Is this the way it ends for Aaron Rodgers? Why what-ifs and a 'beautiful mystery' linger for Green Bay Packers

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What is Aaron Rodgers' next move? (1:16)

Adam Schefter explains how Aaron Rodgers holds all the cards in his next career move heading into the offseason. (1:16)

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The words "beautiful mystery" have hung over the Green Bay Packers for the past 12 months, ever since Aaron Rodgers used them to describe his future with the franchise. But there was nothing beautiful about what happened here Saturday night. And shoot, the next chapter in the mystery wasn't supposed to start for at least another week, preferably three.

The postgame scene showed a downcast Rodgers trudging off the field at Lambeau for what might be the last time, shaking a hand or two as he made his way through celebrating San Francisco 49ers while a light snow fell on a crowd of Packers fans who couldn't believe what had just happened. What do you mean, they lost? What do you mean, there's no game here next Sunday?

Is it really possible that this is the way it ends for Rodgers in Green Bay? Another failed playoff run? A fourth loss in four postseason tries against his boyhood team -- the team that broke his heart on draft night and made him sit there listening as 23 names were called before his, while cameras recorded his dejection for all the world to see and still see, years later, every time he has to face the Niners?

No, no, the Packers should have had this game in their pocket. Up 7-0 right away, up 10-3 with five minutes to go and the ball in Rodgers' hands. But a 49ers defense that had stood tall on every possession since the first one forced a punt. And a Packers special teams unit that had been dreadful all season had it blocked and returned for a touchdown. And then it was tied, and a few minutes later somehow the Niners were kicking a game-winning field goal. Final score: 13-10. The turnaround was ... well, you had to be there to believe it. Even if you were there, you still kind of couldn't believe it.

"A little numb, for sure," Rodgers said when it was over. "I didn't think it was going to end like this."

How much, exactly, is ending? Rodgers was clearly talking about the Packers' promising 2021 season, but could he have also been talking about his Packers career? His career, period? He is 38 years old, after all. He admitted upon arriving in camp last summer that he'd considered retiring. That was during a news conference in which he unfurled a Festivus-caliber list of grievances against the only franchise for which he's ever played, making it clear that he didn't particularly love the way the Packers operated or the general manager's disinclination to consult his star quarterback on matters of direct concern to him. To get Rodgers to report to camp, the Packers had to adjust his contract in a way that, frankly, enables him to force his way out this offseason if he wants to. Whether he wants to, he wasn't saying Saturday night.

"I don't think it's fair to anybody, or myself, to really go down those paths at this point," said Rodgers, who also mentioned that he doesn't want to be part of a rebuild in Green Bay. "It's disappointing. So sad and fresh. I'll have conversations in the next week or so and, you know, start to contemplate after that."

Fair. This one just had to be brutally tough for Rodgers to swallow. The 49ers -- again. With another clearly inferior quarterback taking the snaps from center. Jimmy Garoppolo, not Rodgers, will get to play the Rams or the Buccaneers next week for the right to go to the Super Bowl. Jimmy Garoppolo, who also saw his team trade up to draft his replacement but doesn't have the kind of résumé that gives him license to complain about it.

Garoppolo, wearing the uniform Rodgers once dreamed of wearing, has gone a combined 17-for-27 for 208 yards and no touchdown passes in his past two playoff games against Rodgers and has won them both. Man, if that doesn't sting.

So the world awaits, right? A fascinated public that has spent the past year watching Rodgers post Hawaii vacation photos while his team went through minicamp, wondering whether he'd come back, listening to him list his reasons he didn't want to, hearing him spout anti-COVID-19 vaccine rhetoric, seeing him wave his bare foot at a Zoom camera -- that public waits now to find out what the next chapter in the ever-fascinating Rodgers drama will bring.

Will we see him in a different uniform? Will we see him try to host another game show? Will he retire and run for office? Land in the broadcast booth? Ride off into the sunset, Andrew Luck style?

And whatever Rodgers does, what effect will it have on the way we remember him? He won a Super Bowl with the Packers 11 years ago but hasn't played in one since. He's a breathtaking performer -- one of the very best ever to spin the football, to read a defense, to throw the Hail Mary, to get the other team to jump offside. He is a clinical quarterback, simultaneously scientist and artist with the ball in his hands. A three-time (and likely four-time) regular-season MVP. And yes, a Super Bowl champion.

But there's also this what-might-have-been factor to Rodgers. There are those who think the Packers have squandered him, not being aggressive enough in building top-shelf rosters around him. They look at the Rams and wonder why his team could never be the one to sign or trade for every big-name star that hits the market. They look at the Buccaneers and wonder why the Packers would never cater to his roster wishes the way Tampa Bay has for Tom Brady. There are many, many people who look over his career and believe it could have come to even more than it has so far. Rodgers, for all we know, might be one of those people.

The what-ifs will linger, no matter what happens from here on out. We'll tell our grandkids about Rodgers and what he was like to watch, and if they ask us why he won only one Super Bowl, we won't know exactly what to say. Maybe, "It's a beautiful mystery," then chuckle to ourselves while they wonder what's so funny.

Maybe there's more to come. Maybe the Rodgers story has some glorious future chapter or chapters that will change everything about the way we remember him, that will land him the no-doubt-about-it spot on that quarterback Mount Rushmore that his once-in-a-generation talent deserves. Or maybe what we've already seen from him is the best we're going to get, and in time we'll realize it was a heck of a lot better than our in-the-moment nitpicking about playoff success made it seem.

Maybe Saturday was the last time we'll ever see Rodgers at Lambeau Field. If it was, it was actually kind of an appropriate ending, right? We all think we know what should have happened. We watched something else happen.

"Sometimes you think things are going to go a certain way and then you get a big course correction," Rodgers said. "But you've got to keep moving. Keep on moving forward, even when it doesn't feel like it's possible because of the sadness, the frustration, the enormity of the expectations, the disappointment of the results."

Fair or unfair, that's a big part of the story of Rodgers' career -- moving on from disappointment. The question now is: What's the next move?