Early in the 2007 season, the Packers and their fans had no idea what the post–Brett Favre era would look like.
The then-37-year-old quarterback had been with the team for 15 seasons, but had flirted with the prospect of retirement for several years. And though Favre was coming off back-to-back subpar seasons, he was still an unassailable legend with an iron grip on Green Bay’s starting quarterback job.
But Favre’s offseason indecision was starting to affect the franchise’s choices. Was it time to go all in to maximize the title window for an aging star, or was it time to start building for the future? Aaron Rodgers, the heir apparent to Favre, had spent two seasons warming a bench, and rumors swirled during the 2007 offseason that the Packers were considering trading him to Oakland in exchange for Randy Moss. It wasn’t always clear to fans what strategy the Packers should commit to.
And who was Aaron Rodgers, anyway? The Packers had used a first-round pick on him in 2005, but he’d seen scarce time under center. His career stats to that point—accumulated mostly in garbage time across several games— were underwhelming: 17-of-33 passing for 128 yards, zero touchdowns, and an interception. One Wisconsin newspaper declared in a headline that Rodgers would enter the 2007 season “untested and criticized.” The Green Bay Press-Gazette’s Pete Dougherty noted that “Rodgers has done nothing to eliminate himself from the succession line, but he’s done nothing to push Favre toward retirement.”
Then on November 29, 2007—10 years ago Wednesday—Rodgers got his chance to give Favre a push. In the second quarter of a matchup between the 10-1 Packers and 10-1 Cowboys that would ultimately determine which team sat atop the NFC, Favre injured his throwing arm, and Rodgers saw the most significant playing time of his career up to that point. He led two scoring drives, threw his first career touchdown pass, and at one point, brought the Packers within a field goal of the Cowboys after he came into the game down 27-10. Though the Packers would ultimately lose, 37-27, the several successful drives Rodgers led against one of the NFL’s best teams indicated that he could be the franchise passer Green Bay envisioned. That offseason, the franchise messily divorced itself of Favre and moved ahead with its future quarterback.
In 2007, Thursday Night Football was still in its infancy. It had been established just a season prior, and the NFL Network—where the games were aired exclusively, except in local markets—reached just 35 million households. That meant most Americans had to pack into bars and restaurants to watch these broadcasts, which were often sloppy and frequently made for unsatisfying viewing experiences. (In this game, much-maligned play-by-play man Bryant Gumbel called Tony Romo “Rick.”) But fans did what they had to catch Packers-Cowboys—10.1 million people watched, the most for a TNF game at that time.
It also meant that most Packers fans outside of the immediate Green Bay area probably had their friends and loved ones nearby to comfort them after Favre, the NFL’s iron man, exited the game holding his right arm.
With a little more than 10 minutes left in the second quarter, Cowboys cornerback Nathan Jones blitzed unchecked into the backfield and hit Favre, interrupting the quarterback’s throwing motion and forcing an interception, Favre’s second of the game. Favre lifted himself off the turf holding his right forearm, and went to the sideline, where he would remain for the rest of the game. The Cowboys stormed into the end zone on the ensuing possession, and, when Rodgers took the field, the Packers were in a 27-10 hole.
On his first play, Rodgers rolled out to his right and had his pass batted down by Cowboys defender Marcus Spears. Though Rodgers picked up a first down with his feet a few plays later, the offense quickly stalled and that series ended in a punt. On the next Packers possession, analyst Cris Collinsworth offered this quote:
“The Green Bay Packers aren’t going to win a whole lot with Aaron Rodgers playing quarterback unless things change drastically.”
Things did change drastically—and immediately. Seven plays after Collinsworth said that, Rodgers threw his first NFL touchdown, a quick pass over the middle to Greg Jennings, who took the ball and darted into the end zone. “This is the Packers’ offense, and it’s working,” Collinsworth exclaimed after the score.
Rodgers made plenty of plays with his arm against the Cowboys, but what stood out most about him in this game was his mobility. He picked up 30 yards with his legs, including three first downs on scrambles. Here’s his first, on a third down during his first series:
Collinsworth called that play “Elwayesque.” But Rodgers didn’t just scramble to pick up crucial yards. In the third quarter, on his second scoring drive, he did this to keep the play alive:
That looks like the type of play we’re used to seeing Rodgers pull off regularly today. From the SkyCam angle, it’s easy to see how he freezes the Dallas defenders, buying just enough time for tight end Donald Lee to get open.
Rodgers also nearly had a second passing touchdown shortly into the third quarter on a play where he rolled to his right, but fullback John Kuhn was stopped at the 1-yard line. The Packers punched it in with running back Ryan Grant one play later and brought Green Bay within three points of Dallas.
“We’ve got a story going on right here,” Collinsworth remarked.
Rodgers’s final stat line—18-of-26 for 201 yards and a touchdown—stood well enough on its own, but it looked even better next to Favre’s 5-of-14 for 56 yards and two interceptions.
The spotlight, though, was still on no. 4. It’s impossible to stress just how often the broadcast would cut to Favre during the Packers’ offensive series. At first, he didn’t seem too concerned—not about his own injury nor the quarterback under center. Here’s his reaction as Rodgers sprinted out to take over the offense:
Most of the time, he wasn’t doing … whatever it is he’s doing there. Sometimes he’d be chatting with teammates, sometimes he would give a half-hearted fist pump at a nice play, and sometimes he would point at something happening on the field. But most of the time he just kind of stood there, seemingly fuming at his inability to play. Here he is after Rodgers’s first touchdown:
But Gumbel assured viewers after Rodgers’s second touchdown-leading drive that Favre had nothing to worry about: “In any other community they’d say this is the start of a quarterback controversy, but that won’t happen in Green Bay.”
About that. Rodgers wasn’t about to pry the starting job away from Favre, but his performance was praised immediately following the game. Mike Woods of the Post-Crescent said Rodgers played “splendidly.” Mike Vandermause of The Green Bay Press-Gazette wrote that the Packers should be “encouraged about their future at quarterback.” The New York Times asked if Rodgers would be the next Favre and the Associated Press recap answered that question, saying that Rodgers was “no Brett Favre,” but that “the idea of starting Rodgers next week may no longer be as dreadful to fans who have wondered if he was a wasted draft pick.”
The Packers didn’t need Rodgers to start the next week, as Favre returned to finish a standout season. He ended the year with 4,155 yard, 28 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions and led the Packers to a 13-3 record and the no. 2 seed in the NFC. Inexplicably, Favre also stole an MVP vote from Tom Brady (this was Brady’s 50-touchdown, 16-0 season), keeping the Patriots’ passer from a unanimous award.
That offseason, the quarterback controversy Gumbel thought couldn’t exist bubbled to the surface. After Favre infamously retired, then unretired, Packers coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson stuck by their young passer rather than bring back a future Hall of Famer who had just guided the team to the verge of the Super Bowl (before throwing the game-sealing interception in overtime of the NFC championship game). The Packers traded Favre to the Jets, and, as some beat writers noted, one of their reasons for doing so had to be Rodgers’s play against the Cowboys.
Longtime Packers reporter Rob Demovsky wrote that March, just after Favre retired, that Rodgers had “opened some eyes” against Dallas. He quoted then–Cowboys defensive coordinator Brian Stewart, who said, “They stuck with the same routes and the same stuff they were doing with Brett. That shows me that [Rodgers] was prepared and the coaches have a lot of confidence in him.”
That July, Dougherty wrote that McCarthy and Thompson were confident in Rodgers despite “tacitly acknowledging reservations about Rodgers’s limited NFL game experience.” It’s easy to imagine their decision would have been a lot tougher if Rodgers hadn’t looked so impressive in prime time against one of the best teams in football.
It wasn’t long before Rodgers proved their decision right. Three seasons later, the Packers won a Super Bowl with Rodgers under center, and he’s now a two-time NFL MVP.
It would be tempting—but lazy—to draw a parallel between Rodgers’s play in relief of Favre to the Packers’ current situation, with third-year pro Brett Hundley starting while Rodgers is out with a broken collarbone. Hundley just had the best game of his young career, throwing for 245 yards and three touchdowns in a prime-time loss to an impressive Steelers squad. But Hundley has never been seen as the heir apparent to Rodgers, and his play as a whole this season hasn’t inspired much confidence that he will be Green Bay’s quarterback of the future. Besides, Rodgers, who turns 34 on December 2, is a full four years younger than Favre was when Rodgers took the reins that day in Dallas.
(Also, Hundley doesn’t have the flowing locks that Rodgers—who was growing his hair out until he scored a touchdown, according to the AP recap—rocked in that game.)
The Packers’ transition from one future Hall of Fame passer to another was always jerky—recall the Favre retirement saga that offseason. But it’s easy to forget that it began months before that, with the NFL’s toughest player going down for two and a half quarters—just enough time to give his young apprentice a moment to shine.