Gutekunst Couldn’t Have Planned It Better If He Tried
The dust has settled, and the Green Bay Packers have emerged in an ideal position to reach the Super Bowl.
It appears the drama engaged in by Aaron Rodgers, and later on joined by his ace receiver, has (for 2021) been resolved. The Packers will have their future Hall of Fame quarterback on board and eager for the coming season. It’s also a near certainty that he will not be with the team in 2022.
As a preliminary matter, there will be differing opinions as to how much motivation enters into a professional NFLer’s annual performance. Some players are strongly self-motivated, whether to simply do their best, make more money, become famous, win one or more Super Bowl rings, go down, in their sport’s history, or to be a credit to their teammates and fans. Almost any way you slice it, the Packers should be the most motivated team in the league this year. For this, we largely have Aaron Rodgers to thank.
By ending his holdout when he did – prior to the start of training camp – Aaron has prevented his beautiful mystery tour from negatively impacting the team’s prospects to any substantial degree. In fact, by nearly all accounts the Packers’ players are so glad that normalcy has returned, and disaster has been averted, that the training camp atmosphere is one of happiness, camaraderie, and great anticipation.
You often hear it said that one of the best motivators a player can have is entering a “contract year.” The failed negotiations that took place just before Aaron showed up at camp render the 2021 season as essentially a contract year for Rodgers. How well he plays this time around will dictate how much he’ll be offered by teams that will be competing for his services in 2022 and beyond.
If all goes well for him, Rodgers will enter the realm of the $40 million-plus QB – a region currently inhabited only by the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes. (Dak Prescott is at an even $40M.) Rodgers doesn’t need to match last year’s MVP play. I’d say that a passer rating of 110 or better is a realistic and achievable goal – and one that would likely propel the team into the big game. In 2020, Aaron’s passer rating of 121.5 bested Mahomes by over 13 points. In terms of motivation, it hasn’t hurt that many analysts have ranked Mahomes as the top QB even though he handily had the superior statistics las season.
While money per se has never been at the forefront of Rodgers’ thinking, huge contracts have come to symbolize how great a player is. Many, and probably most, NFL superstars regard the amount of their pay as the ultimate indication of their value as a player. It also forms a basis for being accorded special entitlements and status. Look at it this way: these huge egos need frequent feeding.
Using passer ratings as a measuring stick, Aaron technically hit his peak in 2011, with an all-time NFL best 122.5 rating; he turned 28 that season. From 2012 through 2014, his performance slipped just a bit, as he averaged a 108.4 rating, which is still top-tier. From 2015 through 2019, however, Aaron’s average rating plummeted to 97.4, a number which placed him at the edge of having a top 10 league-wide score.
Aaron of course then turned in a marvelous season in 2020, resulting in a passer rating of 121.5, the second-best such annual rating ever. The question for the forecasters and analysts is: has Aaron returned to being one of the league’s top two or three QBs, or was last season’s rating one he’ll never approach again as he closes in on his forties? The answer might have as much to do with Matt LaFleur’s offensive strategies as with Rodgers’ skills.
Though Aaron has a tremendous incentive to perform exceptionally well this season, he’s hardly the only guy on the team that should be supremely motivated. After seven years of ascension, receiver Davante Adams has also reached the pinnacle of his position group.
A new entry to the NFL’s diva ranks, the Pack’s star receiver recently and abruptly closed down extension negotiations. Shortly after Rodgers’ recent lengthy press conference, Davante followed it up by confirming that he intends to be paid in accordance with being the league’s top wide receiver. Furthermore, Tom Silverstein tweeted on July 28 that Adams, referring to wide receivers, said “I’ve earned the right to be paid the highest in the league.” Davante is slated to make about $16.8 million in this the final year of the four-year deal he signed in December 2017. It’s clear what is motivating Davante this season.
As I indicated back on July 24, by closing off extension negotiations, Adams has all but assures that his next contract won’t be with the Packers. Let’s not begrudge Adams, who has well earned the right to an enormous payday. It’s the route most top NFL players take after they’ve established themselves as superstars.
There is actually a favorable aspect to Adams’ likely departure at this season’s end: he’ll be extremely motivated to excel in 2021. Had he signed an extension deal this would not be the case. Davante’s rise to the top of the heap has been methodical. In seven years, he’s only surpassed the 1,000 yard mark in receiving twice. De’Andre Hopkins has done it six times in eight years; Julio Jones has done it seven times in ten years.
Davante has chosen to talk the talk, so now he needs to walk the walk for a second consecutive season. Unless he puts up numbers like he did in 2018 (1,386) and 2020 (1,374), he’s unlikely to become the NFL’s highest paid receiver in 2022. Adams has willingly put extra pressure on himself to excel this season.
The truth is that contract extensions are performance disincentives. A player gets top money regardless of how he performs over the life of the contract. In terms of incentives, I believe the Packers are better off not having extended Aaron’s or Davante’s contact. In sum, both Rodgers and Adams should be exceptionally motivated this season to back up their boasts by playing at the highest levels. Both are already blowing people away at training camp, even though the pads are just being put on.
To a man, the entire Green Bay roster will have an extra incentive to play to their utmost. The consensus is that the Packers are about to field their best team in a decade. The fans, the media, and the players should all realize that 2021 is the team’s best chance to win the Super Bowl for years to come.
Green Bay’s motivation should be greater than that of Tampa Bay, who has already achieved their dream. The fact is there hasn’t been a repeat Super Bowl winner since New England accomplished the feat in 2005. I’d say this is strong evidence that teams who have just won the Super Bowl are less motivated to win it the following season.
Other than the Bucs, only the Chiefs are likely to muster up nearly as much motivation as the Packers – but it has to be on their minds that they’ll have numerous chances to win a ring over the next decade with Mahomes’ contract having just been extended for ten years.
In case there are still fans out there who don’t realize it, 2021 is a make or break year for Green Bay’s Super Bowl dreams. Beginning next year, the Packers will assume a rebuilding mode. Looking ahead to 2022, spotrac.com lists only four teams that are currently at least $4 million above the projected salary cap: the Giants ($13M), the Cowboys ($23M), the Saints ($26M), and the Packers ($46,200,154). Twenty-six teams are under the projected cap. Amazingly, five are more than $50 million under the projected cap at the moment.
It’s a brutal reality, as these are mind-boggling numbers. They make it inevitable that Green Bay will lose anywhere from three to six of their top 20 players by this time next season. GM Brian Gutekunst has truly shown himself to be all-in for the 2021 season – he’s retained nearly all of the best players from last year’s roster, and to do so he’s pushed much of the team’s 2021 payroll back to 2022 or beyond. These salary cap nightmares are the consequences of the GM’s commitment.
It’s now or never. The Packers have the strongest of incentives to give it their all this season. This is the year, Packers fans, for your Super Bowl dreams to come true.