GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers says it every year, whether the Green Bay Packers are coming off a Super Bowl XLV title, a gut-wrenching, season-ending playoff loss or a play-out-the-string regular-season finale — as they will do Sunday against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field.
This team will never be together again.
That’s the reality of the NFL, the Packers’ longtime quarterback says: Even if many of the same players return for the following season, the makeup won’t be exactly the same. But it’s been a long time since the Packers have faced the kind of impending change that’s coming.
“The reality, and I told the team this (in the team meeting), by Monday at 5 o’clock, right, this is going to be a ghost town. It ends rapidly, and whether you finish the season as Super Bowl champions or you lose in ‘X’ round of the playoffs or you don’t get to the playoffs … bang, all of a sudden it’s over,” interim coach Joe Philbin said Wednesday. “And the reality of it is, some of these guys may never see each other the rest of their natural lives on Earth, right, because things change in the National Football League regardless of the win-loss record you had that particular year.
“So just basically, let’s enjoy the week. This is an opportunity for us to put together one final game.”
The uncertainty starts with Philbin’s status — a win would give the Packers a 3-1 record since team president/CEO Mark Murphy fired head coach Mike McCarthy and named Philbin as the interim replacement — but carries through the roster, which figures to undergo a significant overhaul. On top of that, some of the biggest names on the roster are either free agents-to-be or have contracts that might lead to their release.
“There’s going to be a lot of moving pieces in the offseason, so we’re just going to try to finish up the right way with another win for Joe, give Joe the best chance moving forward and end it at home in front of our fans the right way,” Rodgers said. “Things change. The locker room changes. The coaching staff changes. It’s part of the business. It’s a tough part of the business. (But) I feel pretty good about my standing moving forward with the team and excited about the future here.”
Who’ll be with Rodgers in 2019 remains to be seen, but those who could be playing their final game in a Packers uniform include outside linebacker Clay Matthews, wide receiver Randall Cobb, right tackle Bryan Bulaga, outside linebacker Nick Perry and tight end Jimmy Graham.
Matthews said last week he and his agent put extension talks on hold once the season started, and it’s hard to predict whether the franchise’s all-time sack leader will return. Although he enters Sunday with just 3.5 sacks, he has stayed healthy this season at age 32. His best position going forward might be inside, where he moved in 2014 when injuries struck, but it’s unclear if he’s willing to do that or if defensive coordinator Mike Pettine — or whoever’s running the defense in 2019 — wants him to.
“Of course, you think about it but I don’t stress about it. Whatever happens, happens,” Matthews said of his impending free agency. “I came here in 2009 and next year will be 2019. Obviously, everybody would love to finish out their career in one place and I’m no different. I would love to stay here but it has to make sense. That’s the part of free agency, with a new coaching staff, you’ve got to see the fit. There’s a worth that you feel about yourself. Everything has to come together. If that’s the case, I’d love to be a Packer for several more years.”
After catching nine passes for 142 yards, including the winning touchdown to beat Chicago in the opener, Cobb’s season went straight downhill. He missed six games in an eight-week stretch with a hamstring injury and missed last Sunday’s win over the New York Jets with a concussion. He said earlier this year that he’d like to return but, despite his relative youth (28), his injury history will complicate his free agency. Rodgers has made a strong public case recently for re-signing Cobb — “We’re a better football team when Randall Cobb is on the field,” Rodgers said — but that might not be enough.
“Obviously, I can’t sit here and say that that hasn’t crossed my mind. But I remind myself and I remind my wife (Aiyda) that, ‘We don’t know and we won’t know. So let’s focus on today, let’s focus on the time that we do know we’re going to be here,’” Cobb said. “I’m sure that Jordy (Nelson) didn’t think that he wouldn’t be here. That’s a part of the business, that’s part of life. Things change, things happen. ... I’m not going to sit here and let those worries and those whatever future questions creep in.”
The veteran right tackle has come back from last year’s torn anterior cruciate ligament — the second of his career — and played well while dealing with myriad less-severe injuries. He was back in the lineup Sunday against the Jets after missing two games with a torn medial collateral ligament in his knee, but he’s set to turn 30 in March and the team could move on. The final year of his five-year, $33.75 million deal calls for him to make $5.8 million in base salary next year. If this is it for him in Green Bay, Bulaga said he was proud he came back from the ACL and regained his form.
“Having to (come back) in 10 months, to me, was very satisfying not just as an athlete, but personally,” he said. “There’s a lot of things that go into that with your family, stresses on your family and things like that. It’s not just me doing it. It’s my wife having to deal with my (expletive) at home … and then all the PTs and trainers that deal with you every day. Collectively, you’re pretty happy with the way everything went because it’s a great effort.
“I’m a football player. I come back and play. If you’re able to play, you play. That’s the way I looked at it and that’s the way I always look at it. Regardless of what our record is, none of that matters to me. I want to be out there for my teammates and play.’’
Two years into the five-year, $60 million deal he signed in March 2017, Perry could be a cap casualty this offseason after closing the year on injured reserve for a second straight season. This time, it was a knee injury that halted his 2018 campaign after nine games, in which he managed just 1.5 sacks. He had seven sacks last year in 12 games before knee and ankle injuries landed him on IR.
“Look, I treat every year as a year to compete and be a team player,” Perry said last month. “To the powers that be that have control over the situations, that’s out of my deal. If ‘Gutey’ (general manager Brian Gutekunst) and everybody else wants me to be back, I’ll be back.”
Graham signed a three-year, $30 million free agent deal in March but acknowledged earlier this month he hasn’t played as well as he expected, saying his numbers — 52 catches, 615 yards, two touchdowns — “suck” and that “I’ve always dominated everywhere I went, (but) obviously, I haven’t done that here yet.” With a $5 million roster bonus due to him on March 15, the Packers will have to decide whether they’d like him for another season or not.
One person who would? Rodgers.
“He’s got a couple more (years) on his contract,” Rodgers said. “So I’d like to start back fresh and see if we can find ways to use him consistently every week, and doing things that he’s really good at.”