In the NFL, great quarterbacks don't retire, they simply move to another team.
It happened to Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning. All were driving forces behind tremendous periods of success for their franchises and all ended their careers playing for someone else.
This year, it happened to Tom Brady and Philip Rivers, too. When Brady signed as a free agent with Tampa Bay despite winning six Super Bowls — including three of the last six — in New England, it was a signal that no quarterback is immune once an NFL team decides to move on and embrace its future at the game's one indispensable position.
Some great ones stayed put, of course. Bart Starr, Dan Marino and John Elway finished their careers with the team they put on the map and Drew Brees is likely to do the same. Due to age and injury, though, most were just a shell of themselves by the end.
It now seems likely that Aaron Rodgers will suffer the same fate as many of those all-time greats, that his career won't end where it began — with the Green Bay Packers.
The first sign that the 36-year-old Rodgers likely won't finish his career in Green Bay came when the Packers drafted Utah State's Jordan Love with their first-round pick in April as a potential successor to Rodgers, who has four years remaining on his contract and wants to play into his 40s. Love clearly needs a year or two of seasoning, but suddenly millions of salary-cap experts from coast to coast are discussing when would be the optimum time for the Packers to replace Rodgers with Love.
The second sign came Friday, May 15 when Rodgers acknowledged in a conference call with state reporters that he might have to finish up elsewhere should the Packers want to move on at quarterback, something they did with Favre when they thought Rodgers was ready to take over in 2008. In his first media session since the draft, Rodgers admitted he wasn't thrilled with the selection of Love but said he respects the organization and understands what general manager Brian Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur are doing by trying to set up the future of the franchise.
"I think it was more the surprise of the pick, based on my own feelings of wanting to play into my 40s, and really the realization that it does change the controllables a little bit," Rodgers said. "Because as much as I feel confident in my abilities and what I can accomplish and what we can accomplish, there are some new factors that are out of my control. And so my sincere desire to start and finish with the same organization, just as it has with many other players over the years, may not be a reality at this point. And as much as I understand the organization's future outlook and wanting to make sure they're thinking about the team now and down the line — and I respect that — at the same time, I still believe in myself and have a strong desire to play into my 40s. And I'm just not sure how that all works together at this point."
Actually, that response was classic Rodgers. What he said was realistic, measured and just edgy enough to get the national tongues wagging without blowing up bridges on the homefront. Already there is rampant speculation that — salary cap hit or no salary-cap hit — the Packers have made the decision to move on and this will be Rodgers' final season in Green Bay. Of course, the national media has a tendency to take everything Rodgers says, multiply it by 10 and conclude that he's profoundly unhappy with everything and everyone in Green Bay, which simply is not the case.
To be sure, Rodgers sent a message Friday. The armchair analysts insist on calling it a passive-aggressive approach, but I prefer calling it a purpose pitch. If we've learned anything from watching Rodgers over the last 15 years, it's that he never says anything without an underlying purpose.
So while the salary-cap situation might push the Packers toward building around a younger and more inexpensive quarterback in a year or two, two things have to happen before the team moves on: Love has to show he's capable of following in the footsteps of Favre and Rodgers as a quarterback and Rodgers has to relinquish the job. Neither is a sure thing.
Indeed, Rodgers' message Friday was that it's his job and he's determined to play so well that the Packers can't even think about making a change. For reference, Rodgers need only to look at Brady. The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo when Brady was Rodgers' age and ended up trading Garoppolo because Brady just kept playing better.
"It's always been a mantra for myself, but I think any great athlete there's things that are just out of our control," Rodgers said. "That obviously is something that's very important to me, but I think is definitely telling at this point that is truly something that's out of my control. What I can control is how I play and making that decision at some point a very hard one."
It is entirely possible Rodgers harbors feelings of resentment toward the Packers. Because he is so calculated, however, we'll never know if that's the case.
He will stay classy in his public statements and do everything he can to help Love. But his Michael Jordan-like quality of finding slights, real or perceived, to motivate himself means he now has something to prove. And we all know how he reacts to that.