On Sunday, Aaron Rodgers had his guts torn out by the Buccaneers’ defense and his own head coach. On Tuesday, he Zoomed into The Pat McAfee Show. On YouTube, viewers could see Rodgers sitting in his sunroom, in front of a brick wall, like he was delivering a Cameo greeting. “We might as well drop some bombs on this show,” he said.
After losing to Tampa Bay, Rodgers had said his future with the Packers was “uncertain.” The comment moved NFL Twitter like a Fortune 500 CEO’s comments move the markets. Did Rodgers really want the Packers to trade him? (Probably not.) Or did he want the team to give him more guaranteed money to make him harder to move? (A decent bet.)
Rodgers told McAfee that his comments reflected his state of being. He’s a 37-year-old quarterback who can see the end of his career in the distance and his replacement on the sideline. “Naturally, there’s times where you let your mind go to ‘maybe I’m going to be a Packer for life,’” he said. “Or I’m going to be like a Tim Duncan or a Jeter or a Kobe and play with one team my entire career.” Rodgers knew the choice might not be his to make.
“I don’t think people are used to hearing the truth from athletes,” Rodgers told McAfee. He added: “That’s why this show, I think, has been so different.”
Every Tuesday this season, Rodgers appeared on McAfee’s show. Their Roganesque interviews—this week’s lasted 42 minutes—offered a wildly interesting portrait of a year in Rodgers’s life. Rodgers dissected some of the 48 touchdown passes he threw. He weighed in on Ndamukong Suh and California Governor Gavin Newsom and the Borat sequel. This week, he talked about losing. Together, McAfee and Rodgers rebooted the quarterback show, a sports radio feature that was all but dead.
In its traditional form, a quarterback show was the kind of sports radio the late Larry King would have loved. A quarterback called a radio station once a week. If the host asked tough questions, he often framed them as stuff “people are saying.” (See Mike Francesa to Eli Manning: “A big criticism that a lot of these guys had…”) A quarterback sometimes made news about an injury. Or he used the show like a politician uses a “messaging” shop. In 2014, on a local ESPN affiliate, Rodgers told Packers fans to “R-E-L-A-X.”
Quarterback shows have declined because quarterbacks are too rich and have too many Instagram followers to bother with sports radio. In 2018, Tom Brady hung up on hosts from Boston’s WEEI two different times. The next year, Manning and Ben Roethlisberger nuked their shows; Roethlisberger explained that he was making too much news. Interestingly, Rodgers and Brady (who’s interviewed during Westwood One’s Monday Night Football halftime show) have quarterback shows that are national rather than local.
When McAfee was a punter with the Colts, he and Rodgers followed each other on Twitter. But it wasn’t until two years ago, at a golf tournament in the Bahamas, that they really got a chance to talk. “I realized while talking to him that I knew next to nothing about him,” said McAfee. He asked Rodgers if he wanted to come on his radio show and do a regular segment. “I’m maybe the most basic person of all time,” said McAfee. “If I like something, normally a lot of other people do.”
Unlike past quarterback interviews, Rodgers and McAfee had no time limit. The idea was that the interview would end when it was over. As McAfee told me, every podcaster known to mankind has declared they want to have a “different” kind of interview. The thing was, Rodgers did, too. “We just started fucking talking, right? And then this came out,” Rodgers said on the show. It was as much a hang as it was an interview.
McAfee caught Rodgers during the perfect season. Rodgers is going to win the MVP, and Green Bay won 14 games. Last year, after the Packers drafted quarterback Jordan Love in the first round, Rodgers worked on achieving a kind of Zen state, “an energy focus,” where he took in control of his own happiness. “I’m not necessarily talking about chakras and all that stuff,” he told McAfee recently. Still.
Every week, “Aaron Rodgers Tuesday” began with Rodgers appearing on the YouTube simulcast wearing some kind of cap. He held up his phone in front of his face for the entire interview. (“In hindsight, we should have sent him one of those Socialite things,” said McAfee.) For questioning, McAfee was joined by former Packers linebacker and Rodgers’s teammate A.J. Hawk, who puffed on a cigar. Because Hawk is friends with Rodgers, he asked thornier questions, like how Rodgers wanted to use his leverage this offseason. McAfee didn’t think he and Rodgers were tight enough to ask those kinds of things.
For his part, McAfee asked plenty of good questions. I wouldn’t have thought to ask Rodgers how a player who has stepped out of bounds signals to Rodgers that he wants to get the next play off before the refs can review it, or how Rodgers picks out the yard lines when Lambeau Field is covered in snow.
Sometimes, McAfee’s questions came glued together like a Rice Krispies treat. On Tuesday, he asked about Matt LaFleur’s decision to kick a field goal late in the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay:
Have you seen the conversation that revolves around it? And have you and Matt talked about it? And whenever Matt makes a decision like that, is there ever a thought in your eyes to be like, ‘No, no, keep [the field goal team] off? There’s a lot of speculation outside about how you should feel. A lot of people think, like, ‘Yo, MVP. Give the guy the damn ball with 8 yards.’
Rob Demovsky, who covers the Packers for ESPN, said the segments reminded him, in a charming way, of the old Saturday Night Live sketch where Chris Farley interviews Paul McCartney. (“Remember when you were with the Beatles?”) Very knowingly, McAfee has embraced the character. He pestered Rodgers to watch Ted Lasso and asked if they were going to grow playoff beards.
McAfee and Rodgers clearly like each other. Once this season, they even used the word “love.” McAfee has studied Rodgers’s dry, hyper-ironic sense of humor and matched it.
“Hey,” McAfee said before the NFC championship game. “Good luck this weekend, dude.”
“Thanks, buddy,” said Rodgers.
“No problem, man,” said McAfee.
Another time, after Rodgers signed off, McAfee told his producers, “He’s the best. He’s the fuckin’ best, dude.”
With McAfee, Rodgers shared loads of granular detail about how football is played. Through the show, McAfee thought Rodgers might have been “talking to younger quarterbacks a lot, like almost telling them certain things they should think about.” It was like sports radio’s version of MasterClass.
After the Packers beat the Rams in the divisional round, McAfee asked Rodgers how he converted first-and-17 from his own end zone. Rodgers’s answer lasted a minute and a half and covered an earlier failed throw to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, his number of “hitches,” his movement in the pocket, the subtleties of the in route, and whether or not Davante Adams ran across the face of a safety.
“Are you fucking kidding me with what you just did there?” said McAfee.
“You’re Rain Man,” said Hawk.
The media was a frequent topic on McAfee. Once or twice, Rodgers sounded like Kevin Durant calling out “blog boys” in his interviews with Bill Simmons (probably the closest parallel to these chats). But there was less score-settling than a sense McAfee and Rodgers were doing a different kind of interview. Last week, before the NFC championship game, McAfee waited more than half an hour before he asked Rodgers about facing off with Tom Brady. In October, producer Ty Schmit asked how the Packers could replace injured tackle David Bakhtiari. “That is such a media question from you,” said Rodgers.
Sometimes, Rodgers’s McAfee interviews ran twice as long as his weekly chats with Packers beat writers. But Demovsky said Rodgers had his best year with the beat writers, too. For the first time, they gave Rodgers their equivalent of the “good guy” award. “There’s no jealousy on my part for him doing that show, or anything like that,” said Demovsky. “If anything, it helps generate more story ideas.”
One measure of the success of the Rodgers-McAfee interviews is how widely they were aggregated. It was probably the only quarterback interview mentioned by both The Big Lead and the Washington Free Beacon.
In November, Zach Wilson, a BYU quarterback and likely a top draft pick, tweaked Rodgers’s uniform “swag.” “True swag is owning your inner essence,” Rodgers told McAfee a few weeks later. “It’s a mindset. My essence on the field is that I feel like I’m a throwback player and I’m a tough guy…”
“You’re damn right,” said McAfee.
“All this, like, fake swag out there,” said Rodgers. “I got my special towel. Or I got this or I got that. I got this riding out there. A lot of you guys are just poseurs.”
It’s not like America never heard Rodgers go off. He has given rich interviews to writers like Mina Kimes and Kevin Clark. The McAfee interviews were interesting in that they were delivered in installments, and that Rodgers never stopped talking, whether because of the coziness of the venue or the spot he found himself in his career.
“Brett Favre never liked being the old guy,” said Peter Bukowski, who hosts the Locked on Packers podcast. “Rodgers seems to embrace that, ‘OK, I’m Gandalf the White now’—a reference he would probably appreciate.”
He would. The interviews were filled with cagey-veteran pop culture references. One week, Rodgers wore a Tombstone T-shirt; another week, it was Chuck Norris. Rodgers announced on McAfee’s show that he was guest-hosting Jeopardy! He said, “I love escape rooms.” Sweet!
One week, Rodgers told a story that perfectly summed up what it’s like to be a late-30s quarterback. For years, Rodgers has had a weird relationship with Buccaneers defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who once stepped on his ankle. When the Packers played the Bucs in the regular season, Rodgers thought he and Suh had agreed to meet after the game. As Rodgers put it: “It was one of those, ‘Hey, you’re old, I’m old, let’s talk some things out.’”
Rodgers and Suh never connected. As Rodgers told McAfee, he began to wonder if he’d accidentally set up a postgame confrontation. As in: meet me after the game. “Look, I’m not going to fight Ndamukong Suh,” said Rodgers. It’s the kind of misunderstanding that can only happen between a quarterback and a defensive tackle devoted to kicking his ass.
I’m pretty queasy about the way huge chunks of the sports media have become authorized media, from The Last Dance to The Players’ Tribune. The whole world is a quarterback show. If that’s the case, the McAfee interviews are close to a best-case scenario. They were held in tandem with legit press conferences. No subject was off-limits. They were genuinely useful to understanding Rodgers. Back in December, Rodgers told McAfee one of his secrets to playing in the snow. “I am less miserable than they are,” Rodgers said of Packers opponents. I thought about that line on Sunday, when the snow never fell at Lambeau.