Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers' very public dispute with the Packers front office predates the release of his Covid-19 vaccination status. Green Bay has been an almost annual factor in the NFC playoff picture since Rodgers' became starter. That a Hall of Fame QB of his calibre has just one Superbowl appearance invites skepticism for the team's personnel decisions.
As we live in the social media age of the celebrity athlete replete with celebrity girlfriend, stars like Rodgers seek to maximize their star power in all things be it endorsements, reality TV appearances or post career broadcasting opportunities. But quarterbacks seeking influence on personnel matters is new for the NFL. As Rodgers enters the twilight years of his playing career, he is not suffering the Packers' near misses in silence. The drafting of QB Jordan Love without his input appears to have all but assured his completing his career elsewhere.
Seahawks QB Russell Wilson seeks similar influence in Seattle. Wilson’s public plea for greater input comes a few seasons after his market value contract resulted in the breaking up of one of the greatest defensive secondary units in NFL history — The Legion of Boom. According to reports, until Wilsons’ franchise QB contract was negotiated, fiery cornerback Richard Sherman was the de facto locker room leader in Seattle. Going public has reportedly set Wilson at odds with Seahawk management.
The 2020 Seattle Seahawks had a successful 12–4 season, winning their division but losing in the first round of the playoffs to the LA Rams. While the Seahawks are regular postseason contenders having played in two Superbowls with Wilson at QB, they have starved other roster spots after giving Wilson a market value QB contract when his rookie deal expired. Wilson’s 2021 cap figure is 33.5 million or 18% of the total team cap.
Among the Seahawk’s notably parsimonious personnel moves are drafting an offensive lineman who hadn’t played offense since high school. Wilson expressed his fatigue at repeated hits in 2020. Current Seahawks running backs are a platoon of functional but unexceptional workmen who bear no resemblance to Marshawn Lynch.
NFL players taking public stands against their teams about discipline or negotiations is not necessarily new. It is not, however, something we see in franchise QBs. Franchise QBs are expected to be the ultimate company men.
If anything, a franchise quarterback’s interests are deemed to be aligned with those of their team. Franchise quarterbacks are almost always the highest paid players on the roster, having a dominant influence on team payroll. The financial and functional role of the QB is so deeply intertwined with a team’s structure that the rest of the roster is determined by how much of the salary cap is left for non-QB talent.
During the New England Patriots’ dynastic run, Tom Brady routinely took a below market compensation plan so that the team could add talent at other spots and remain at or near the top. It is not an exaggeration to say that a team’s entire salary cap plan and talent acquisition strategy stems from the extent to which their QB takes a market value contract.
Star NBA players have a direct hand in the hiring of head coaches. Lebron James had David Blatt fired and Tyronn Lue promoted to coach the 2016 Championship Cavaliers team. Michael Jordan successfully lobbied for the Bulls to get Phil Jackson. Kobe Bryant advocated bringing Phil Jackson back for his second tour of duty with the Lakers in 2005.
What Wilson and Rodgers are doing has the feel of an NBA mega star move. There is no doubt as to the franchise QB status of both, but two things stand out:
1 . Going public with pleas for personnel juice is new territory for starting QBs. It is a major leverage play that, if mishandled, could end up with a disastrous loss of social capital or banishment by a trade to an unwanted destination. A power play against a coach with complete power like Bill Belichick is a one way ticket out of town.
2 . Football isn’t basketball. NFL teams can withstand the loss of a star more easily than NBA teams. Football fans are a much more conservative lot than their NBA counterparts and a fan revolt against an influence seeking star is not out of the question. Having a star QB raise their voice for GM like influence telegraphs that they see themselves as above the rest of the team. Not a recipe for team unity.
Power dynamics and competent communication management are different in every organization. Publicly challenging the organizational model of a billionaire owner can have career defining consequences. An agent who gives a high profile athlete advice that ends badly could lose their entire client base.
The NBA is a star driven league where one great player can make all the difference. The NFL has not had a tradition of one player being a difference maker. Tom Brady’s Superbowl win with Tampa Bay is an outlier as he is a once in a lifetime player. NFL fan bases identify strongly with geography and tradition whereas NBA teams are easily portable.
Tom Brady took less money so that the Patriots could attract veterans who took less than their market value for a chance at at ring. This was under the mantra of team glory before individual glory. Tom Brady never went public with demands on coaches or personnel.
Wilson and Rodgers are taking a hard roll of the dice that runs counter to traditional football ways of doing things. We are, however, in an age of the millennial activist athlete. If this generation doesn’t like something, they raise their voice.
How these negotiating tactics are received will be telling for star QBs wanting a seat at the decision making table. The downside, however, will be steep for those who overplay their hand. Billionaire owners don’t get pushed around. A Prince Harry — Meghan Markle style public battle could end in distraction, embarrassment and loss of clout for all involved.