The Green Bay Packers don’t have to take risks because they have Aaron Rodgers. It’s a sentence that can be read two ways.
Some argue that the team should pay whatever it takes. That Time is running out. That because Aaron Rodgers will be gone soon anyway, the Packers have to do whatever it takes to win another Super Bowl now even if it means mortgaging the future.
Instead and in order, no, no it isn’t, and no they don’t. In fact, the presence of Aaron Rodgers is precisely why Green Bay doesn’t have to undertake enormous capital investment with its roster.
Ted Thompson went a little too far in the other direction when it came to team building, forgetting free agency existed and relying too heavily on the draft to build his team. That left the Packers undermanned and underdeveloped when he finally saw the door.
But in 2016, Rodgers engaged in a video game-like run to carry an undermanned and underdeveloped team to the brink of the Super Bowl. The Packers weren’t the best team in 2014, but nearly went to the Super Bowl anyway because of Rodgers’ brilliance.
His mere presence, the fact he can win any game by himself, means Brian Gutekunst doesn’t need to give up his financial flexibility and unmatched draft capital for one player.
Would Khalil Mack have made the Packers better? No question. He makes them the Super Bowl favorite. And that’s a goal worthy of seeking to be sure. But the Chicago Bears also gave Mack $141 million dollars, a sum that would have accounted for a quarter of the Packers cap with Aaron Rodgers’ new mega-deal. Ryan Pace also gave up three top 100 draft picks, including a pair of first-rounders, on a team that isn’t near able to compete for a Super Bowl title.
Green Bay doesn’t need to take such enormous gambles. Mack certainly showed he’s capable of living up to that contract. He was the defensive player of the year just two seasons ago, playing so well he earned first-team All-Pro from the PFWA at two positions. Chicago is attempting to borrow the Rams’ model of maximizing their spending with a rookie quarterback salary on the books and it could work for them in a year or two when Trubisky may finally be ready to be an NFL quarterback (he was decidedly not last season).
There’s no comparable move in recent NFL history, making it difficult to suss out the true risks and reward here, but plenty of Packers fans were clamoring around the draft for a trade up. Go get the impact pass rusher the team needed. Trade up for Denzel Ward, the top corner in the draft.
Gutekunst did the opposite, choosing instead to wait patiently, fleece the New Orleans Saints, and wind up with three potential Day 1 starters on defense including the player Pro Football Focus said had one of the best preseasons in the NFL and who Peter King just picked to be DROY (Josh Jackson).
Good process is good process regardless of the quarterback position, but it’s even better when Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback. The Packers can afford not to gamble because they don’t have to. They have Rodgers.
None of that should suggest they shouldn’t attempt to make the roster better. They should. And Gutekunst has aggressively set about doing that, bringing in players like Jimmy Graham, Muhammad Wilkerson, Tramon Williams, Marcedes Lewis and Byron Bell to round out the roster and add veteran leadership to the team. It was those moves that separates Ted Thompson from “great GM” to “all-time great.”
Rodgers increases the margin for error, but also mitigates the need for risk. Calculated risk, like making Graham the highest paid tight end in the league on a short-term deal, represents the Platonic ideal for moves in the Rodgers era. It’s how the Patriots have built a perennial Super Bowl team around Tom Brady.
Bill Belichick traded for Randy Moss, but that only cost them a fourth-round pick. They traded for Brandin Cooks with a first, then promptly re-sold him for another first, a move they likely knew they could (and likely would) make.
The reasons are obvious: the pass rush is the No. 1 position of need on this team in 2018, but what about 2019? Or 2020? Paying so much on long-term deals to two players with subverted future resources to make other positions better puts a team in a potentially precarious position.
If Bryan Bulaga can’t stay healthy, would the Packers have the financial or draft capital to fix that problem? If none of these young receivers pan out, can Green Bay survive with Davante Adams and spare parts? Money and draft picks would make finding additional weapons much easier.
It’s not that trading for Khalil Mack would have been a bad idea. And it’s not even a gamble in a football sense; he definitely makes the Packers better. But at what cost? The answer both in dollars and opportunity cost could have been enormous. If Gutekunst had done it and won the Packers a Super Bowl, most fans would have been OK with the move, and rightfully so. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have been a risk from a team building standpoint.
Geronimo Allison, an undrafted player, comes up and catches a critical touchdown in a Week 17 game against the Lions in 2016 and wins the game against the Bengals in OT in 2017. When you have a field-tilter like Rodgers, moves on the margins push to the fore. Carrying Allison on the roster compared to signing a more expensive free agent was a risk, but one the Packers can take because they have No. 12. It’s a small one, but calculated and with little cost. Rodgers’ mere presence can take a small move and make it a big one.
Trading up would have been a (smaller) risk, but it could have worked out. It’s hard to imagine working out better than what actually played out with Gutekunst ending up with a king’s ransom and young defenders who already look like impact players.
Just because Rodgers is 34 (still the prime for a QB by the way) doesn’t mean Green Bay should start falling all over itself trying to win now at the cost of its future. That future, thanks to Gutekunst, still includes Rodgers for at least 6 seasons and presumably Gutekunst intends to be in the building even longer.
The same desired outcome, a Super Bowl title, can be achieved with less risk because of the unique player Green Bay has under center. Ted Thompson understood that and built a team that was positioned to contend for years. They have. Whatever deficiencies he showed were in keeping with the premise that success could be achieved without enormous risk. That would be true even without the greatest quarterback to ever pick up a football, but having that player makes it even more apt.
The Packers don’t have to take huge risks because they have Aaron Rodgers.