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Aaron Rodgers, still processing a stunning playoff defeat after an MVP-caliber season during which his vaccination status became a hotter topic than his quarterback rating, said Tuesday that he will decide by the end of February or early March whether to retire or return for the 2022 season.
In his weekly appearance on The Pat McAfee Show, Rodgers, 38, said the NFL's franchise tag period, which begins Feb. 22 and runs through March 8, will serve as a de facto deadline for whether he'll return for an 18th season.
Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers went 13-4 in 2021 and were the top seed in the NFC playoffs before the San Francisco 49ers upset them 13-10 on Saturday night at Lambeau Field, a game in which the Packers scored on the game's opening possession but never reached the end zone again.
Now, they face an offseason in which they'll be an estimated $40 million over the salary cap, with Rodgers counting $46 million against the cap unless his contract is redone or extended. More immediately, All-Pro wide receiver Davante Adams – Rodgers' top and perhaps lone reliable target – is eligible to receive the franchise tag from the team or become a free agent.
Rodgers wants to give his team the courtesy of knowing his status before the organization makes a move, and he anticipates a strong and open dialogue with general manager Brian Gutekunst in the run-up to his decision.
"When you’re a hypercompetitive individual, you dream or think about what the fairytale ending is," Rodgers said. "(Winning the Super Bowl) is a pretty good fairytale, but not many have been able to do that. It comes down to how you’re feeling – how are you playing, can you still play and do you want to sign up for the grind again?
"You get away from it, let your mind clear and think about it, think about the enormity of the task and what would bring you the most enjoyment. What's the best for your quality of life at this point?"
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Rodgers said "everything is on the table," meaning retirement, a return to the Packers or a potential trade, though if he's gone, he's gone – Rodgers was adamant he won't return after a year or so on the sideline.
Though he offered few specifics, Rodgers' tone sounded like that of a player who just threw for 4,115 yards and 37 touchdowns against just seven interceptions. He seems to understand there's still plenty he can give, yet will feel at peace if he leaves that on the shelf.
"I don’t have a fear of retirement," Rodgers said. "The uncertainty is not unsettling at all. It’s almost exciting, imagining what life may look like going forward."
He was startled by the playoff loss but prepared for the schadenfreude that came with it from NFL fans and outsiders upset with his handling of COVID-19 protocols (famously claiming he was "immunized" when asked if vaccinated) and subsequent spread of dubious or disproven information in appearances on McAfee's show.
A social media fusillade Saturday night reveled in his elimination, some calling him "Throw Rogan" as a nod to his consultation with podcast host Joe Rogan, whose debunked COVID-19 theories earned rebukes and threats of Spotify boycotts from a wide range of critics, from a consortium of doctors to rock artist Neil Young.
"There were a ton of people tuning in to root against us for one reason and one reason only," Rodgers said, "for my vaccination status, so they could see us lose and pile on and revel in the fact my vaccination status was some sort of reason why we haven’t had success, or whatever it might be."
Putting a cap on a 2021 season in which he lost an appeal to the NFL to be placed in less stringent COVID-19 protocols and then unwittingly became a hero to the anti-vaccination crowd, Rodgers said his goal was to "inspire people to take their health into their own hands" and that he did not appear on Fox News's family of networks nor CNN because "politics is a sham."
In recent days, he pushed back against President Joe Biden calling COVID-19 "a pandemic of the unvaccinated" and on Tuesday channeled "The Big Lebowski" regarding his pariah status among some: "That’s just your opinion, man. They can use narratives and story lines just like they can use stats to prove their point."
As he heads into another uncertain offseason, Rodgers did wonder what further hindsight will be lent to the NFL's handling of COVID-19 and his ultimate reaction to it.
"I think there will be a lot of people thinking we should've handled this or that better," he said, "I may look back and say, 'I wish I didn’t say that this way.' Hindsight is always 20/20.
"I think 10 years from now, the lessons from this year will be such a part of my constant growth and evolution."
We'll know soon enough if Rodgers adds at least one more season to that evolution.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Aaron Rodgers gives timeline for decision on NFL future with Packers