Rodgers still holds keys to NFC North

Quarterback's decision could come any day now.

Aaron Rodgers (12) of the Green Bay Packers warms up before playing the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Divisional Playoff game at Lambeau Field on Jan. 22, 2022, in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Stacy Revere/TNS

During Super Bowl week last month in Los Angeles, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur scheduled an important business lunch. Over the course of three seasons, quarterback Aaron Rodgers had peppered LaFleur with snippets of praise and nuggets of insight about the position coach who helped oversee his early rise.

Tom Clements was with Rodgers when the Packers quarterback won his only Super Bowl in February 2011. He was there when Rodgers won league MVP honors in 2011 and again in 2014. Thus at a pivotal point in team history, LaFleur owed it to himself at least to sit down with Clements — to break bread, pick his brain and see if he had any interest in coming back to work in Green Bay.

“We interviewed each other to some level,” LaFleur told reporters last week at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. “Just with the conversations we had, it’s pretty easy for me to see why he is such a great quarterbacks coach and developer and such a great communicator.”

LaFleur owed it to Rodgers to make every effort possible to keep the star quarterback around. And to keep Rodgers around, the Packers have to keep him happy. After all, they lost two key offensive coaches shortly after their surprise playoff exit in January. Coordinator Nathaniel Hackett departed to become the Denver Broncos head coach, while quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy came to Chicago as the Bears coordinator.

Any hopes the Packers have of keeping Rodgers hinge on their ability to create an attractive working environment. And for Rodgers, who developed a strong bond with Clements over 11 seasons from 2006-16, the appeal of familiarity and comfort is a strategic sell.


To the surprise of no one, LaFleur acknowledged last week that Rodgers “had a significant role” in the decision to reach out to Clements.

“It was very intriguing,” LaFleur added, “when we had an opportunity (to meet).”

That lunch in L.A., it turns out, was the first step in Clements’ return to Lambeau Field. The Packers hired him as their new/old quarterbacks coach on Feb. 18 and continued to cross their fingers.

Last week the most popular buzz circulating through the combine was that Clements, at 68, didn’t suspend his retirement after one year to hustle back to Green Bay to mold third-year quarterback Jordan Love.

Clements’ hiring had to be a sign, right? Surely Rodgers is destined to be back in Green Bay for one more run at a Super Bowl.

While there has been plenty of speculation and a sprinkling of puzzling messages from the quarterback himself, there has been no official announcement on Rodgers’ plans. That declaration was expected sometime in the next week — perhaps as early as Tuesday.

It’s a momentous decision that will have a significant impact on the NFL’s competitive landscape in 2022. And depending on which way Rodgers’ gratitude and cleansed colon cause him to lean, it could further shake up an NFC North that is in real flux.

Your move, Aaron.


PGA: Waste Management Phoenix Open - Annexus Pro-Am
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers hits from the 11th tee box during the WM Phoenix Open Annexus Pro-Am at TPC Scottsdale.
Cheryl Evans / USA Today Sports

Scramble mode

The Packers have won three consecutive NFC North titles and have won the division in eight of the 12 seasons that Rodgers started at least 10 games. That dominance figures to continue if Rodgers stays in a division with the other three teams in scramble mode.

The Bears and Minnesota Vikings both hit the detonation button a day after they met in a meaningless season finale in January. The Bears, after a dismal 6-11 campaign, switched out their Ryan-and-Matt GM-coach combo — from Pace and Nagy to Poles and Eberflus — and are preparing fans for a slow crawl back to relevance.

None of the new leaders at Halas Hall is talking about rebounding from an 11-loss season and morphing immediately into a championship contender. Instead, Poles, Eberflus and their staffs are buckling in for what’s likely to be a demanding and tedious transition year in 2022. Prepare yourself accordingly, Chicago.

The Vikings fired GM Rick Spielman, who had been with the organization since 2006, then launched Mike Zimmer, their head coach for the last eight seasons. They’re rebooting under the guidance of a 40-year-old analytics guru in new GM Kwesi Adofo-Mensah, whose first major move was to hire 36-year-old Kevin O’Connell as his head coach.

Both men must now figure out what they’re going to do with veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins, who carries a $45 million salary-cap hit for the final year of his contract in 2022.

Will the Vikings keep Cousins for the final year of his deal as a very well-compensated bridge quarterback? Will they try to restructure his contract or even extend it to lessen the cap hit for next season while offering a vote of confidence beyond 2022? Will there be a potential trade market for Cousins?

“Everything is in play,” Adofo-Mensah said last week. “Those conversations are ongoing. I can’t tell you anything at this moment. But we will communicate and we will do whatever is best for the Minnesota Vikings. And Kirk will do what’s best for Kirk.”


Figuring that out is step one for a new regime that also has to revive its defense as the Vikings shift from a 4-3 system to a 3-4 under new coordinator Ed Donatell, a former Bears assistant.

Finally, the Detroit Lions are exuding a great deal of optimism as they head into their second season under the guidance of GM Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell. Sure, the Lions went winless through November last season, losing several close games in the most Lions-y ways possible. And, yes, their 3-13-1 record was better than only one team: the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars.

Last-place finish. Top-five draft pick. Familiar territory to the Lions for certain.

But as surprising as anything amid the chatter at the combine was the outside intrigue in the Lions’ potential to make a quick climb. With the No. 2 pick in next month’s draft, they have a chance to add an immediate difference-maker to a rising defense. Michigan edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson, anyone? Oregon pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux or Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton?

The Lions also are positioned to attack free agency next week with aggressiveness, likely to go hard after a top-shelf receiver to add to an offense that has a sturdy line, a rising standout running back in D’Andre Swift and a solid tight end in T.J. Hockenson. And even with the shrug-worthy Jared Goff still penciled in at quarterback, there’s a consensus growing around the NFL that Campbell has assembled a bright and united coaching staff and gotten the requisite buy-in from his locker room.

Holmes, meanwhile, has drawn praise for his vision and leadership and will have a chance to make significant upgrades to the roster over the next seven weeks. He seemed eager last week to take those swings.

‘It’s a lot to take on’

As hungry as Bears fans may be to have their team back in the postseason and looking to end its 11-year drought without a playoff win, 2022 doesn’t figure to be the meal that will satisfy their appetite. At last week’s combine, folks around the league spoke of the Bears with sobering indifference.

The most popular judgment: The Bears are irrelevant right now, so far away from doing anything that would cause ripples big enough to be noticed by the rest of the league.

On the plus side, the Bears are not in a desperate hunt for a quarterback in a year when neither the free-agent market nor an ordinary draft class has much to offer. But there’s a prevailing sense that the team is stuck in the forest of mediocrity, miles away from contending for anything meaningful as Poles gets started on a roster overhaul that promises to be extensive.

As one league source noted, Bears fans best ready themselves for a mostly dull transition year as the new regime attempts to repopulate the depth chart with many more high-level difference-makers.

Poles continues to emphasize that standards need to be raised inside Halas Hall — across the board. He has talked openly about sharpening the information-gathering process in scouting and establishing a “performance team” that will, in part, focus on variables such as body fat and optimal weight.

Said Poles: “It just comes down to setting in stone what we want and then following through on that.”

Now the Bears, like so many other teams, will keep their peripheral vision on Rodgers, waiting to learn what his future holds and how that might affect the window of opportunity in the NFC North.

The Packers hired LaFleur on Jan. 8, 2019. He is now the longest-tenured coach in the NFC North, a three-time division champion looking to extend his run of dominance. LaFleur has a 39-9 regular-season record with Rodgers as his starting quarterback, including a 15-3 mark in the division.

Needless to say, LaFleur wants Rodgers to know he’s still very much wanted in Green Bay. Hence, the Clements hiring. But LaFleur also is trying to avoid coming across as overbearing.

“You always want to be respectful,” he said. “I know it’s a lot to take on. He has a lot to think about. Certainly I’m making sure that I’m consistently communicating with him. But I also want to be respectful of his time and the process that he has to go through.”

Across the division, Campbell was asked last week whether he has been paying close attention to the Rodgers saga.

“No,” he said firmly. “Unless he’s leaving. Is he leaving?”

He laughed out loud and insisted he isn’t worried about that decision.

“I have to assume he’s going to be (with the Packers) next year,” Campbell said. “That’s what we have to be ready for. That’s what we’re going to have to play against. And that’s the standard that’s been set in our division. You have to try to unseat him.”

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