Aaron Rodgers is 37 years old, and the 38th of his birthdays will arrive before he completes another full season in the NFL. He has seen what happens to other quarterbacks in this age bracket, even in an era when protections afforded the position have allowed the likes of Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees to continue functioning as productive players.
So even if there are more chances for him to reach the Super Bowl with the Packers, beyond Sunday’s NFC championship game against the Buccaneers, there will not be many more. Whether that number is closer to one or closer to five, though, what matters most is the one at hand.
He has been the Pack’s starting quarterback for 13 seasons. Nine of those seasons ended in the Pro Bowl. Only one ended in the Super Bowl. If this does not become a second, Rodgers quite likely will end his career in the neighborhood where Peyton Manning refused to tread.
His legacy will not be that of Fran Tarkenton, who established so many passing records in the 1970s but only appeared in a single Super Bowl and flopped. It will not be that of Dan Marino, who made just the one in his second year with the Dolphins but could not overcome a superior 49ers team and never got back. Without another championship, though, and with a package of skills that many have described as the best in the history of the game, Rodgers will not reach the level of Manning or John Elway, all-time greats who led their teams to multiple championships.
This game will say so much about how Rodgers’ career is remembered.
His bronze bust will be in Canton five years and five seconds after he retires. It’s not about that. It’s about no one having available a “yeah, but” when the debate about the greatest quarterbacks ever is visited and someone presents Rodgers’ name. This is the fifth time Rodgers’ Packers have reached the NFC championship, and they’ve lost the past three by a combined 46 points.
The Packers allowed an average of 36.3 points in those games, so those results are not entirely on Rodgers. But he threw a combined five interceptions, averaged 264 passing yards and never reached a quarterback rating of 100. Which means he is not blameless, either.
Rodgers asserted that he feels “no more pressure than usual” in this circumstance. When a team reaches this stage, that ought to be true. Only two sets of players in the NFC have the opportunity to reach the sport’s biggest stage, and only one on either side, Tom Brady, can say that traveling this far pretty much is routine.
“Obviously, I put pressure on myself to perform every single week, and I think there’s a lot to be said for being able to harness that pressure and fear of failure and focus into a real positive,” Rodgers told reporters Wednesday. “That’s something you learn over the years.”
When Rodgers said, “My future is a beautiful mystery,” he was covering a lot of ground: whether the team’s decision to draft Jordan Love last spring will abbreviate his time in Green Bay, whether there will be more team success there or elsewhere, whether there are many more seasons for him in the NFL or just a few.
This game means more than usual because he’s conquered this stage so rarely. It means more because the Packers’ regular-season success in 2020 dictated that the game be played, for the first time with Rodgers as quarterback, in Green Bay. And it means more because Brady, who has been in 14 of these, will line up on the opposite side.
To conquer him, and to get Green Bay back to the Super Bowl for the first time in more than a decade, and to end the string of conference championship losses, and to do it all at Lambeau — Rodgers talked at length in his session about living in the present, and that moment is here.
Success will deliver a Super Bowl appearance and supersede so many of the less pleasant moments of his career. That does not mean there is more pressure inherent in this game. But it does contain more consequence.