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The Incalculable Legacy of Aaron Rodgers

Numbers have never told the full story of the Packers star, nor has his playoff track record. But this year the QB has shown he’s still adding to his myth—and that he’s still Aaron Rodgers.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

David Bakhtiari first grasped the true power of Aaron Rodgers five years ago. The moment came toward the end of the Packers left tackle’s second season, with Green Bay locked in a wild NFC championship showdown with the Seahawks. Seattle had just finished a seemingly impossible fourth-quarter comeback, and the notoriously deafening CenturyLink Field had reached a fever pitch. Trailing by three with just over a minute left, Rodgers and the offense took over at their own 22-yard line. The crowd was so loud, Bakhtiari could barely think. “But the moment Aaron started talking, it was like the entire stadium was silent,” Bakhtiari says. “I could hear every word he said. It was so clear, and so calm, and so confident. There wasn’t a doubt in my body, you could see it in everybody’s eyes: We were gonna go score.”

Rodgers, playing on a blown calf he’d suffered three weeks earlier, marched Green Bay down the field for the game-tying field goal. “It was just so special,” Bakhtiari says. “I just thought, ‘This guy is the real deal. Nothing can break this guy.’”

Green Bay ultimately fell short that afternoon—one of the many playoff what-ifs from the Rodgers era. If Brandon Bostick fields an onside kick in the fourth quarter, it’s Rodgers, not Russell Wilson, playing the Patriots for the chance to win a second Super Bowl. The Malcolm Butler play never happens. Football history is altered forever. Bakhtiari speaks wistfully of that team, a collection of talent that he and others knew was special. “That was some amazing football being played,” Bakhtiari says. “You had so many guys that understood the offense at a high level. And you had Aaron, who’d mastered—or even PhD’d—that offense.”

Five years later, that version of the Packers has mostly faded, but Green Bay is back in the NFC championship game. Like they did in 2015, Rodgers and his team will travel west to face the no. 1 seed and the best defense in the conference. But that’s essentially where the similarities end. The Packers and their quarterback have entered new eras since that trip to Seattle. Throughout most of his career, Rodgers was asked to be a superhero within Green Bay’s offense. It felt like Rodgers could do anything, so the Packers asked him to do everything. This season, though, Rodgers has been able to rely on a high-volume running game and imposing defense that were missing in recent years. “The responsibilities are really spread out,” Bakhtiari says. “We’ve won games purely on the ground. Not just through the air. We’ve won games flipping the field. It’s not just a high-powered offense.”

His burden may be different, but to his teammates, opponents, and anyone rooting for or against him, he’s still Aaron Rodgers. And as he vies for his second trip to the Super Bowl, Rodgers is showing not only how quarterbacks change, but what about them stays the same. “That flat-out badass, I am the fucking greatest quarterback ever—when you get in the huddle, that’s the vibe you get,” Bakhtiari says. “That’s what he brings out of each one of us.”

James Jones couldn’t understand what the big deal was. Jones came to Green Bay as a third-round pick in 2007, Brett Favre’s final year as the Packers’ starting quarterback, and as a rookie he spent most of his time practicing against the first-team defense. But that scout-team experience wasn’t like most. Because that scout team had Rodgers. “We used to carve them apart,” Jones says. “I just remember talking to Al Harris and Charles Woodson, and they were just like, ‘This dude is unbelievable.’ When you’re a young player, you’re looking at it like, ‘Whatever.’ I just thought this is what a pro quarterback was.”

It wasn’t long before the world discovered what Jones saw every day. In his third season as a starter, Rodgers led the no. 6 seed Packers on an improbable run to the Super Bowl. His best throws from that game can get lost amid his pair of MVP seasons and plenty of other incredible moments, but some of the plays Rodgers made against the Steelers remain among his best. The bullet to Greg Jennings over the middle on Green Bay’s first drive. The 21-yard touchdown strike to Jennings late in the second quarter. The perfect toss to Jordy Nelson down the sideline for the game’s opening touchdown. “We used to say it all the time—me, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson—when you’re playing with Aaron Rodgers, you are absolutely never covered,” Jones says. “He can always put the ball into any spot he wants to and throw you open to make a play.”

The win against Pittsburgh announced Rodgers’s place among the best quarterbacks in football, but this wasn’t like watching Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, or Drew Brees. Those guys reached legendary status by picking apart defenses with methodical precision. Their games were almost clinical. Rodgers was just ... different.

There were moments when his physical ability was overwhelming. The power, accuracy, and sheer style was unlike anything the league had seen in a long time. Rodgers looked like a QB descendent of John Elway. He’d somehow harnessed Favre’s arm and ambition while scrapping his bad habits. He’d fire balls to the pylon, on the run, from 50 yards away. He’d toss a pass halfway across the field, across his body, and find Nelson in the back of the end zone. He’d uncork 70-yard bombs without setting his feet. With Rodgers, it felt like any throw—and I mean any—was possible. “I tell people all the time, some of the throws he makes in the game, none of it surprises people that have practiced with him,” Jones says. “Patrick Mahomes, these no looks and all that, I’ve seen that before many times.”

From 2011 to 2014, Rodgers completed 67 percent of his passes, averaged 9.4 adjusted yards per attempt, and threw 34.8 touchdowns per season. The Packers finished no. 1 in Football Outsiders’s offensive DVOA twice—in 2011 and 2014—and both years, Rodgers was named league MVP. During that stretch, he was unquestionably the most gifted football player on the planet. At times, it seemed like Rodgers was invincible, Jones says. And that’s because every so often, he basically was. “I don’t remember going into one game thinking we weren’t going to win,” says former Packers guard T.J. Lang. “We just used to tell ourselves, ‘As long as he’s our quarterback, we’re always going to have a chance to win.’ That was kind of the unanimous feel.”

For all of Rodgers’s brilliance, though, those years were filled with playoff disappointments for Green Bay. A 15-1 season in 2011 ended with a shocking 37-20 divisional round loss to the Giants. Colin Kaepernick shredded the Packers for 444 total yards in that same round the following year. Rodgers missed most of 2013 with a broken collarbone. The heartbreak in Seattle came a year later. Green Bay was never able to ride those amazing offenses to another championship, but the guys on those teams say those failures hardly fall on their quarterback. “It was like him orchestrating a symphony,” Bakhtiari says of watching Rodgers in those years. “And a symphony that he had been composing for a decade.” To Bakhtiari, Rodgers may be a genius composer. But to me, a Bears fan who’s watched him tear out my team’s heart since I was a teenager, he’s the boogeyman. Rodgers wasn’t just a quarterback. He was an unconquerable fire-breathing dragon. And that’s what made it so strange when all of a sudden, he wasn’t.

During the second half of the 2015 season, the Packers couldn’t figure out what was happening. Lang recalls sitting in meetings on Monday and struggling to comprehend what was wrong. “It just felt weird, like, ‘Why isn’t this clicking?’” Lang says. “‘We’ve been doing this for so long, why isn’t it working all of a sudden?’” For years, Green Bay’s continuity within head coach Mike McCarthy’s offense had been a positive. The familiarity between Rodgers and his receivers allowed the Packers to execute timing throws few teams would even attempt. Communication about protections and line calls had been streamlined. “I used to look at him and think, ‘How does someone know this much about the game?’” Bakthiari says of Rodgers. “Well, he’d been in the offense for almost a decade.” Ater a 6-0 start in 2015, the Packers struggled. The approach that carried them for so long felt compromised. “Every year, you’re putting things on tape,” Bakhtiari says. “People are able to study and further understand not only the player but the scheme. You have always have to adjust, even myself as a player. You have to reinvent yourself to play at a high level. It definitely was a gutshot.”

The Packers didn’t collapse all at once. But it was clear that the calibrations were off just enough to sabotage a fragile ecosystem. Without Jordy Nelson, who’d torn his ACL before the 2015 season, Rodgers struggled to find rapport with newer receivers. A stagnant offense led to less separation and less margin for error. One step here, a tipped ball there. The precision faded, and eventually, so did the wins. “This stuff takes time, especially the way that Aaron plays the position,” Jones says. “Changing signals at the very last minute. Back shoulder balls, where you’ve got to know when to turn your head. It all adds up.”

Rodgers wasn’t without blame. Through the years, he seemed to delight just as much in making the perfect throw as the people watching him do it. “How we’re in awe when he does those magician-like plays, I don’t think Aaron has ever gotten dulled to it himself,” Bakhtiari says. “I think he feeds off his own energy and his own freakish plays.” At times, Rodgers’s desire to create spectacular moments outside the structure of the offense worked to the Packers’ detriment, as he occasionally tried to make the arresting throw instead of the easy one. But at others, it provided a jolt that Green Bay desperately needed. Even as the offense started to sputter, a bit of Rodgers magic could ignite it. “In the ’15 season or early in the ’16 season, all it took was for him to make one big play and for the crowd to go nuts,” Lang says.“You’d look up and see it on the replay, and you’re just like, ‘Holy shit, man.’”

Ten games into the 2016 season, Rodgers provided the Packers with a different kind of spark. After a crushing 42-24 loss to the Redskins in November, Green Bay sat at 4-6 and in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in eight years. Rodgers famously told reporters later that week that he believed the Packers could still run the table and sneak into the playoffs. “I don’t think that was for the media,” Lang says. “I think that was for us.” During the next six games, Rodgers strung together one of the most remarkable stretches of his entire career. He averaged 8.3 yards per attempt and threw 15 touchdowns as the Packers went 6-0 and earned a wild-card berth.

After knocking off the Giants in the wild-card round, Green Bay traveled to Dallas to play the top-seeded Cowboys. When Lang thinks back on a playoff moment that encapsulates Rodgers, he thinks of a play from that afternoon. With the game tied in the final minute, Green Bay took over at its own 25-yard line. Everyone remembers that final drive for the iconic, inconceivable throw Rodgers made to Jared Cook down the left sideline to set up Green Bay’s game-winning field goal. But the image that sticks with Lang came on the first play of the drive. On first-and-10, Rodgers was sacked by safety Jeff Heath for a 10-yard loss. “We were all like, ah, shit, let [the clock] bleed out, let’s get to overtime,” Lang says. “And he gets up and calls a timeout. We were all looking at each other like, ‘Why did he do that?’” Two plays later, they found out.

On the run to his left, Rodgers somehow bent a throw back inside to Cook for a 36-yard gain that never should have happened. “It was this back and forth, tough, physical game, and in all of our heads, we’re preparing for overtime,” Lang says. “And he had different plans. He had a plan to go out and win that thing right now. And there was nothing that was going to stop him.”

That throw in Dallas marked Rodgers’s last heroic feat under McCarthy. Green Bay lost to the Falcons in that NFC championship game, and in the next two years, the Packers came apart at the seams. Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone six games into the 2017 season, and without their maestro, the rest of the Packers’ shortcomings were laid bare. Rodgers played most of the 2018 season on an injured knee, and once again, the offense limped along. After back-to-back losing seasons, McCarthy was fired 12 games into the 2018 campaign. McCarthy was criticized for letting his system grow stale, but beyond the schematics, it seemed like Green Bay needed a shift in philosophy. “I really felt like before, everything went through him,” Bakhtiari says. “It was kind of live by the sword, die by the sword.”

That thinking has changed under first-year head coach Matt LaFleur. Green Bay is no longer the most pass-happy team in the league. Running back Aaron Jones has flourished, and the Packers rely on more heavy formations and play-action throws. “There were so many times when you’d get in the huddle, and there wouldn’t be any running backs,” Bakhtiari says of past years. “It’d be four wide receivers and a tight end. We were gonna spread out and pick you apart. Nowadays, you see a three-tight-end set with one or even two running backs.”

At this stage of his career, asking Rodgers to power an entire offense is no longer tenable. And this season, he hasn’t had to. “The entire structure of the offense has changed,” Bakhtiari says. “There’s not as much weight that he has to carry.”

The glimpses we get of vintage Rodgers make it easy to forget that he’s a decade and a half into his career. But there are still plenty of other reminders. If the Packers do beat the 49ers on Sunday, Rodgers would make his second Super Bowl start nine years after his first. That would be the largest gap in NFL history, surpassing John Elway’s record by a year. Elway was 37 during Denver’s championship run in 1997—a year older than Rodgers—but he was portrayed as a grizzled cowboy back for one more go. “It’s not as hard as it used to be,” Elway told John Clayton that season. “The responsibilities are the same, but I’m relied on in different ways. Because of the team we have, I’m not having to do the things in the fourth quarter that I’m used to doing.” Elway used that final phase of his career to alter his legacy forever—just as Rodgers can this season.

Rodgers never got proper credit for the years he carried the Packers and ultimately fell short. And he shouldn’t be discredited for being carried this season. Green Bay’s recipe from last week’s win against the Seahawks—a ferocious pass rush, a reliable ground game, and a few dashes of Rodgers sorcery—likely gives this team its best chance moving forward. “I think for him, he looks at it like, ‘I don’t care anymore to be the guy who always has to make every play,’” Bakhtiari says. “‘If I have to, I will.’ But at the end of the day, he’s looking at it like, ‘Super Bowls are the no. 1 most important thing.’ You guys want to see the 400 yards. I care when the clock hits zero, if my team has more points than your team. Whatever that has to be.”

Rodgers hasn’t produced the gaudy figures this season that he has in years past. He ranked 21st in QBR during the regular season. Ryan Fitzpatrick finished with more expected points added. The numbers indicate that Rodgers isn’t the same guy he once was. And he doesn’t look like that guy, either. Gray hairs dot his beard. Wrinkles accompany his smile. Among NFL players, Rodgers feels—for lack of a better word—old. Yet for all the evidence that he’s declined, Bakhtiari says nothing has really changed.

Even when he was smashing records and winning MVPs, the mystique around Rodgers always went beyond numbers. In an era ruled by data, there’s something about him that’s incalculable. For his opponents, that means a sinking feeling they should have finished him when they had the chance. For his teammates, it’s the unwavering belief that with him at their side, the game is never over. “The reason why I say Aaron Rodgers is the greatest to ever do it is because of the confidence he instills, not only in the offense, but the whole ball club,” Jones says. “When he steps in the huddle, you always feel like you’re about to score a touchdown. You always believe he’s going to make a throw. And he instills that confidence in everybody. Because you truly believe, ‘Man, we can’t be stopped with this dude throwing the football.’”

Seven years into his time with Rodgers, Bakhtiari still believes. And it’s fine if you don’t. In fact, he’s counting on it. “It’s nice,” Bakhtiari says. “Piss off one of the greatest players to ever play the game. I like when they doubt him. When you have a great player, and he starts getting the feeling that he needs to prove something, that’s a dangerous mixture. I appreciate it. I want people to think we don’t have a shot.”