With cold April air giving ever more and more to spring in Wisconsin, there's every sense that things are progressing. The current coronavirus pandemic may've put a kabash on what was a burgeoning season for the Milwaukee Brewers, and has, as of now, nixed a stellar, record-breaking season for the Milwaukee Bucks. But there is one sleeping sports giant that Wisconsinites can still look toward expectantly: football.
Yes, NFL football, nestled snuggly in the confines of far away September, seems to be the one thing on the sports calendar yet left unsullied by the withering touch of COVID-19. And the NFL showed that it has every intention to continue forging ahead with its 2020 season when it initiated its annual player selection meeting, aka the NFL draft, last Thursday, April 23rd.
What Green Bay Packers fans got that evening (and the following two days) was hardly what they had expected. That's because, for the first time since the selection of prominent two-time MVP and future Hall of Fame quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, in 2005, the Packers selected a quarterback in the first round.
Taking Jordan Love out of Utah State at number 26 overall, the Packers did something that no one expected them to do. What the Packers needed, lamented many a fan on social media and many a pundit, was a wide receiver, help along the offensive line, or (my personal favorite) inside linebackers. Surely, they didn't need a quarterback. They have a quarterback after all. And not just any quarterback, but one of the greatest, if not the greatest in the game. Ever.
So why waste the pick?
Of course, it didn't take long for comparisons to swell up between this draft now and the one that preceded it 15 years ago. In many regards, the Packers have been lucky. Very, very lucky. Between Rodgers and his own predecessor, Brett Favre, the Packers have started virtually no one else at the quarterback position. Since trading for Favre from the Falcons in 1992, only seven men have started for Green Bay at quarterback, and none aside from Favre or Rodgers has started for more than nine games.
That sort of longevity, while becoming more common, is still an extreme rarity at the quarterback position, where many players see their careers end well before the age-41 season experienced by Favre, or the age-37 season that Rodgers is currently entering.
So, all to say that there is no guarantee that choosing Love was a wasted pick. At least not without seeing his performance. After all, Rodgers was reviled by many Packer faithful simply because he was seen as the undue disruption that was ending Favre's career before the old gunslinger was ready. Similar scenarios have played out with the duos of Peyton Manning-Andrew Luck, and more recently Alex Smith-Patrick Mahomes. The Mahomes comparison may be the more apt one here, since many were dubious that the Chiefs were wisely allocating resources, having come off a 12-win season with Smith.
One MVP win and one Super Bowl championship later, and no one in Kansas City is complaining about Patrick Mahomes starring as the captain of that ship.
Now, that may be presumptive on my part. Mahomes is clearly a generational talent. I'm not sure Love is. And yet, greatness can lurk in many unexpected and unconventional places. In fact, the quarterback position may be among the most uncertain in all of sports.
Ultimately, what does this mean for Rodgers? For the Packers?
Well, if the rest of the draft is any indication, the Packers aren't planning on throwing the ball too much this forthcoming season anyways. Not when they don't have to, at least. General Manager Brian Gutekunst's other picks include running back A.J. Dillon in the second round, tight end Josiah Deguara in the third, and a slew of other lower evaluated linemen and defensive players later in the draft.
In fact, the drafting of two guards, a center, and Dillon particularly indicates that Gutekunst and LaFleur are likely to lean on the run-heavy scheme they brought to the team last year, perhaps in an attempt to replicate the success that LaFleur's former pupil, Derrick Henry, had last season as he marched on to claim the NFL rushing crown.
Or, perhaps in a more holistic sense they'd like to take a page out of the book of the team that sent them packing in January, mirroring San Francisco's running back by committee approach with their own trio of Dillon, Jamaal Williams, and Aaron Jones.
Meanwhile for Rodgers, the rumors abound, and likely will only continue to do so. Yesterday Brett Favre spoke with Rich Eisen about his belief that Aaron Rodgers will play somewhere else in the league, and soon. This speculation, fueled by reports that LaFleur directly orchestrated the drafting of Love as a move to assert his dominance over Rodgers and his "passive-aggressive" attitude, will likely only continue to grow as the organization moves toward what is sure to be a messy way out of the situation they've placed themselves in.
The ideal outcome, as I see it, would be to have Love sit behind Rodgers for the next two years at least, learn the tricks of the trade, and then, once Rodgers rides off into the sunset, happy with two more MVPs as the winner of Super Bowls LV and LVI, take over as the primary starter for the team.
Of course, the world isn't always an ideal place, and while the Packers very well might contend for a championship again next year (as they have for the vast majority of Rodgers career) it's also possible they will not be able to make it over the hump again. New powers have risen, especially in the AFC where Baltimore and the aforementioned Kansas City look like they'll be top dogs for years to come. And in the NFC, San Francisco and New Orleans are also salivating at the chance to get back to the Big Dance. Not to mention that other contenders abound in the form of the Seahawks, Vikings, and (possibly) Rams.
If Green Bay is going to write a storybook conclusion to Rodgers career in the next two Super Bowls, they're going to have a hell of a time doing it. The challenge being all the more reason why Packers fans implored organizational brass to draft a wide receiver for Rodgers to use in what was (seemingly) a historic class for the position. Those pleas fell on deaf ears.
None of which is to say that the Packers can't win, even as they are right now. After all, they won 13 games last season and were within one more of going to the Super Bowl. Had they been able to stop that dreaded San Fran running game, they very well would've.
All of which was my impetus in imploring the team to draft better inside linebackers and other run stuffers to shore up that side of the defense. Especially after the loss of both Kyler Fackrell and Blake Martinez to the New York Giants, Green Bay needs all the help it can get on that side of the ball. My pleas were a little more successful, with the team taking linebacker Kamal Martin in the fifth round, and defensive end Jonathan Garvin in the seventh.
In the end though, the future remains unwritten. Life is still uncertain. For all we know, there may be no NFL season in 2020 to speak of, or perhaps even if there is it'll look radically different from the one we've come to know and love. Even apart from the coronavirus pandemic, team owners have come to terms with the NFLPA on a new collective bargaining agreement that opens the option to extend the season by a game somewhere between 2021 and 2023, and expand the playoffs to a seventh seed in each conference. Who knows what that means for how a champion is eventually crowned?
Life is uncertain, and life still goes on. For right now though, Aaron Rodgers is still the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. Aaron Rodgers is still a beloved and towering figure in the sports culture of Wisconsin. If Brett Favre is to be believed (and if my own observations of Rodgers throughout the years are to have any serviceability) Rodgers is now playing with a huge chip on his shoulder. And when Aaron Rodgers gets a chip on his shoulder, he becomes, in the immortal words of Stephen A. Smith, a baaaaaaaaaaad man.