Sunday, February 06, 2011

Brett WHO?; Rodgers Running With the Torch in Green Bay

For three years, Aaron Rodgers did what all quarterbacks for the Green Bay Packers do who wear No. 12: he stood on the sidelines and backed up a legend, knowing full well that none of the fans wanted to see him enter the game, unless his team was ahead by five touchdowns.

The original No. 12 was Zeke Bratkowski, and the only way you’ll find him on NFL Films is if you catch him standing next to coach Vince Lombardi.

Bratkowski backed up Bart Starr for six seasons, which was not unlike being Shakespeare’s ghostwriter.

Rodgers is today’s No. 12 for the Packers, and for three seasons he wore a baseball cap, not a football helmet. For ahead of Rodgers was Brett Favre, who started his first NFL game in September 1992 and didn’t stop starting until a month ago.

Rodgers caught Favre at the end of his Packers career, which meant there were yearly questions every summer about whether or not the latter would retire.

Favre played in 2005 and he played in 2006 and in 2007 and Rodgers was the only Packer who didn’t have to tip the team’s laundry guy.

But Rodgers was a first-round draft pick, the 24th player selected, a 6’2”, 220-lb. specimen from Cal, and he was drafted for a reason.

One day, Packers management knew, Brett Favre wouldn’t be around anymore, and so there needed to be a capable young guy to take over the quarterbacking business.

I wonder if even the higher-ups in Green Bay knew what they’d be unleashing on the rest of the league when they drafted Aaron Rodgers.

The Packers finally lost Favre, but not to retirement—to the New York Jets in 2008.

That’s when someone cleared his throat, tapped Rodgers on the shoulder, and said, “Coach McCarthy will see you now.”

Rodgers would finally get a chance to wear a helmet.

But this wasn’t just any quarterback Rodgers was replacing. He’d be following Favre, the only signal caller in franchise history who you could even place in the same sentence as Starr, let alone dare a comparison.

Favre led the Packers for 16 seasons without missing a start. Then, just like that, he was gone.

Enter Rodgers, which at the time was like saying, “Introducing New Coke!”

Everyone felt sorry for the kid.

You want to be the guy to follow Brett Favre?

It was like performing on stage after they announced that Elvis had left the building.

Normally, a sports legend is followed by a guy or two (or more) who are place-setters—transitional players who are merely there until the team finds the next superstar at that position.

After Starr retired in 1971, the Packers didn’t have a decent quarterback until Don Majkowski lit it up in 1989. And it was Majkowski’s injury, ironically, that paved the way for Favre in 1992.

So it wasn’t expected that Favre would leave and the Packers wouldn’t miss a beat, despite Rodgers’ status as a first-round draft choice.

What Rodgers has been able to do in three seasons as the Packers’ starting quarterback is nothing short of amazing.

A legend left town, and the denizens don’t miss him.

This isn’t to say that Brett Favre is forgotten in Green Bay—far from it. But Rodgers has performed so brilliantly, he’s been able to let the Packers fans down gently in the wake of Favre’s departure.

Let’s wind the clocks back to the summer of 1999—when Barry Sanders abruptly retired from the Lions.

The team was left scrambling for a capable running back, and wound up with Greg Hill, which is someone you end up with when you have to scramble.

Now imagine if the Lions had an understudy waiting in the wings, and that running back stepped in and played so well, the sting of Sanders’ retirement would have been deadened as if the whole town was shot up with Novocaine.

That’s what Rodgers has done in Green Bay. He’s done the improbable: he’s made the transition from the Favre Era virtually seamless.

It’s almost unprecedented, I tell you.

If not for Steve Young taking over for Joe Montana in San Francisco, it WOULD be unprecedented—where a legendary quarterback has been followed the very next year with someone as good as Rodgers has been for the Packers.

And that’s not even a fair comparison, because Young was no unproven, unknown entity; he’d been a capable NFL quarterback for a number of years before landing with the 49ers.

So here comes Rodgers, and in his first season as the Packers starter, he throws for over 4,000 yards, has 28 touchdown passes and just 13 interceptions. His quarterback rating, that convoluted statistic that they came up with at NASA, was a healthy 93.8.

And he was just getting warmed up.

In 2009, Rodgers threw for 4,434 yards with a TD-to-interception ratio of an unworldly 30-to-7. The QB rating rose to 103.2.

This season, Rodgers missed the 4,000 yard mark by 78 because he missed a game due to the effects of a concussion. Still, he tossed 28 touchdown passes, threw just 11 interceptions, and had a QB rating of 101.2. The performance earned him the FedEx Air NFL Player of the Year Award.

In three seasons as The Man Who Replaced Brett Favre, Rodgers has thrown for 12,394 yards, 86 TDs, and just 31 interceptions.

There is only one thing now that excludes Rodgers from Starr and Favre in terms of Packers quarterback greatness.

On Sunday, Rodgers will get the opportunity to be the third Packers QB to win a Super Bowl. If he does so, the duet of Starr and Favre becomes a legitimate trio.

What I’m about to suggest would have been so unthinkable in 2008, you’d have me fitted for a straitjacket.

The way Aaron Rodgers is going (he might be the best player in the entire NFL), maybe Brett Favre’s 17 years in Green Bay merely formulated the longest opening act in football history.

Elvis left the building, and the Beatles took the stage.

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