offseason: to tear it down and begin a painful rebuild now or kick the can down the road for a couple more years (eat the salary cap implications) and try to put together a playoff-caliber, one-final-ride team around the same old Ryan-Julio Jones-Jake Matthews core. Instead, the Falcons decided to try to split the two paths. They drafted Kyle Pitts … then traded Julio Jones. They let Keanu Neal walk in order to free up cap space … and yet still have four players absorbing 40% of the team’s cap in 2021. Four!
Ryan likely has two to three seasons left of high-caliber play. He remains ruthlessly efficient and was one of the league’s finest deep-ball throwers in 2020. With the right pieces around him (in the right system), there’s no reason why he couldn’t post a similar season to the one that saw him clinch the MVP award in 2016. That player is still there – only without the same supporting cast.
Ryan’s time in Atlanta has reached its natural conclusion. Plop him on the Broncos or Saints or Panthers roster and you have yourself a real contender. The Falcons seem unwilling to take the difficult plunge into a true rebuild, and so it will be over to Ryan himself to try to push the issue if he wants to win a Super Bowl before he retires.
Derek Carr, Las Vegas Raiders
At what point does Derek Carr grow tired of Jon Gruden and Mike Mayock’s incessant flirting with other quarterbacks?
Over the course of the past two years, the Raiders have been linked to, well, everyone. The draft, trades, free agents, you name it and the Raiders have sniffed around the available quarterbacks looking to find an upgrade. Gruden and Mayock have their eyes set on harpooning a big fish, a Russell Wilson or an Aaron Rodgers, and are smartly unwilling to make a move unless it’s for a sure-fire upgrade over Carr, a player who has grown into Gruden’s system and finished 7th in DVOA last season.
Will Carr hit a point when he begins to resent the ongoing search for his replacement? There would certainly be no shortage of takers if Carr announced that he wanted out of Vegas.
Jimmy Garoppolo, San Francisco 49ers
Garoppolo has 24m reasons to want to stay in San Francisco rather than try to force his way to a new team. Even if he asked to move – with a no-trade clause in his contract, he would have to sanction any deal – his new team would most likely restructure his contract, cutting into his paycheck.
Garoppolo’s best avenue forward is to mimic Rodgers. The bad blood between Rodgers and the Packers management dates back to the team drafting Jordan Love, but Rodgers didn’t demand a trade immediately; he bought into Matt LaFleur’s quarterback-friendly system, adapted his game, posted an MVP season, and then told the Packers he wanted to leave.
Garoppolo is unlikely ever to win the MVP, but he could chart a similar course to Rodgers. Injuries have robbed him of some of the off-script verve that made him such a delightful fit in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, but there is a chance that he rebounds to his 2019 level, when he helped guide a loaded Niners team the Super Bowl. If Garoppolo is smart, stays within himself, and lets the system and surrounding talent guide his play, he could keep Trey Lance on the bench for a good portion of the season, boost his own stock, and then look to find the right landing spot next offseason, all while pocketing his current mega-contract.
Kyler Murray/Joe Burrow/Trevor Lawrence
What of the next generation? Recent draftees like Burrow, Murray and Lawrence have been raised in a post-LeBron sports landscape. Trevor Lawrence was 10 when The Decision was broadcast, a moment that forever altered the relationship between athletes, franchises, and fans. It was the genesis of the player empowerment movement that continues to govern/plague (remove depending on your preference) the NBA, and has leaked into the NFL.
The norms have been shattered. The old ways are out; this is the new order. Young quarterbacks are no longer willing to go along with the traditional way of doing things just because that’s the way they’ve been done. If the likes of Murray, Burrow or Lawrence sniff even a whiff of organizational incompetence, it would not be jarring to see them demand to play elsewhere – Andrew Luck serves as a cautionary tale of what can happen to a young quarterback who has to cover up for the failings of management.
The wrong coaching hire. A dud of a free-agency cycle. Letting a beloved teammate walk away. It can only take one or two poor decisions for a quarterback to say he wants out. Teams have never faced such pressure to build a winning core so early in a quarterbacks’ career. The timeline has been sped up, and teams must now approach every single decision wondering, “what will our quarterback think?”
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