GREEN BAY — Matt LaFleur’s not exactly sure what he can do to fix this whole mess, but the Green Bay Packers head coach vowed Saturday evening that he’s going to try.
On a day that Yahoo! Sports reported that reigning NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers has told the team that he won’t return as long as Brian Gutekunst is the general manager, and team president/CEO Mark Murphy publicly acknowledged there is an “issue” between the team and the quarterback, LaFleur sounded like the man stuck in the middle.
LaFleur and Rodgers have managed to forge a close working relationship and friendship over the past two seasons — even after Rodgers’ relationship with his previous head coach, Mike McCarthy, turned sour — and it doesn’t appear Rodgers’ unhappiness with the organization has anything to do with the coach, who like Gutekunst and Murphy had flown out to the West Coast earlier this offseason to talk with Rodgers.
“I know the reports out there. I mean, this guy is our quarterback, he’s the leader of our team, and I want nothing more than to see him back in a Packer uniform,” LaFleur said in a Zoom call after the three-day NFL draft drew to a close.
“We’ve been able to accomplish a lot of great feats over the last two years — two straight NFC Championship games. I know the seasons haven’t ended the way we’ve wanted them to, but in my eyes, he’s the greatest to ever do it. I don’t care about (not making) Super Bowls or whatnot. We want him back here.”
Asked what he’ll do if Rodgers remains steadfast in his vow not to come back, LaFleur replied, “I can’t even take my brain to that spot right now. I just want to do everything in my power to ensure that doesn’t happen.”
The Rodgers saga, which has been brewing for months, came to light on Thursday when, a few hours before the first round of the draft kicked off, details of Rodgers’ displeasure with the organization were reported publicly for the first time.
After declining comment on three questions about Rodgers in late March, Murphy, writing his weekly column for the Packers’ team website, acknowledged the veracity of reports that Rodgers is displeased with the club over last year’s first-round selection of quarterback Jordan Love, the way the Packers chose to address his contract after the 2020 season and other disagreements.
“This is an issue that we have been working on for several months,” Murphy wrote. “Brian Gutekunst, Matt LaFleur and I have flown out on a number of occasions to meet with Aaron. We are very much aware of Aaron’s concerns and have been working with him (and his agent Dave Dunn) to resolve them.
“We remain committed to Aaron in 2021 and beyond. He is not only a tremendously talented player, but has developed into a true leader for us. The relationship that Aaron has forged with Matt and the other offensive coaches has propelled us to the brink of the Super Bowl in two straight years. We look forward to competing for another Super Bowl championship with Aaron as our leader.”
Meanwhile, the Yahoo! Sports report, citing a source in Rodgers’ camp, indicated that the relationship between Rodgers and Gutekunst, who traded up in last year’s draft to take Love at No. 26 overall, appears irreparable. Unless Rodgers relents, he apparently is willing to consider what once seemed to be last-resort possibilities — from skipping the offseason program, to holding out during training camp to perhaps even sitting out the 2021 season if the Packers don’t trade him elsewhere.
Asked if Rodgers had issued a this-town-ain’t-big-enough-for-both-of-us edict to him at any point in their conversations, Gutekunst said no.
“Aaron hasn’t said anything like that to me, and certainly hasn’t said anything publicly. So, I think it’s a little unfair to put that on him,” Gutekunst said. “Listen, you certainly don’t like to hear those things. But at the same time, it’s kind of part of the gig in the National Football League. But no, nothing’s been communicated directly to me.”
For his part, Rodgers declined comment to NBC Sports while he attended the annual Kentucky Derby on Saturday with fiancée Shailene Woodley, left tackle David Bakhtiari, ex-teammates Randall Cobb and A.J. Hawk, and others. NBC’s Mike Tirico said Rodgers refused to comment on camera but that he expressed “disappointment” that the strife came to light.
“He expressed a couple of times how much he loves Green Bay, loves the fans, loves the franchise,” Tirico said during the telecast. “There is a chasm between management and the reigning NFL MVP. We're just not sure how this is going to play out."
LaFleur tacitly acknowledged that Rodgers has not been taking part in the team’s virtual meetings to start the offseason program, which is voluntary. Whether that will change, and what exactly can be done to placate Rodgers and prevent the situation from reaching the point of no return — crossing the Rubicon, as Murphy famously said of the Brett Favre situation during the summer of 2008 — remains to be seen.
But LaFleur isn’t giving up hope.
“I can’t fathom (him) not being in Green Bay. That’s where my mind’s at,” LaFleur said. “I don’t only love the player, but I love the person. I love working with him on a daily basis. I think we all do — from the players in that locker room to the coaching staff. Again, I don’t even want to let my mind go there.”