Not long ago the football world appeared to have given up on Aaron Rodgers. Now with the Green Bay Packers winning the NFC North he’s a popular pick for league MVP.
This is how the NFL works. Seasons are rarely coronations; they are more tests or perseverance. People get hurt. Knees and ankles and shoulders fail. Bodies ache. Plans dissolve into mayhem. Teams rise and fall. Winning is survival. And with a week between each game, few things on this planet are as susceptible to overreaction and hyperbole as America’s most popular professional sport.
In October, with the season only half-done and Rodgers still putting up near-300-yard passing games, it became popular to ask: What is wrong with Aaron Rodgers?
Some said his personality turned off team-mates. Others pointed to poor mechanics. There were even suggestions that he had lost his accuracy. This led to mathematical breakdowns of his decline and lists of reasons as to why he was no longer the same. In a way, they might all have been right. Rodgers wasn’t as great as he had been a couple years before, but he wasn’t dreadful either. The Packers were struggling with injuries and lack of a running game not to mention defensive issues. They problems were not unlike those endured by many football teams, but because this was Rodgers and these were the Packers, whatever issues were there had been magnified by 10.
Here on 2 January, with Green Bay having won five in a row and ready to host a playoff game next week, this is what is wrong with Aaron Rodgers: nothing.
By now we should know everything is fine. He has never been as flawless as Tom Brady. There has always been an imperfection to his game that has made him great. He is best when things fall apart and the linemen rush in and he has to scramble for his life and to keep the play alive long enough for a receiver to slip open. During Sunday night’s 31-24 victory over the Detroit Lions, he had one play where he dodged tackles twice, ran around a bit, and then found a receiver open in the end zone and for a touchdown pass. It was vintage Rodgers.
He finished the night with 300 yards and four touchdowns. He ended the season with more than 4,000 passing yards for the sixth time in his career. He was not intercepted in the last seven games and had just seven interceptions for the whole season.
When Green Bay were 4-6 in November and looked lost, Rodgers was the one who pulled the team together, telling players they could indeed make the postseason. All they had to do was believe they could win their last six games. Then they did.
“That’s what you have to do sometimes as a leader,” Rodgers said Sunday via the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “You have to exude confidence even in a situation where it seems to the outside world that confidence shouldn’t exist.”
So much of the time the NFL is about surviving calamity. The Packers did that.
After Green Bay won a playoff game over Washington last January, I watched, in the Packers locker room, as Rodgers gingerly pulled on his shoes before limping to a postgame press conference. He had not been fantastic. There were few big passes. He only threw for 210 yards, but he had been a leader. He pulled the Packers through a road playoff game when they had trailed 11-0 and all seemed lost.
“Been there done that,” he said that night when asked how Green Bay had managed to survive. That’s the NFL today. Find a way when nothing else seems to work. No team is an individual but there is also little doubt the Packers’ division title is because of Rodgers. While some will say the league’s MVP is Tom Brady or Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who had a 117 passer rating this season or Dallas’s rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott and his 1,631 rushing yards, there’s an excellent chance Rodgers wins the award for the third time.
Fantasy player Of the week
When the Minnesota Vikings traded for Sam Bradford in September the move was one of desperation. They had just lost starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a horrible knee injury and needed someone to lead what was supposed to be a playoff team. The Vikings started 5-0 and then bombed, but Bradford turned out to be better than expected. He finished the year with a league-record 71.6 completion percentage. On Sunday he completed 25 of 33 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns. One can probably argue that Bradford might not have been dynamic enough, going for safer throws, but given the situation he was thrown into and the chaos of having offensive coordinator Norv Turner leave mid-season, this was easily Bradford’s best NFL season and revived his career – whether in Minnesota or somewhere else.
Gif oF the week
Good sense says the New England Patriots did not need to sign receiver Michael Floyd when the Cardinals released him a few weeks ago. The release had come after Floyd’s arrest for what police in Arizona described as “a super DUI” with a blood-alcohol content of .217. A former first-round pick in 2012, Floyd has never fully reached his potential as a player. But sometimes the Patriots do things that will baffle you until suddenly everything becomes obvious.
The reason for Floyd’s signing came perfectly clear in the third quarter of New England’s 35-14 victory over Miami on Sunday. This is when he flatted the Dolphins Tony Lippett with a huge block that freed receiver Julian Edelman for a 77-yard touchdown pass. So, once again it looks like Bill Belichick has got it right on the field – whether the ethics are correct is another question.
Stat of the week
Zero. The number of seconds it took for the New York Jets to score 10 points against the Buffalo Bills. Yes, this is possible to do, although usually it is the Jets who seem to find themselves on the other side of such a predicament. Still, the Bills who were formerly coached by Rex Ryan have had their own disasters and Sunday’s 30-10 loss in the Meadowlands counts as such. They managed just 230 total yards and allowed their former castoff (and future Jets castoff) Ryan Fitzpatrick to pick them apart for two touchdowns and a 109 passer rating.
But the worst part of the day came with just 3:21 left in the game when the Jets kicked off after scoring a field goal, sending the ball to Buffalo’s 15 yard line. The Bills Mike Gillislee seemed perplexed as to the kick’s location then panicked as the ball rolled into the end zone. He stepped away from it making the mistake of forgetting that a kickoff not actually downed is a live ball. Alas, the Jets Doug Middleton fell on the rolling ball for a touchdown and a rare moment of Jet brilliance. And since he did so in the end zone, no time ran off the clock.
In case you need visual proof, here is how you score 10 points in zero seconds:
Stat of the week II
Five. The number of times Saints quarterback Drew Brees has thrown for 5,000 yards in his career. Given that only four other players have thrown for 5,000 yards in a season and that each of those has only done so once, Brees’s feat is remarkable indeed. There is a chance this could be his last game in New Orleans. The great offensive machine he and coach Sean Payton built 11 years ago seems to be reaching the end. Payton is rumored to be leaving for the Rams while Brees, who has just a season left on his contract, may want to join a team more capable of a Super Bowl run than the Saints.
If Sunday’s 38-32 loss to Atlanta was his last run in New Orleans, what a run it has been for a player who was essentially kicked out of San Diego in favor of Philip Rivers. When Brees took over in New Orleans, the Saints’ future in the city was still uncertain after Hurricane Katrina. Now, more than a decade later, the Saints are a civic treasure and the Chargers on the verge of leaving San Diego.
Quote of the week
“That part of it felt good, throwing a touchdown. Weirdly you kind of expect it when you go out there. ‘Let’s go out and throw a touchdown.’ I know that sounds silly, but you expect to go out there and do something well. In that regard it felt normal.”
What would Tony Romo have done with this Cowboys team? Would he have been able to ride behind a great offensive line and Ezekiel Elliott’s fantastic rookie year to a 13-3 record and home field advantage through the playoffs? Sadly we will never know. But in the one possession he played this season – in the second quarter of Dallas’s 27-13 loss at Philadelphia – he moved the Cowboys on a six-play-81-yard touchdown drive that culminated in a pass that he rifled into the arms of Terrance Williams. It gave at least a thought to what might have been.
Elsewhere around the league
— Patriots quarterback Tom Brady broke the NFL season record for touchdowns to interceptions ratio with 28 touchdowns against just two picks. He threw three of those touchdowns on Sunday in a 35-14 victory over Miami.
— The Cleveland Browns tried hard to win their second game of the season, scoring a touchdown late in the fourth quarter of their game at Pittsburgh to force overtime, even taking a lead in overtime before losing 27-24. Robert Griffin III continued to show sparks of promise as he threw for 232 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 32 more yards.
— Philadelphia activated running back Terrell Watson whose remarkable story was profiled by the Guardian this summer. In his first NFL game Watson ran for 28 yards on nine carries and even scored a touchdown late in the Eagles win over Dallas.