How does the Packers star feel about being one of the best ever? He’ll never tell you.
Aaron Rodgers is a quarterback. He is arguably the best quarterback in football; though he has been a starter in the NFL for just three years, he is arguably already a historically great NFL quarterback. He has thrown for about four thousand yards each of his three seasons under center. Last year he led the Green Bay Packers to the playoffs as a wild-card entry, and then to the Super Bowl against the Pittsburgh Steelers and the arguably great but certifiably loutish Ben Roethlisberger. There, he led his team to an early lead but suffered through a brutal momentum shift against a brutal team when his receivers started dropping his passes. So he did the hardest and most essential thing a quarterback can do: He turned the momentum back his way when his team was dying, completing his most decisive pass to the author of the three most inexcusable drops. He won. He threw for more than three hundred yards on a day he could have easily racked up more than four hundred, he was named the MVP, and he fulfilled not only his professional but also his cultural obligations by displaying leadership, grit, poise, resiliency, etc. He was not only the quarterback but also the “QB,” as America wishes him to be.
And then what? Well, when the game was over, he started collecting his spoils in the way pioneered by Tom Brady rather than the way pioneered by Roethlisberger, which is to say he started showing up on gossip pages with exotically named women rather than in the bathrooms of college bars with girls named Tiffany. He gave interviews to Letterman at night and Ellen in the morning. He was affable and good-natured and wide-eyed at the prospect of people laughing at his jokes. He looked a little like Jake Gyllenhaal, if Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t play cowboys but was one, with circles under his eyes and a perpetual five o’clock shadow. He wore his shirt outside his pants with a sport jacket, he showed up on the occasional country stage, and he lacked even the kind of cultural currency that his peers at the paragon of his position possess. Tom Brady: Gisele. Drew Brees: Katrina. Peyton Manning: Avenging Opie, with Ancillary Rights. Ben Roethlisberger: “The hell with going to Disney World, just show me your tits.” Aaron Rodgers is arguably better than any of them, arguably supreme at the most symbolic position in sport. And yet he lacks any symbolic dimension and seems truly at home only when he’s navigating the hostile space of the collapsing pocket and completing his improbably inevitable passes.
Of course, the NFL has something to do with this. It has done its best to reduce the symbolic dimension of the QB by stressing the technocratic aspects of the position — by speaking of quarterbacks in the relentlessly anodyne argot of “protecting the ball,” “making decisions,” “running the offense,” and “making plays.” Rodgers’s own manager stresses his client’s “management skills” and his “CEO mentality,” and Rodgers himself has been giving the same interview since he first made a name for himself at Butte Community College. Even Trent Dilfer, the Super Bowl winner and astute ESPN analyst who has concluded that “today’s top ten quarterbacks are the equal of any of the top ten quarterbacks in the history of the NFL,” resorts to an esoteric metric when discussing Rodgers: “He has the fastest LTA in the league.” LTA? “That’s load-to-arrival — the time it takes for the quarterback to see where he wants to throw, and then get it there. Aaron has one of the strongest arms combined with one of the quickest releases, and they allow him to play in more chaos, and in smaller spaces, than other guys.”
In fact, what distinguishes Aaron Rodgers is not his decision making, which, though impeccable, is in the mortal realm. It’s his sheer giftedness — his economic brand of elusiveness matched with a talent for throwing the damned ball that is the equal of Dan Marino’s, Warren Moon’s, or (hey, why not?) Brett Favre’s. Though sallow and almost haunted-looking behind his face mask, he is physically dominant at his position, and that’s where his story lies, for he wasn’t always. “I worked out with him after college,” Dilfer says, “and there was nothing he did that really wowed you. But he had an amazing will and an amazing ability to improve. If anything, he proves that the NFL can still be a developmental league.”
Of course, Rodgers is almost as famous for not playing as he is for playing and excelling — that is, for his three-year apprenticeship to a master who was also arguably an asshole and who responded to Rodgers’s presence with one of the great midlife crises in the history of sport. And he has, with experience, improved his decision making. But if you have ever seen him tiptoe through a meat-hook wicket of outstretched arms, then turn his hips and drive the ball with an arm speed that allows him access to the most rapidly shrinking openings — hell, if you’ve seen the YouTube video of him, in practice, throwing a football forty yards into a net the size of a hula hoop, twice — then the idea of him as a player who has improved upon modest gifts seems far-fetched. We have learned to think of physical limitations as something fixed and ordained, and physical gifts — a sprinter’s speed, a pitcher’s fastball — as something unaccountable and owed to God. Moreover, we have learned to distrust epic improvements as violations of the natural order. But if Aaron Rodgers did not start out as what he has become, then he is no corporate avatar but rather the Robert Johnson of the NFL, who would do anything to make that guitar sing, including, well, you know…
But we will never hear that story, because that would require revelation of the inner man, and he is beyond that now, a finished product who has earned opacity upon arrival. We will wait in vain for him to say exactly how good he is or wanted to be, to say that Brett Favre was really sort of a tool, to say even something on the order of “We will beat the Colts — I guarantee it.” For glimpses of his transforming fire, we will have to content ourselves with his array of celebratory gestures — the fist pump, the pelvic thrust, and the dives into the stands — that are as awkward and perfunctory as his throwing motion is compact and fluid, the signature of a man who wants to show himself, then thinks better of it. Or we’ll have to content ourselves with replays of the pass that killed the Atlanta Falcons in the playoffs last year — the high lofted pass he threw into the end zone in the second quarter that was the exact same pass as the pass Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan threw into the end zone the previous series. Ryan’s was too late, and was intercepted. Rodgers’s went for the touchdown that changed the game. It was an F-bomb of sorts, for a quarterback whose career has been an F-you to everybody who kept him a man in waiting. But we’ll never hear anything like that from his mouth, because an F-you doesn’t get you an audience with Ellen. It only gets you to be Aaron Rodgers, and Aaron Rodgers is keeping it to himself.
Through three games, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers leads the NFL in passer rating and completion percentage and is tied for the fewest interceptions.
Oh, and his team is 3-0.
That’s a pretty strong resume to begin 2011, and with it Rodgers has been named the “NFC Offensive Player of the Month” for September.
It’s the third time in his career Rodgers has earned the monthly award. He also won it in December/January last season and in October 2009. Rodgers was named “NFC Offensive Player of the Week” following the season-opener this year.
Rodgers’ numbers over the season’s first three weeks are awe-inspiring. He has completed 71.8 percent of his passes, the only starting QB in the league at 70 percent. He has eight touchdown passes against just one interception, and his 84-yard touchdown pass to Jordy Nelson in Week 2 is the longest in the NFC and the second-longest in the league this season, behind only Tom Brady’s 99-yarder to Wes Welker for New England.
With a league-leading 120.9 passer rating, Rodgers is 7.1 points ahead of the next-closest quarterback, Brady. In the fourth quarter, his rating spikes to 131.3, tops in the NFC and third in the league.
Rodgers has posted a passer rating better than 100 in all three games this season, giving him 28 such ratings in his career through 50 regular-season starts. That’s the most in the NFL since the 1970 league merger by a quarterback in his first 50 starts, topping the 27 by Dallas’ Tony Romo.
Rodgers became the first quarterback in team history to throw for 300-plus yards in each of the first two games of a season, and he nearly made it three straight in throwing for 297 yards in Chicago last week.
His 917 passing yards are the second-most in franchise history through the first three games of a season, behind only Brett Favre’s 925 in 1999.