When Aaron Rodgers‘ head hit the pillow on the night of April 25, in a suburban New Jersey hotel room, his mind traveled back to Berkeley, California, the summer of 2003.
It was his first year at Cal, his first time away from home. He slept in a dingy fraternity house, excited about his journey into the unknown. Those same feelings washed over him after being traded to the New York Jets.
He arrived in New Jersey via private jet at 8:52 p.m., made the 30-mile trip from Teterboro Airport to his hotel, unpacked his belongings and his emotions. He took a deep, satisfying exhale. “The kind you take when all is right with the world,” he said.
After 18 seasons with the Green Bay Packers, Rodgers felt like his 19-year-old self, starting what he called “a new adventure.” He would be introduced the following day at a packed news conference, where he fed Super Bowl expectations to the Jets’ hungry fan base.
For now, in his hotel room, he pondered a line from his favorite TV show, “The Office”. Ed Helms’ character, Andy Bernard, says, “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.”
“There’s a lot of wisdom to that, enjoying how special this moment is today and this journey,” Rodgers said. “I’m going to soak it up.”
Oh, what a journey.
The biggest trade of the NFL offseason went from rumor to reality over a three-month span, stretched out because negotiations between the two teams seemed like … they’d … never … end.
The drama included a bizarre divorce with the Packers, triggered by the quarterback’s frustration with the front office and the team’s desire to replace him with 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love; a meeting in Malibu that attracted paparazzi; a bombshell announcement on The Pat McAfee Show; hot-and-cold negotiations; a mysterious two-week dead period; and, finally, a deal.
MARCH 27 COULD have been as good a day as any to get a trade finalized. All of the NFL’s important people were gathered at the Arizona Biltmore resort in Phoenix for the league’s annual meetings.
Shortly before noon, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst came out from behind two tinted-glass doors that led to the pool deck. Behind those doors, a meeting that included all of the league’s GMs had just ended.
Gutekunst, who had stopped to chat, looked over his shoulder as Jets general manager Joe Douglas emerged a minute later.
“Joe and I joked that we should have walked out together,” Gutekunst said. “Everybody would’ve thought we had a deal.”
This was nearly three weeks after the Jets’ contingent of Douglas, owner Woody Johnson, vice chairman Christopher Johnson, coach Robert Saleh, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and team president Hymie Elhai spent five hours at Rodgers’ oceanfront home in Malibu, California, to discuss whether they had a future together.
And it was nearly two weeks after Rodgers made it known on the March 15 edition of McAfee’s show that he and the Packers were done, and he wanted to be traded to the Jets immediately.
The Malibu confab, which took place March 7, was a casual conversation, not a corporate presentation. Afterward, team officials said they felt good about the meeting. The Jets’ contingent parked their cars on the street, attracting paparazzi and onlookers. At least one police officer was needed for crowd control. Asked by a camera crew if the Jets were getting Rodgers, Woody Johnson said, “We’ll find out.”
While Rodgers may not have informed the Jets of his decision immediately, the Packers were operating as if that were the case. In fact, a source said Rodgers’ agent, David Dunn, had informed the Packers of this even before the NFL combine, which began Feb. 27. On March 5, as fallback option Derek Carr was wrapping up a deal with the New Orleans Saints, the Jets received permission to speak with Rodgers. And they did. Team officials spoke with him the next day, arranging the cross-country trip to Malibu.
A deal seemed imminent. Even Rodgers thought so.
“A deal is much further down the path than people realize,” a source close to Rodgers said shortly after the March 15 appearance on McAfee’s show. “The Jets have to get this done or they’re going to be a joke.”
The Jets were quietly optimistic, based largely on this simple truth: They knew the Packers wanted to trade him — Gutekunst believed he couldn’t make Love, the quarterback he drafted at No. 26 overall in 2020, sit behind Rodgers for a fourth year — and they were the only team interested.
On March 12, Douglas received a late-night call from Dunn with the news the star-crossed franchise had longed to hear: Rodgers wanted to play for the Jets. Only a small circle of people were privy to the information; the rest of the world found out three days later on the McAfee Show.
At 1 p.m. on March 15, work stopped inside the Jets’ facility. People formed clusters as they gathered around laptops. The building briefly lost electricity at the start of McAfee’s show– perhaps due to heavy winds in the area — but power returned well in advance of Rodgers declaring his “intention” to play for the Jets.
This made it real, hearing it from the man himself.
“That’s when we knew,” Woody Johnson said.
DUNN ACTED AS the go-between for Rodgers and the Packers, according to Gutekunst, after Rodgers ghosted them. Gutekunst told reporters in Phoenix he tried to reach Rodgers “many times” after Rodgers left Green Bay following the season and never got a response.
Sources with direct knowledge of the situation said Gutekunst even attempted to set up an in-person meeting with Rodgers in California. The GM had planned a scouting trip to Los Angeles for the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and wanted to meet with Rodgers while he was there but never heard from Rodgers.
This was all before Rodgers went on his four-day darkness retreat in late February.
Gutekunst then laid out to Dunn what he had planned to tell Rodgers.
“It was: If this is the way it’s going to be [ghosting the Packers] and he wants to be back, we need to have those conversations,” a source said. “[Dunn] talked to Aaron at some point and then said, ‘He wants to keep playing, he wants to be a Jet.'”
At his introductory news conference with the Jets, Rodgers blamed the lack of communication on bad cell service at his Malibu home and said the only way to reach him is via FaceTime.
“After all efforts were exhausted — with the exception of FaceTime, I guess — to reach Aaron,” a source said, “that’s when Dave Dunn got involved.”
Dunn was described as “pretty instrumental actually in helping to get things going. Obviously, he’s working on [the Jets’ and Rodgers’] side a little bit, but he wanted to get a deal done.”
Talks intensified between Gutekunst and Douglas in Phoenix, and a team source said the Packers contingent “walked away thinking they were pretty close to a deal if they didn’t have one already.” The Jets were “very optimistic,” Douglas told reporters.
Then Gutekunst didn’t hear from Douglas for two weeks.
“It was really weird sh–,” a source with direct knowledge of the negotiations said. “This should have been done in three or four days once talks started because [the final trade compensation] wasn’t that far off from where it started.”
In Gutekunst’s mind, the ball was in the Jets’ court because he had made an offer. On the other hand, a source said they were available to talk during those two weeks if the Packers had called.
Gutekunst, the source said, finally broke the silence with a phone call to Douglas on April 21, the Friday before the start of the draft. A deal was done by Monday, April 24.
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AT THE VERY beginning of the negotiations, Gutekunst asked for the Jets’ first-round pick (No. 13 overall), and any future compensation was dependent on whether Rodgers played another season. The Jets were adamant that they didn’t want to give up that No. 13 pick.
By the annual league meetings, Gutekunst had moved off that demand. He told reporters in Phoenix he was not asking for that pick outright, which was true at the time because he already knew the Jets would not give the Packers a first-round pick for this draft.
If Gutekunst wasn’t going to get the No. 13 pick, then he wanted a second-round pick this year (plus a flop of first-round picks with the Packers going up to No. 13 and the Jets going back to No. 15) and an unconditional first-rounder in 2024.
The Jets, however, were concerned about Rodgers potentially playing only one season before retiring and didn’t want to give up an unconditional first in 2024. Woody Johnson felt strongly about that, a source with direct knowledge of the negotiations said, especially after hearing Rodgers tell McAfee he was “90% retired” before his darkness retreat. A source said the Packers responded by offering the Jets a conditional pick in the 2025 draft if Rodgers were to quit after this season.
The Jets said no.
A source said the Jets wanted the 2024 pick to be conditional not only on Rodgers’ production but also on wins and advancing in the playoffs. That’s how the Brett Favre trade was done between the two teams in 2008. It was a conditional fourth that improved to a third with 50% playing time, a second with a playoff appearance and a first for a Super Bowl.
This time, the Packers said no.
“If he plays, then it’s [on the Jets] to win,” a source with direct knowledge of the Packers’ thinking said. “If Aaron plays and they don’t win, that’s their problem.”
They agreed to tie the 2024 pick only to Rodgers’ participation in 2023. It would be a second-round pick unless Rodgers takes at least 65% of the snaps. Then it would become a first-round pick.
Both sides agreed.
When the agreement was finalized, Douglas walked into a draft meeting and announced, “We’ve got our quarterback.” He and Saleh fist-bumped and embraced. Saleh never doubted the outcome but said to reporters, “I’m glad it’s over. Now we can move on.”
Not long after the agreement, Gutekunst headed to the Lambeau Field media auditorium for his previously scheduled pre-draft news conference Monday afternoon, four days before the draft. The Jets wanted Gutekunst to announce the trade right then and there, but the Packers never go public with anything until it’s signed and filed to the NFL office.
Still, Douglas told Gutekunst he had to call Dunn and let him know, at which point Gutekunst knew the news would leak quickly.
It did, just minutes before Gutekunst arrived at the podium.
Before the deal could be certified by the NFL, Rodgers had to sign a revamped contract with the Packers. That contract then had to toll for 24 hours, and Rodgers had to pass his physical with the Jets. Gutekunst danced around the topic but admitted this much: “Getting it done [before the draft] was important. I just think certainly the capital for this year was very important, certainly more valuable than future stuff, for our football team.”
SINCE POSING FOR pictures with his new No. 8 jersey at the introductory news conference — the Jets’ best-attended player presser since Tim Tebow arrived in 2012 — Rodgers has been a regular at One Jets Drive. He’s attending voluntary practices, working out in the weight room and being vocal in meetings, according to teammates.
He bonded with Saleh over a round of golf, dined in Manhattan with teammate Sauce Gardner, got an on-the-house slice of pizza at a Midtown joint and attended three sporting events at Madison Square Garden.
“That dude just shows up to work and he’s just so f—ing happy right now,” former and current teammate Billy Turner told Sirius XM’s Mad Dog Sports Radio.
Team ownership appears ecstatic. Since the trade, Woody Johnson has tweeted no fewer than 10 Rodgers-related posts, including a video of sales associates ringing a wall-mounted bell every time a new customer buys season tickets. There’s been a lot of bell ringing in the office. Season-ticket sales are up 400% compared to last year, including a 250% increase since Rodgers’ announcement on the McAfee show.
“Transformative,” Johnson said of Rodgers’ arrival.
The trade compensation was steep, and it started to take effect immediately. The flipping of first-round picks, which got the trade talks over the finish line, may have cost the Jets a first-round offensive tackle — a position of need. They dropped from No. 13 to No. 15, switching places with the Packers. Georgia’s Broderick Jones, the last of the top tackles, was picked at 14 by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
There’s also the matter of money — $108.7 million over the next two years, including $101 million in guarantees, according to Roster Management. To facilitate the trade, Rodgers restructured his contract with the Packers, dropping his 2023 salary to $1.2 million and pushing the rest into 2024. For cap purposes, it has to be reworked again. The Jets inherited his entire contract; the Packers didn’t eat any of it, as many speculated they would.
It’s a massive investment, but the Jets believe Rodgers can do what no Jets quarterback has done since Joe Namath in 1969: Get them to a Super Bowl.
Now those were the good old days, as Andy Bernard might say. The Jets are betting on Rodgers to bring them back.