Before the NFC championship game, Aaron Rodgers said "my future is a beautiful mystery" when asked about what could be next for the 37-year-old quarterback.
That plot thickened after Tampa Bay upset Green Bay 31-26 on Sunday. Rodgers — who is a solid bet to win his third NFL MVP award — finished with 346 passing yards, three TDs and an interception in an emotional loss full of second-guess material.
The Packers are now 1-4 in NFC championship games with the future Hall of Fame quarterback, and Rodgers fueled his mystery with noncommittal postgame comments.
"A lot of guys' futures, they're uncertain," Rodgers said. "Myself included."
Cue the Mystery Machine. There are already potential landing spots for Rodgers. ESPN's Adam Schefter weighed in on Rodgers' future on ESPN's "Get Up" by playing out that uncomfortable scenario for Packers' fans.
"People think the Packers control him, when, in fact, Aaron Rodgers can flip it rather quickly by basically saying I'm not going to play there or I'm not going to play anymore. Trade me," Schefter said.
It's a balanced take. Rodgers can go down that path, but there's no mystery when it comes to what the Packers should do.
They have no reason to trade Rodgers. They have no reason to release Rodgers. He is under contract through the 2023 season, and the cap hit for 2021 is close to $37.6 million. There is no earthly reason to move on from a quarterback who has led the Packers to back-to-back NFC championship appearances. From a financial standpoint, it does not make sense, and how many coaches and GMs want to add “traded three-time MVP” to their resume?
After next year #Packers save $22.648 million in salary-cap space but would count $17.204 million in dead money. If they moved on from Rodgers after this season, they save only $4.76 million on the cap and have $31.556 million in dead money. After MVP year especially, he's back.— Mitchell Skurzewski (@MSkurzewski) January 25, 2021
That does not mean that Green Bay general manager Brian Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur don't have work to do. Aaron Jones, Corey Linsley and Robert Tonyan are all free agents, and it's going to be tough to keep all three. The Packers won't have a lot of money to spend in free agency, and the 2021 NFL Draft will be scrutinized after last year's move to trade up in the first round to get quarterback Jordan Love. The Packers could move on from defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, but there are only so many maneuvers this team can make.
A receiver. A cornerback. Another edge rusher or linebacker. Maybe that's the difference.
Green Bay has been close to a Super Bowl the past two seasons, and they missed their best shot in a decade against the Buccaneers. Rodgers can't play much better than he did this season, but it was clear in the NFC championship game how much Green Bay missed Pro Bowl tackle David Bakhtiari. Rodgers took five sacks in the loss, and the Packers settled for field goals twice in the red zone. Maybe Rodgers could have run on a third-and-goal on the final drive, but that's just another second-guessed question.
All that said, with Rodgers the Packers will be in the hunt for the Super Bowl next season.
The mystery does not revolve around what the Packers do next. It's on Rodgers, who has two options.
He could retire or hint at retirement during the offseason, which his predecessor Brett Favre did on multiple occasions in Green Bay. The difference is that the Packers were ready to move on from Favre to Rodgers in the 2008 season. Green Bay isn't there with Love, who didn't take a snap this season. Rodgers sat behind Favre for three seasons before taking over. The situation with Love simply isn't the same.
The reality is that Love might not be the Packers' next starting quarterback.
Rodgers could also ask for a trade. Hey, Houston's Deshaun Watson did it. Why not? There's always the risk that the Packers could simply refuse Rodgers' request. Then, the mystery becomes a soap opera — one that we saw last year with Brady in New England.
It worked out for Brady, but he's still an underdog in the Super Bowl against Kansas City. Sure, Peyton Manning won a Super Bowl with Denver. It could easily go the other way when it comes to a veteran future Hall of Fame quarterback. Joe Montana couldn't get to the Super Bowl in Kansas City. Favre didn't get to the Super Bowl with Minnesota, and the Packers won their last championship three years after Favre left.
Leaving for San Francisco or somewhere else does not guarantee another Super Bowl appearance for Rodgers. If we're talking about next season, then Green Bay would be among the top three favorites in the NFC. The schedule will be tougher with crossover matchups against the AFC North and NFC West, but that could better prepare the Packers for a postseason run. Tampa Bay proved that this season with a run from the wild-card spot.
That all adds up to the most logical conclusion — at least for the 2021 season: When the emotion from Sunday's loss wears off, Rodgers and the Packers give it one more honest run together before exploring other options that make more sense from a financial standpoint. That's what the Lions did with Matthew Stafford in 2020.
Green Bay can play that out on their terms for now, and the best move is to let Rodgers decide whether he wants to flip that narrative. In that sense, the future is not a "beautiful mystery" at all. At least not until 2022. That's when the suspense really begins.