It’s strange to observe Rodgers, wondrous yet temperamental, without a hint of edginess.
“I talk about a lot how thankful I am to be in this opportunity,” Rodgers said. “To be the starting quarterback here — to be relied upon for my play, my leadership, my presence, my daily preparation — there’s no greater feeling. This is such a special honor. It’s one of the greatest honors of my life, definitely up to this point, to be able to lead this team and be counted on by my teammates to bring not just my physical play but my presence, my emotions, my words. I’m thankful for the opportunity to still be here and still be the guy. And I’m excited about what we can accomplish together.”
Before the 2020 season began, the conversation centered on how much longer he would be in Green Bay. After all, the Packers drafted quarterback Jordan Love in the first round last April, reminiscent of when Green Bay selected Rodgers in 2005 to be the eventual successor to Brett Favre. Rodgers was perturbed. Speculation about an awkward, if not volatile, situation ensued. Then Rodgers defied the low expectations. Instead of succumbing to frustration and turning inward, he deepened his commitment to the offensive system of Coach Matt LaFleur, curbed his tendency to freelance and gained faith in more receivers than just all-pro Davante Adams. Those adjustments should result in the third league MVP award of his career. Guess there’s no longer an urgent need to calculate how much time Rodgers has left with the Packers.
It’s not a redemption tale. It seems more like relaxation. Even though Rodgers spoke Wednesday of an unknown future — he called it a “beautiful mystery” — it wasn’t worth overanalyzing. Rodgers sounded more poetic than worried. There’s little reason for concern when Rodgers just set career highs by completing 70.7 percent of his passes and throwing for 48 touchdowns. Green Bay finished 13-3 for a second straight season under LaFleur’s leadership.
If the Packers were surprisingly good in LaFleur’s first season, they’re just plain dominant this season.
“I feel like we have a lot of confidence and believe in ourselves,” Rodgers told reporters as the playoffs began. “Offensively, we’re just a better, much more efficient team.”
Now comes the test of their improvement. A year ago, San Francisco pulverized Green Bay in the NFC championship game. It was the third straight time Rodgers had lost one game shy of the Super Bowl. But on Sunday, he gets to play at Lambeau Field for the first time in five NFC championship game appearances.
Brady will be on the other side, in his new Tampa Bay Buccaneers uniform, ready for another epic quarterback duel one week after he outdueled Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. And this gantlet of quarterback greatness could go to another level in the next round if the winner of the Brady-Rodgers Bowl winds up facing $500 million man Patrick Mahomes and the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV.
Last week, Brady vs. Brees turned out to be a defensive battle and not an antique quarterback showcase. You get the feeling there will be more fireworks for Brady vs. Rodgers. They are the two defining quarterbacks of this era, and both appear 10 years younger this season.
“No more pressure than usual,” Rodgers said. “Obviously, I put pressure on myself to perform every single week, and I think there’s a lot to be said for being able to harness that pressure and fear of failure and focus it into a real positive. That’s something you learn over the years. But I don’t feel any extra pressure going into this one.”
To understand Brady’s greatness, don’t just count the six rings he won with New England. Consider the magnificent career Rodgers has had and realize that he’s still grinding for a second championship. Brees was doing the same a week ago. Brady collected No. 2 in just his third season as a starter.
As always, there is normal success, and then there is Brady’s abundance, the product of a legendary player combining with a legendary coach in Bill Belichick and playing for a model franchise. As Brady has made clear this season with Tampa Bay, he can play at a championship level without the Patriots way, but it’s the confluence of all that brilliance — and a good portion of ruthlessness — that powered him to six titles, nine Super Bowl appearances and 13 AFC championship game berths in his first 20 seasons. Now in the NFC, Brady has added a preposterous 14th conference championship game appearance to his résumé.
Brady has had some low moments, but his unprecedented highs drench them. Rodgers has played his entire career for a franchise that defines stability and excellence, has won two-thirds of his starts and 60 percent of his playoff games, but he’s still trying to replicate a title the Packers won 10 years ago.
Every comparison to Brady is ludicrous, but here’s something that gets me: The Packers are 29 seasons into the most outrageously wonderful quarterbacking dynasty in league history. They had Favre for 16 seasons and then transitioned immediately to Rodgers. Over nearly three decades, they have made the playoffs 21 times under Favre and Rodgers and won two Super Bowls. They were blessed with two of the top 10 quarterbacks ever, back to back, and they’ve been a perennial contender. But in eight fewer seasons, Brady and his teams dwarf all the winning the Packers have done under Favre and Rodgers. It’s mind-boggling to ponder.
Rodgers is a remarkable showman and clutch performer. Brady is a surgeon. Everything he does is precise and measured. He carries out whatever the game demands. He makes the most of all available resources. Brady’s run has lasted so long that Rodgers, despite his signature abilities, hasn’t gotten to own the league as much as he should. And with Mahomes looking like he’s already got next, this is clearly Rodgers’s best chance to shine brightest.
But it seems Rodgers has found something just as precious as that status. He’s comfortable and engaged again. Before LaFleur arrived, the quarterback was losing faith and joy. He can chill now. It’s not all on him. He trusts he has help to combat Brady and every other beautiful mystery.