Aaron Donald was crying. He had just finished sprinting through the Bengals offensive line, pirouetting Joe Burrow into an incompletion on fourth down, and effectively winning the Rams the Super Bowl. And as soon as he realized that last fact, Donald, the biggest and baddest man in football, who gets triple-teamed and throws punches and grabs people by the throat, went from balling to bawling in a matter of seconds.
“I dreamed this, man,” Donald told NBC’s Michele Tafoya as he looked up toward the raining confetti. “I dreamed this. This is surreal. Look at this.”
The confetti was long overdue. Three years earlier, ahead of the Rams’ Super Bowl matchup with the Patriots, Donald had promised his 5-year-old daughter, Jaeda, that they’d play in the confetti after the game. Then the Rams lost to New England 13-3, and the promise was put on pause. Sunday night, though, the now 8-year-old Jaeda got her wish (and her brothers joined in, too).
This moment between AD and his kids ❤️ pic.twitter.com/B3KMaXuSRi— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 14, 2022
It was a joyous scene. But it also might have been the last time we see Donald play on an NFL field.
Earlier on Sunday, NBC’s Rodney Harrison made a stunning report that Donald could retire if the Rams were to win the Super Bowl. Donald, who is just 30 years old, is still one of the best players in the NFL. He has $52 million remaining on his contract over the next three seasons, including $14 million next year. And he’s coming off a campaign in which PFF graded him as the second-best pass rusher in the NFL—the first time he has not ranked no. 1 since 2015.
When asked about the retirement report after the win, Donald declined to detail his future plans: “I’m living in the moment right now,” Donald said repeatedly. And what a moment it was.
In the final minutes of the fourth quarter, Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford threw a go-ahead touchdown to Cooper Kupp. But the offense left time on the clock for Burrow and the Bengals to get into field goal range, and with 43 seconds remaining, Cincinnati found itself in a do-or-die scenario: fourth-and-1 at midfield. The Bengals lined up in shotgun.
“When it was fourth down, you could see they got into the shotgun and they were probably not going to run the football,” Rams head coach Sean McVay said after the game. “I said, ‘Aaron’s going to close the game out right here.’ He is the effin’ man.”
Donald lined up directly over left guard Quinton Spain and did a “chop club” move to disarm him. Then he bent low to get around Spain and reached Burrow within 2.2 seconds of the snap. To put that in perspective, Ben Roethlisberger held on to the ball for an average of 2.2 seconds in 2020, and that was the shortest time to throw for a quarterback on record in a decade. Announcer Al Michaels was barely able to say “Burrow” to recognize the QB had received the snap before Donald was grabbing hold of him.
As Donald went for the strip sack, Burrow flicked the ball toward running back Samaje Perine, but the pass ultimately fell incomplete. Donald began sprinting and pointing to his ring finger, earning the final piece of hardware that had been missing from his future Hall of Fame career.
We all knew if Joe Burrow didn't throw at the top each drop on the final drive, Aaron Donald would capitalize.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) February 14, 2022
Darious Williams and David Long both jump Higgins' slant to take away the 1st read, which was all Donald needed to reach the QB pic.twitter.com/SHPgC4EdJH
It is not an exaggeration to say that Donald getting to Burrow with that ridiculous speed won the Rams a championship. Elsewhere on the same play, receiver Ja’Marr Chase had burned cornerback Jalen Ramsey—and if Burrow had even a half second longer to throw, he might have found Chase for a 49-yard touchdown.
Ja’Marr Chase already was behind Jalen Ramsey on a go route when Ramsey fell on the fourth-and-1 game ender. If Burrow had a sliver more time … pic.twitter.com/uQfgqZ88P4— Jay Morrison (@JayMorrisonATH) February 14, 2022
Sunday wasn’t the first time Donald has been L.A.’s saving grace. Just two weeks ago in the NFC championship game, Donald made essentially the same exact play, twisting Jimmy Garoppolo around on San Francisco’s final possession until Garoppolo awkwardly tossed up a “throw” (heave? prayer?) that was intercepted by the Rams defense.
What Donald does is end games. Even if he’s not the one to actually make the final sack or tackle, his presence on the line is enough to disrupt entire offenses—and opposing teams know this. They double- and triple-team him (as was the case Sunday—seriously, how many people get triple-teamed in the Super Bowl?) and because of that, he opens up holes for his teammates to get home. The Rams tied the NFL record for sacks in a Super Bowl with seven, including a Super Bowl–record five sacks in the third quarter alone. Two of those came from Donald.
“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games,” Donald said after the win.
If Donald does decide to retire, he’s going out as a more than a big-time player—he’s the greatest defender of his generation, and one of the best of all time. He is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, a feat matched only by Lawrence Taylor and J.J. Watt. He is the first defensive player in the Super Bowl era to make first-team All-Pro (a.k.a. being named as one of the best 22 players in football) in seven consecutive seasons. He leads all defenders in sacks, quarterback hits, and tackles for loss since he entered the NFL in 2014—by a lot. (Donald has hit the quarterback 243 times in that time, including the playoffs, almost 30 percent more than Carlos Dunlap in second place.) And in a league where the best ability is availability, Donald has never missed a game due to injury in his career. He has been so good for so long it’s easy to forget that a defensive tackle is not supposed to have more sacks than a defensive end!
“To be real with you, I always set myself on high goals and standards, but I’ve surpassed anything I ever thought that I wanted to do,” Donald said. “I thought coming in I wanted to be an All-Pro and a Pro Bowler. But to sit here and say I had a lot of individual success, I would have never thought in a million years full circle that I would be sitting here right now with the success I’ve had in the short amount of time in this league.”
Eight seasons isn’t exactly a short amount of time in NFL years, but Donald is still only 30 and still one of the best players in the league. So it feels bizarre that he would consider retirement. But the energy and commitment it takes to stay at his level—all the offseason workouts and weird MMA knife training—might inspire him to walk away on top. “I’m a guy that trains all year round and really work my ass off to be at this point,” Donald said.
Donald is one of just three remaining players who moved with the Rams to L.A. from St. Louis (along with punter Johnny Hekker and tackle Rob Havenstein). And with 40-year-old left tackle Andrew Whitworth possibly retiring, Odell Beckham Jr. and Von Miller possibly not returning as free agents, and even rumors about head coach Sean McVay potentially retiring early to become a father, the Rams have an unusual amount of key pieces in the “TBD” pile.
The man who drafted Donald back in St. Louis and still runs the team—longtime GM Les Snead—feels Donald is probably going to return. “He’ll sleep on it and see, but I’m not buying it,” Snead told NFL.com’s Jim Trotter on Sunday. “He’s a young kid. He’ll get bored and need something to do.”
But as Donald sat at the podium with his three children, it was not hard to imagine him riding off into the sunset. He described the game as “mission accomplished,” and after his press conference, he got on the back of a golf cart with his children and yelled “World champs!”
As the Donald family disappeared into the bright lights illuminating the concrete tunnels of SoFi Stadium, Jaeda was clutching a handful of confetti in her fist. Her father was beaming. If Donald was indeed just living in the moment, it was a good one.