Why Didn’t These Guys Get Out On Top?

Why do aging Quarterbacks try to keep the flame burning? Why do so many greats refuse to go out on top, pining for that one last taste of glory?

Instead of retiring after his Super Bowl win in 1970 Johnny Unitas held on to a shaky rotation with backup QB Earl Morrall in 1971, was finally traded by the Colts to the Chargers in ’72 where he was 1-3 as the starter with 7 INTs before he was finally benched for good and retired after the season.

And of course, Joe Willy Namath the Super Bowl MVP had a miserable final two years with the Jets going 4-17 and passing for 19 TDs with a whopping 44 Interceptions. Joe also refused to retire and was dealt to the Rams in 1977 and started 4 games with 3 TDs and 5 INTs in that final season.

Brett Favre the Most Durable Ever

Closer to home for Aaron Rodgers are the final years of Brett Favre. Favre still holds what I think is the most impressive of all NFL stats by playing in 321 consecutive games from 1992-2010. He was the first QB to achieve 70,000 yds, 6,000 completions and 500 TD passes as well as the first QB with wins over all 32 teams. But, even with those accomplishments, Brett was not ready to retire. Well, he did retire in 2008, but decided to un-retire. By then, the Packers had moved on to the young Aaron Rodgers who had been waiting for his day since 2005. Favre was dealt to, yup, the New York Jets where the team collapsed after an 8-3 start and missed the playoffs. Favre threw a league high 22 INTs. In fairness to Favre, he did have two productive years with the Vikings after the Jets debacle, including a trip to the NFC Championship.

Which brings us to Aaron Rodgers in 2023. While Rodgers’ career has spanned a brilliant 18 years in Green Bay including the Super Bowl win and MVP in 2010, his last few years have been politically rocky with the Packers. Hell, Rodgers’ last few years have been politically rocky in a lot of ways, but, let’s not get into conspiracy theories!

Aaron is a complicated, albeit brilliant, 39 year old. His discontent with the Packers’ front office has been well publicized. In 2020 the Packers surprised most fans and more importantly their star Quarterback by drafting Utah State QB Jordan Love in the 1st round of the NFL Draft. This after Rodgers had thrown for 26 TDs and only 4 picks in 2019, and followed it up in 2020 with 48 TDs against 5 INTs and an NFL MVP award. My guess is Aaron was thinking maybe an offensive lineman, or, how about a burner wideout with that 1st round pick? So frankly, I was shocked when he signed the record breaking 3 year deal for $150 million prior to the 2022 season. Because by most accounts, he was still pissed. But, I was even more flabbergasted when the Packers did not go out and get the supporting players (again think receivers) Rodgers would need to be successful inside that new contract. In fact, 2022 would be Aaron’s lowest QB rating (91.1) of his career as a starter. The Packers would fall to 8-9 and miss the playoffs. Finally, this off-season the Packers and Rodgers agreed to part ways. How ironic it’s with the same NY Jets where Brett Favre tried to find a new home back in 2007.

Aaron the Unappreciated

Understanding Rodgers’ past helps a little bit in understanding him today (but maybe not much!). Aaron grew up in Chico, Calfornia and attended Pleasant Valley high school. He experienced great success both athletically and academically. Aaron was a two year starter at QB and passed for 4,421 career yards and set single game records of six TD passes, and 440 all-purpose yards. He also scored 1310 on his SATs and finished with an A- average!

The bad news was he was not highly recruited. In fact, he was not recruited at all. It turns out that in high school Aaron Rodgers was 5’10” and 165 LBs. He declined a walk-on offer from the University of Illinois and decided to enroll at Butte Community College in Oroville, CA, about 15 miles from Chico. Butte gave Aaron the chance to mature and after taking the team to a 10-1 record (he tossed for 26 TDs) and #2 National ranking, he was “discovered” by Cal head coach Jeff Tedford. Thanks to Aaron’s academic record he was permitted to enroll at Cal Berkeley after only one year of junior college. In the 5th game of the 2003 season he was named the starter and helped lead the Golden Bears to a 7-3 record. He also tied the school record with five 300 yard games and set the record for lowest interception percentage at 1.43%. A distinction that would follow him throughout his career.

Fast forward through the 2004 season and Rodgers takes Cal to a 10-1 record and a top-5 ranking. The only loss was to USC and in that game Rodgers completed an NCAA record of 23 consecutive passes. His 66.1 % pass completion percentage led the Pac-10. After the season Rodgers decided to forego his senior season and enter the 2005 NFL Draft.

With a flashy college resume and now 6’2” and 223 lbs, Rodgers was confident he had a shot at going as the #1 pick in the draft to his favorite team, the San Fransisco 49ers. Instead, the 49ers picked Alex Smith out of Utah and Rodgers fell all the way down to the 24th spot in the first round. Green Bay signed Rodgers to a five year $7.7 mil deal that included escalators up to $24.5 mil if he met his incentives. But, that would need to wait, as Rodgers sat behind Favre through the 2007 season. In retrospect, sitting, watching and learning behind a future Hall of Fame quarterback was not a bad way to break into the NFL.

The rest is history. Aaron lights it up over the next 15 years that will include a Super Bowl win and the game MVP award. He becomes a four time NFL MVP award winner including the very recent 2020 and 2021 seasons. His resume includes 10 ProBowl selections, 4 First-team All-Pro, and the lowest interception percentage (1.37%) in NFL history. It would seem one of Aaron’s gifts as a QB is his superior decision-making skills. He’s thrown over 7,000 NFL passes with only 105 INTs.

The Rodgers Drum Beat …

I think it’s fair to say Aaron Rodgers had (or has) a chip on his shoulder. Probably starting with his college recruiting experience and then again with the NFL Draft and finally by sitting behind a declining Brett Favre for the first 3 years of his NFL career. I think it’s also fair to say Rodgers marches to his own drummer. He’s been into yoga and meditation for years. Nothing strange there, but there’s more. He has admitted to experimenting with mushrooms and more recently other types of psychedelics. Rodgers credits the ayahuasca plant for helping to alleviate his fear of death and improving his mental health. He has suggested the plant was a big factor in contributing to his two most recent NFL MVP awards (2020-2021). But that’s not all. In Feb 2023 CNN reported that Rodgers attended a “darkness retreat” in a cabin in the Oregon wilderness built for prolonged isolation in the dark. The CNN report stated that part of Rodgers’ motive was to “get alone with his thoughts” and contemplate his NFL future. After the experience Rodgers shared on the Pat McAfee show that his four days in the cabin “… was a great reset for me, for my body, and my mind.” He also added “… there is zero distractions, zero light. You can’t even see parts of the room,” and “you have some hallucinations, at some point, where the room looks different than it actually is.” I think quite a few rooms look different to Aaron, but hey, he’s from Cal Berkeley, right? Steve Bartkowski, another great Cal QB who kept me mostly on the bench during our four years together once gave me a tour of the Berkeley campus. What I remember most about Berkeley was a guy sitting on the roof of a 5 story building with his legs dangling over the edge while he was playing a flute. I mean, it was the 70s, but still, I can see Aaron Rodgers there.

Well, apparently one of the visions he saw during the darkness retreat was himself in a Jets uniform. Shortly after the experience Rodgers and the Packers agreed they would work out a deal with the Jets. But, this migration of a Packers star Quarterback to the Jets feels different than the Brett Favre saga. For one thing, Rodgers appears to be re-inventing himself for the challenge at hand. If you were turned off by the long stringy hair; it’s gone! So is most of the beard. Didn’t show up for OTAs in Green Bay? Forgettaboutit. Rodgers is attending every jets function since the trade and imbedding himself in the Big Apple sports scene by attending Knicks and Rangers games. Peter Schwartz of New York’s WFAN Radio is convinced Rodgers has “rekindled the fire” and his actions since being named a Jet have “exceeded expectations.”

An Elite Club

Why do I believe Aaron Rodgers is positioned for more glory with the Jets? Why do I believe he will not be a repeat of Unitas, or Favre or Namath? Two reasons: First at age 39 his skills simply have not diminished. At least not much. Maybe it’s the yoga or maybe the plants, but he’s demonstrating Brady-type resilience as he enters his 40s. In his lowest rated year of 2022 Rodgers started every game (one of only 8 QBs in the NFL last year to do so) and still passed for 3,695 yards with 26 TDs vs 12 Ints and a 64.6 completion percentage. Second, he’s coming in “hungry” as Peter Schwartz said. He’s coming to New York as a team player and like Tom Brady he knows how to make it work. When asked if Rodgers would be wearing his familiar #12, the same number worn and retired by Joe Namath, Rodgers replied, “It’s important for me not to wear #12 in deference to Joe. In New York, #12 will always be Broadway Joe.” So Aaron Rodgers is going back to his roots and wearing #8, the same number he wore at Cal when he took that upstart team to 10-1 and a top 5 national ranking. Do I hear a flute playing …?

Like Tampa Bay did for Brady, the Jets are building around Aaron Rodgers. They start with a solid defense and are adding pieces to the offense including former Rodgers’ favorite from Green Bay, Randall Cobb. But Cobb might be more valuable as a mentor to this receiver group which is young, fast and talented. The Jets were 7-10 last year with glaring issues at the QB position. The Zach Wilson experiment is on hold and Rodgers brings immediate stability to the entire offense. Wilson might take note that sitting, watching and learning behind arguably the most accurate passer in NFL history might be a career enhancer. Finally, its important to note that the offense is being installed by OC Nathaniel Hackett, who just happens to be the same offensive coordinator who was at Green Bay during the last two of Rodgers’ NFL MVP awards in 2020 and 2021. Huge advantage.

There have been only two Quarterbacks to win a Super Bowl with two teams. The first was Peyton Manning who first won with the Colts in 2007 and then again in 2016 with the Broncos. Manning won that game at age 40 and chose to retire; One of the few who truly went out on top. The other, of course, is Tom Brady. Brady played in ten super bowls and won seven. Six of those were with the New England Patriots. But in 2021 Tom switched allegiances and took the upstart Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the promised land.

Only two in 52 years. I keep going back to Aaron Rodgers’ ability to make good decisions. The lowest interception rate in NFL history. I think this QB knows what he’s doing. My prediction is Aaron Rodgers will make it three.

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