Aaron Rodgers wears chaos well. Watch him play, and you can hardly tell that this has been the most turbulent season of his career. At 38 years old, he’s the favorite to win a second straight MVP award, which would be his fourth overall. The Green Bay Packers finished 13-4 and earned the NFC’s top seed. Beneath all the controversy, his football journey seems almost serene.
The duality is fascinating. Any one of his long list of entanglements would have been overwhelming for most: his anti-coronavirus-vaccination stance, his proud descent into misinformation, his long-standing feud with the Packers’ front office, the speculation that this is his last dance in Green Bay, the broken toe he’s managing to play through without surgery. Rodgers is handling it all — sometimes foolishly and often arrogantly — creating the weirdest new normal for himself. If you look at him as an icon, there are now dents everywhere. But all the while, his legend as a sublime quarterback keeps growing.
There are limits to Rodgers’s special ability to turn a mess into art, though. Over the past 11 years, the NFL playoffs have delivered the painful lesson that his singular greatness cannot support his most ambitious dreams. Since Green Bay won Super Bowl XLV after the 2010 season, Rodgers and the Packers have been unable to get back to the big game despite advancing to the NFC title game four times. On Saturday, when the Packers face San Francisco at Lambeau Field, they will be making their ninth postseason appearance during that span, an impressive run of consistency for which Rodgers deserves the most credit. Yet his inability to trust and operate in alignment with his organization has contributed to Green Bay’s dismaying habit of falling short.
Now he has another chance to finish the job with the Packers and win a second Super Bowl. And it’s a great opportunity. The Packers have the NFL’s best record, and they’re balanced in just about every way. Their defense has won games for them. On offense, they have a multifaceted, two-back running game to support Rodgers. And Matt LaFleur has been the right coach to direct it all, posting a stunning 39-10 record over three seasons and lifting Rodgers to historic levels of efficiency. Rodgers may never believe in General Manager Brian Gutekunst, but he seems to trust LaFleur after years of dissatisfaction with former coach Mike McCarthy.
Rodgers might be the greatest make-do quarterback in football history. In that sense, he’s reminiscent of John Elway before Mike Shanahan came to Denver. They’re both preeminent leaders who can transform insufficient rosters into threats. But for all their individual heroics, we have watched them lower their heads and slump their broad shoulders as they trudge off the field.
Elway lost in the Super Bowl three times before he broke through in his final two seasons. Rodgers was fortunate to win a championship early, and since then his teams have been in line for a title again and again, only to meet the bouncer at the door. They have lost to four different teams in their past four NFC title game appearances. Rodgers has had to congratulate a GOAT quarterback (Tom Brady), another future Hall of Fame quarterback (Russell Wilson), a borderline Hall of Fame quarterback (Matt Ryan) and a pretty solid quarterback (Jimmy Garoppolo). He has seen a heartbreaker (the overtime loss to Seattle in 2015), a comeback that fell short (Tampa Bay last January) and two blowouts (Atlanta in 2017 and San Francisco in 2020). The pain must feel even more acute because Green Bay has lost one step shy of the Super Bowl in its past three playoff appearances.
The on-field implications create plenty of tension. Add the possibility of closure for a successful-turned-awkward partnership and the scrutiny of Rodgers’s bizarre celebrity heel turn, and the pressure feels unmanageable. But Rodgers being Rodgers, there is one more thing to carry: his legacy.
He secured a spot among the game’s all-time greats long ago. But he wants to be on the exclusive list of quarterbacks who have won multiple Super Bowls. There are 12 in NFL history, and four are players from his era: Brady, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Another ring isn’t necessary to validate his talent or impact on the game. But it would emphasize that his way, though unorthodox and cynical and narcissistic, still has virtue.
In his public comments this season, Rodgers has drifted inward. Nevertheless, he thinks about the end of his career and the standard of excellence he wants to leave behind.
“It’s all a part of it,’’ Rodgers said this week. “Success is often based, for quarterbacks, on championships won. Success individually is much more than that. And on the flip side of that, failure, in my opinion, shouldn’t be based solely on your losses and your failures and your mistakes and your low points.
“It’s so much more than that. It’s mind-set. It’s approach. It’s the total package. But I understand that in our business, so much of it is focused on the wins and losses, especially in the playoffs, Super Bowl rings and all that stuff. I understand that’s part of my legacy I’ll be judged on when I’m done playing. Every year is important when it comes to furthering your legacy, but I take a lot of pride in the success that we’ve had and that I’ve had, and I hope we can add to it — both from a how-we’re-judged standpoint and how-we-judge-ourselves standpoint.’’
There’s just one more thing Rodgers can do, one thing that would be the ultimate act of defiance in a season full of shocking moments from him: blend. The Packers don’t need him to be more spectacular. They need him to be with them, willing to do whatever it takes to break through, even if it frustrates him and goes against his preferences.
Rodgers has some front-runner in him. It’s not because he’s a poor competitor. It’s the result of his constant distrust of others. The playoffs tend to identify a team’s fissures. In recent years, Green Bay has been both unlucky and disjointed at the worst possible times. The Packers should be better for the struggles, and if so, their MVP quarterback must reflect all that they have learned. To do that, he must show he has learned something as well.
This isn’t just a last dance. It’s the ultimate challenge, too. Rodgers can unify and inspire, or he can shrug one final time on his way out the door.