Minnesota May Be the Only NFC North Team to Keep Their Quarterback

Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

A Minnesota Vikings fan could have woken up on Saturday morning, took inventory of the NFC North quarterback landscape, and arrived at the following conclusions:

  • Aaron Rodgers is back to his old self, and regardless of whether he advances to the Super Bowl, he’s going to be a problem for the Vikings in 2021 and beyond.
  • Matthew Stafford may get re-energized with new head coach Dan Campbell and offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. The Detroit Lions defense doesn’t seem particularly competitive, but Stafford will always give them a chance to win.
  • The Chicago Bears aren’t particularly settled at quarterback. Even though Mitchell Trubisky has beaten the Vikings an inordinate number of times, Chicago isn’t going to become uber-competitive until they upgrade. There might be someone new at quarterback in 2021.
  • And then there’s Cousins, back for a fourth year, seemingly entrenched as the Vikings starter, coming off another strong statistical season that failed to propel Minnesota to the playoffs. He’ll need a better defense to make the Vikings a winner.

Forty-eight hours later, the picture seems blurrier. The Bears are still in quarterback limbo, but two quarterbacks that spent the entirety of the 2010s in Minnesota’s division could be on the way out.

Reports over the weekend indicate that the Stafford Era is over in Detroit. Understandably, Campbell and Co. are looking to reboot, while Stafford would like a fresh start elsewhere after 12 seasons without a playoff win. A trade could be on the table for the 32-year-old, whose arm talent, toughness, and loyalty to a doomed franchise have made him something of a sympathetic figure in national circles even if his stats paint the picture of a top 12 to 15 quarterback.

For all of Stafford’s strengths, he went just 8-13 in his career against the Vikings, and Minnesota has beaten the Lions in seven straight games. Mike Zimmer may have to draw up a new gameplan in 2021 to combat a new Detroit signal-caller.

Even more jarring were the postgame quotes on Sunday after Rodgers and the Packers dropped a 31-26 heartbreaker to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game. When asked about the next steps, Rodgers said there were many uncertain futures on the Packers, “myself included,” before saying afterward that he needed to take some time to clear his head.

It was supposed that Rodgers’ resurgent 2020 season had quelled any concern about his future in Green Bay after the Packers drafted his successor Jordan Love in the first round of last year’s draft. As the probable MVP, Rodgers will head into the offseason at age 37 while under contract for a team that’s gone 13-3 in back-to-back years, reached the conference title game both seasons, and built a mostly-well-rounded roster under young coach Matt LaFleur. Perhaps we underestimated how deeply Rodgers was wounded by Green Bay’s decision to draft Love instead of surrounding Rodgers with more pass-catching talent.

The fact remains that Rodgers is signed through 2023. Incredibly, the Packers are on the verge of reliving the Brett Favre saga of the post-2007 offseason. They have a franchise quarterback with three years left on his deal (as Favre did) coming off a 13-3 season (as Favre was) expressing doubts about his future (as Favre did regularly) while a first-round pick waits in the wings (as Rodgers was).

The similarities are bizarre. In 2008, the Packers traded Favre after a fantastic season to open the door for Rodgers. Favre felt a lack of loyalty from the organization, and there are signs Rodgers already feels the same way. Will history repeat it itself? Presumably, Rodgers would have to force the Packers’ hand to make a trade, perhaps threatening retirement. LaFleur was far more willing to commit to Rodgers after Sunday’s game than Rodgers was to commit to the Packers.

But a superstar player’s discontent can carry a lot of weight. As unpopular as a Rodgers trade would be in Green Bay, the Packers would get a massive trade return for a Rodgers’ caliber player following the season he had. That’s a nice way to mitigate some of the salary cap difficulties they are set to encounter and build around a young quarterback.

Did I mention it would be unpopular? And put an unfair target on Love’s shoulders?

Of course, there’s always the possibility that Rodgers is voluntarily done playing football. Permanent retirement would be surprising for a player like him — most of the greats tend to play until they decline — but Rodgers has no obligation to follow suit.

If we’re putting odds on Stafford and Rodgers’ departures, it feels like it’s over 75% for the former, but maybe under 25% for the latter. Stafford’s exit seems mutually agreed upon, whereas Rodgers and the Packers may seek reconciliation. Gut-punching losses for aging quarterbacks usually bring about a sense of contemplation, as they have for Drew Brees and Tom Brady in the past. There’s still a good chance Rodgers returns, assuming the Packers are enthused about keeping him, and Las Vegas agrees. The odds of Rodgers returning are -500 as of Monday morning.

So what does this all mean for the Vikings? Well, it’s not a bad outlook for their 2021 division title hopes. Neither Chicago nor Detroit would seem to be likely destinations for blue-chippers Deshaun Watson (via trade) or Dak Prescott (in free agency). Unless the Bears decide to run it back with Trubisky — which would be the wrong choice — they’ll either be looking at a Nick Foles-esque bridge quarterback (i.e., Andy Dalton, Cam Newton, Tyrod Taylor) or a rookie. Neither option makes them especially scary in 2021. Same for the Lions, who have little organizational equity, would allow them to woo a high-level free-agent quarterback.

If either team makes the correct choice on their future franchise quarterback in the draft, that could make them competitive down the road but not necessarily immediately.

Green Bay still stands in the Vikings’ way with Rodgers as their quarterback, but what if things crumble, Rodgers departs, and the Packers turn to Love? That would bring about a stunning three-quarters turnover of the division’s quarterbacks and seemingly make Cousins No. 1 in the NFC North and the Vikings division favorites.

In a sense, losing Stafford and Rodgers from the NFC North would be a letdown for Vikings fans considering all their history against the Vikings. Division games are more fun when you know the opposing quarterback really well. But if winning is the main objective, Minnesota would be primed to bounce back against a division with QB uncertainty on three of the four teams.

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