A decade ago, when NFL agent David Dunn was trying to spring Carson Palmer out of purgatory with the Cincinnati Bengals, team owner Mike Brown issued a public statement that was clear and forceful: Not only was Palmer not going to be traded, Cincinnati wasn’t even open to listening to offers.
“Carson is central to what we do,” Brown said.
Nine months after that statement — following Palmer's refusal to report to the Bengals and threats to retire — Brown caved, ending an ugly standoff by sending Cincinnati's longtime quarterback to the Oakland Raiders for draft picks.
For Palmer, it was the desired endpoint of a long and patient strategy. It was a plan hatched by Palmer and Dunn to reboot the quarterback’s career and resolve a miserable impasse between ownership and its jilted star. Part of what gets lost in the history is that it may have ultimately been Palmer’s replacement — then-rookie Andy Dalton — who ultimately was the key to unlocking the door out of town for the veteran. Indeed, if you listened to the Bengals owner after he did a 180-degree pivot and acquiesced to trading Palmer, the major change agent was discovering a well of confidence in his next quarterback.
“The principal development [for trading Palmer] has been Andy Dalton, who has shown himself to be one of the best and most exciting young quarterbacks in the NFL,” Brown said after trading Palmer. “We have a good, young football team, and Andy can be the cornerstone of that team for a long time.”
This is an important snippet to consider when it comes to Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers. Not just because Rodgers has the same agent as Palmer or that the current standoff has some of the same hallmarks as the one 10 years ago. It's also because the circumstances that ultimately freed Palmer actually speak to most standoffs between elite quarterbacks and their teams.
Jordan Love can't get lost in Aaron Rodgers drama
Like the situation with Palmer and Rodgers, the initial reaction to any trade demand involving an elite quarterback is something along the lines of: If we do that, we’re destroying elite equity at the most important position on the field and also jeopardizing future success and our ability to remain employed.
This is why elite quarterbacks are arguably the only players in the NFL who can consistently wield meaningful leverage simply by refusing to show up. Elite quarterbacks matter more than anyone. So they're held tightly and a franchise will attempt to navigate even the worst impasses. And in the rare cases that a team can’t find any solutions to fix a situation (like in Palmer vs. the Bengals), they're allowed to scorch the Earth to the point that even an angry fan base can see there are no good options left.
Or a team hopes a promising alternative emerges at quarterback that can change the tenor of a trade demand.
Indeed, if there is anything NFL franchises love almost as much as a highly-paid elite quarterback, it’s much more cheaply paid young quarterbacks who might be the answer to the next 10-15 years at the position. The impasse between Palmer and the Bengals showed us that, when the matrix was suddenly changed by Dalton stepping into the lineup and looking like he was capable of immediately ramping up his development.
This is where Jordan Love can help Rodgers. If Rodgers sees his situation in Green Bay as irreparably broken, he’s far more likely to get a trade if the Packers' brain trust and coaching staff feel like Love is ready to start developing the potential that made him a first-round pick in the 2020 draft. That’s the potential change agent in all of this that’s still unknown. And it’s not like the Packers haven’t been thinking about it, given that management already said this was going to be an important offseason of ramping up Love’s development.
This is the part of the tangled mess that is getting lost in the wash of Rodgers headlines — the fact that there is still a first-round pick on the roster who stands to get a lot of snaps and developmental attention when Green Bay’s organized team activities kick off on May 24. Beyond that, if Rodgers chooses not to show up for anything before training camp, it means Love could be the focal point at quarterback through the mid-June mandatory minicamp and pocket more than three weeks of starter-level snaps.
And if this standoff heads into July and August? Well at that point Love will have his Dalton opportunity in the form of a full training camp and a handful of preseason games to show the Packers that he’s ready and capable of stepping in and starting his ascent to the starting spot in 2021. It's a development that would put Green Bay into a far more interesting quandary than where it finds itself now.
Is Jordan Love ready to take reins from Aaron Rodgers?
At the moment, Rodgers holds all the cards when it comes to the position. Regardless of what has been reported in some spaces, the Packers can’t possibly believe that Love is ready to take over right now, or the team would have already traded Rodgers.
That doesn’t mean Love can’t showcase himself in Rodgers’ absence and give the franchise plenty to think about. That might even be preferable at this moment because barring Rodgers or the Packers waving a white flag, something else needs to change to move this forward. It could be a change that convinces Rodgers that his best future is to remain in Green Bay in 2021 or a change that convinces the Packers that it’s the right time to move on.
Maybe the Packers throw record-breaking money at Rodgers and commit to structuring his contract so that he’s the unquestioned starter through at least the 2022 season. Maybe team president Mark Murphy steps in and brokers a peace treaty between the quarterback and general manager Brian Gutekunst, leading to Rodgers becoming a meaningful part of the front-end planning on offense (similar to Tom Brady’s involvement in Tampa Bay). Or maybe Rodgers relents and returns, deciding that his legacy as a Packer is more important than his long-term job security and rift with management.
By the end of this whole saga, almost all of those scenarios will have been gamed-out by both sides. In the end, this whole thing might be solved by the one move that played such a significant part in triggering this crossroads: The drafting of Love to be the team's future.
If Rodgers stays away for the next few months, Love will become the focal point of this franchise on the field. And what he does with that opportunity may end up resolving the whole mess either by showing the Packers they have a second-year quarterback who is worth betting on right now, or by showing that Rodgers’ stance has been right all along — and that he should have always been cemented as the team’s starting quarterback well beyond 2021.
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