GREEN BAY — Characterizing the story as a “smear attack” and refuting several specific allegations made by unnamed sources within the piece, Aaron Rodgers went on the offensive Monday in an ESPN Wisconsin interview in which he spoke angrily about a Bleacher Report story from last week that claimed the Green Bay Packers quarterback was told by team president Mark Murphy not to be a “problem” for new coach Matt LaFleur.
Speaking after the first work day of the team’s offseason program under LaFleur, Rodgers acknowledged he and former coach Mike McCarthy “had issues, no doubt about it” during their 13 years together but insisted the pair always talked through those issues before moving forward. He called it “absolutely ridiculous” that he would have held a grudge against McCarthy for his entire tenure because McCarthy was on the San Francisco 49ers’ staff when the Niners passed on Rodgers with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft.
But Rodgers was especially angry with Bleacher Report’s account of a telephone conversation between him and Murphy after LaFleur’s hiring in January. Citing a “source close to the team,” the story alleged Murphy called Rodgers to inform him the team was hiring LaFleur. After a “brief pause,” the article states, Rodgers spoke, after which Murphy is quoted as telling the quarterback, “Don’t be the problem. Don’t be the problem.”
According to Rodgers, general manager Brian Gutekunst called him before LaFleur was offered the job and asked Rodgers to speak with his likely new boss. Gutekunst said exactly that during LaFleur’s introductory press conference, and Rodgers recounted how after a 25-minute chat with LaFleur, he called Gutekunst back, with Gutekunst then telling Rodgers that the team was planning to hire LaFleur.
Later that day, Rodgers said, Murphy then called and the two talked about LaFleur. And at no point in the conversation did Murphy say, “Don’t be the problem,” Rodgers said.
“It’s ridiculous. It is 100 percent, patently false,” Rodgers said. “It’s either (the author) made that crap up or (he will) say, ‘Oh, this is my source’s problem. They told me something …’
“I talked to Mark like last week. I said, ‘Mark, did you tell somebody about the conversation?’ He goes, ‘That’s ridiculous.’ I said, ‘Because that’s not what happened.’ He told me, ‘Of course that’s not what happened. We had a great conversation. Like we always do.’ That’s just one point in that article, among a number of highly questionable things.”
Recalling the conversations he had the day of LaFleur’s hiring, Rodgers said he was in Arizona golfing at the time.
“I was driving to Estancia Golf Club in Scottsdale, and I got a call from Gutey and he said, ‘Hey, I want you to call Matt LaFleur.’ I said, ‘Great.’ So he sent over his number, I had a nice long talk with Matt on the tee at No. 6,” Rodgers recounted. “We had a nice long conversation, and Gutey said, ‘Call me back after you talk to him.’ So I called Gutey back and he said, ‘What’d you think?’ I said, ‘Great conversation, I really enjoyed him. I’ve heard great things about him from (Atlanta quarterback) Matt Ryan and some of the guys on Tennessee and we had a good conversation.’
“I said, ‘Where are you at in the process? Do you think there’s other guys to interview or what’s going on?’ He said, ‘Well, we really like Matt, he was amazing in the interview and I think that’s the direction we’re going to go. Do you feel good about it?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I feel great, that’d be great.’ He said, ‘Awesome, we need to figure things out, but we might be offering him a contract.’ So I hung up the phone, I was playing with my buddy Greg and I said, ‘I think we’ve got a new coach.’
“We finished the round and after the round Mark Murphy calls me. And I’m driving back, I’m on Dynamite Road in North Scottsdale … He said, ‘Hey, I know you talked to Gutey already, we’re excited about Matt, there’s going to be some changes, but it’s going to be great. Glad you feel good about it and excited about the future moving forward.’ I said, ‘Yeah Mark, I know it’s been a good process, you guys interviewed a lot of guys but I’m excited that you guys feel great about him and I had a good conversation and it’s going to be a great thing moving forward.’”
While admitting he and McCarthy often didn’t see eye-to-eye, Rodgers insisted he would not have signed his $134 million contract extension last summer if he didn’t think he could play for McCarthy anymore, and that he didn’t think the Packers would have offered him that deal if they didn’t think he could still lead their team.
“I want to say two things: One, if they knew that, why would they offer me a contract last year?” Rodgers asked. “And two is, if I really disliked Mike so much, why would I re-sign knowing that if I play well and we do what we do around here — we made the playoffs eight straight years, and then I got hurt and we missed the playoffs — it’s going to be me and Mike my entire career? So if I really disliked him that much, do you think I’d re-sign? Is the money that important to me? I’ll tell you it’s not. Quality of life is important.”
Rodgers admitted his surprisingly negative assessment of the offense’s performance during his postgame news conference following a 22-0 victory over Buffalo in late September was a mistake. The harsh public comments came off as insubordinate and disrespectful to McCarthy, and Rodgers said the following morning he went to the coach’s office to apologize.
“Oh, man, I wish I hadn’t said anything after the Bills game last year,” Rodgers said. “I wish I had just gotten with him in person. I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful to him, but I know how it came off. That’s what I told him when I met with him face to face.”
Rodgers said that despite some well-publicized disagreements with McCarthy, including a couple that were referenced in the Bleacher Report story, he and the coach did talk out their issues and did not let them “fester” after those conversations.
“We learned how to communicate with each other,” Rodgers said. “The beauty in our on-the-field relationship was that there was a ton of trust. When I read stuff like, ‘I’d disrespect him by changing all these plays,’ I had a lot of latitude. He knew that, and I knew that. I called the 2-minute (drill), I’d call stretches of no-huddle offense. ... A lot of times, he’d send two plays in: ‘Hey, do you like this or that?’ That’s how it grew.”
“The trust level was really high. I know it might make it tough on a play-caller when I’m going in a no-huddle period or I’m going in a 2-minute of (him not) knowing exactly what’s called, but that’s the trust that we had, and that’s why I appreciate getting to play for him for so many years.
“We have had issues, no doubt about it. Any long relationship has issues. But the way that we dealt with those issues, Mike and I, was face to face. We had conversations. Things didn’t fester weeks, months, years. It’d be up in his office, it’d be after a Thursday practice down in the big team room, it’d be in the quarterback room, it’d be in my house sometimes, it’d be at his house sometimes. We spent time together, we talked about things.
“Even at the most difficult moments, when I was stubborn about something or he was stubborn about something, the conversation ended the same way every time. We came to an agreement and agreed to move forward on the same page. We got up, we hugged each other, we told each other that ‘I love you and I respect you’ and then we moved forward together. That’s what happened.”
Rodgers also went out of his way to tell Packers fans to be respectful of McCarthy, who is still living in the Green Bay area, having taken the 2019 season off from coaching after his Dec. 2.
“We had a hell of a run. We had 13 years, four NFC championship (games), one Super Bowl, eight straight playoffs, 19 straight wins. So, instead of trashing this guy on the way out, let’s remember the amazing times that we had together,” Rodgers said. “Mike lives here. Mike has young kids here. So Mike has to be here. Think about how difficult it is for him. My favor that I would ask of you, strongly, is if you see Mike, shake his hand. Tell him thanks for the memories. Tell him thanks for the coaching job that he did. Tell him how much you appreciate him being a part of what we built here.”
When asked if he liked McCarthy more as a person than as a coach, Rodgers replied, “I love Mike McCarthy. He’s a great man. He’s got a huge heart. He really cares about his players, and he showed that to us. ... As far as a player to a coach, it’s just two Alpha males who are hyper-competitive and love winning and are both a little stubborn. But, again, we talked through so many different issues over the years, and that made us a lot stronger.”
Rodgers saved some of his most pointed remarks for ex-teammates Greg Jennings and Jermichael Finley, who were quoted repeatedly in the Bleacher Report story and have been frequent vocal critics of their former quarterback since they left the Packers. Rodgers called them “irrelevant, bitter players who all have an agenda whether they’re advancing their own careers or just trying to stir old stuff up.” and pointed out that neither player has been on the roster in five years: Jennings having left as a free agent following the 2012 season, and Finley having suffered a career-ending neck injury in October 2013.
“Every time there’s something (negative) about me, it’s the same two guys,” Rodgers said. “I was 15 feet away in the locker room from you for years. If you had a problem with my leadership, come talk to me. If you have a problem about the way I’m doing something or if I said something you didn’t like, come talk to me. This is years later now. They haven’t been in our locker room (for years), and it’s the same tired stories.”
Rodgers said he has heard from “over 100 former and current players and coaches” via calls, texts and social media messages. A number of current and ex-Packers have also spoken out on social media on Rodgers’ behalf, including former teammates Randall Cobb, James Jones, John Kuhn, Tom Crabtree, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Casey Hayward and even Jeff Janis, who took to Twitter Monday night to say that while Rodgers was tough on him, his “intentions were good” and he never felt Rodgers’ criticism was personal.
“That’s been pretty awesome. It’s fun to hear from those guys,” Rodgers said. “When you kind of take it on the chin with an article like this, it’s nice to let those guys do the talking for you when they’re talking about leadership and me in the locker or me in the huddle and what not.
“I really, truly, truly appreciate my teammates for backing me up, but they’re just telling the truth. They’re just telling their experience with me and the truth about who I am. I’ve been the same person. I’m highly competitive. I’m super-prepared. I hold myself and my teammates accountable. And I love winning. That’s what I’m all about.“