Mike McCarthy and I were making small-talk last week in a tiny room on the lower level of Lambeau Field when, guided by the true-blue blood that courses through my Cal-loving veins, I asked about Aaron Rodgers, the NFL's on-the-Q.T. QB.
"He's going to be a good player for us," McCarthy, the Green Bay Packers' second-year coach, said confidently before catching himself. "He already is a good player. I don't have any doubts about that at all."
Going into Thursday's night's showdown for NFC supremacy at Texas Stadium between the 10-1 Packers and 10-1 Dallas Cowboys, all the talk was about 38-year-old MVP candidate Brett Favre and the emerging star, Tony Romo, who grew up in Wisconsin watching the living legend. By game's end, Romo was celebrating another impressive effort and the likelihood that he won't have to visit his very chilly home state in January, thanks to the Cowboys' 37-27 victory that gave them a one-game-plus-a-tiebreaker edge in the race for home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs.
Over the long haul, however, the Packers may be Thursday's biggest winners. At long last, we realize that what McCarthy said about football's A-Rod – and what some of us have been saying since before he slipped to Green Bay in the first round of the 2005 NFL draft – is as accurate as most of Rodgers' passes were after Favre went down with a separated left shoulder and bruised right elbow in the second quarter.
Rodgers can play, and if he doesn't finally get a shot at becoming The Man in Green Bay, where they're slightly irrational about such things, another team will likely pay for the privilege of making him its quarterback of the future.
Suddenly, on the strength of Rodgers' utterly commanding performance – he completed 18 of 26 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown in leading the Pack back from a 27-10 hole – Green Bay has become the least vulnerable of the four teams most likely to make a Super Bowl run.
If the New England Patriots (Tom Brady), Indianapolis Colts (Peyton Manning) or Cowboys (Romo) were to lose their starting quarterbacks, their road to Glendale, Ariz. would suddenly become far more treacherous. New England's Matt Cassel is talented, but he didn't even start in college and has yet to do so in the NFL. Nor has Indy's Jim Sorgi, who backs up the man on whose unique mental and physical skills an entire offense is based. The Cowboys have Brad Johnson, the winning quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl XXXVII, but he's in his 16th year, has limited arm strength and, in terms of mobility, makes Favre look like Vince Young.
The Packers, to be fair, have been riding high thanks largely to Favre's unlikely renaissance during this surprisingly prosperous season. And even though he showed flashes Thursday of the inconsistent, ball-forcing quarterback who struggled the previous two seasons, he is still capable of providing pro football with the feel-good story of the new millenium by returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since consecutive appearances a decade ago.
He'll likely have to go into Texas Stadium and win in January to pull that off, but if cornerback Charles Woodson and pass rusher Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila are healthy by then, the Packers' defense might be able to give him a little help. But if Favre, whose record streak of 249 consecutive starts is now in peril, isn't healthy or effective come playoff time, Green Bay has another viable option.
Give Rodgers credit for effectively handling being invisible for so long. Unlike Steve Young and so many other reluctant backups of years past, Rodgers has refrained from complaining publicly while waiting longer than he'd like for his time to come.
Think about it from his perspective: In 2004, while Rodgers was starring for Cal during the Golden Bears' best season in decades, first-round picks Ben Roethlisberger and Eli Manning became their NFL teams' starting quarterbacks as rookies, while J.P. Losman got the call the following year. Philip Rivers had to sit for two seasons in San Diego, but the Chargers ultimately allowed a Pro Bowl player, Drew Brees, to leave via free agency in order to get his successor into the lineup.
Alex Smith, whom the 49ers chose ahead of Rodgers as the No. 1 overall pick in '05, became a rookie starter. The Redskins' Jason Campbell, selected 25th overall (one pick after Rodgers, whose draft-day freefall was the most notorious since ESPN began televising the event), took over in November of his second season.
The '06 first-rounders, Vince Young, Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler, all became starters a few games into their careers, with Young earning rookie of the year honors. This year's No. 1s, JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn, both showed up late and have yet to take the field, though it's quite likely the Oakland Raiders will throw Russell into the game for some limited action as early as this Sunday. And Miami's second-rounder, Jon Beck, has taken over for the struggling Dolphins.
Rodgers, meanwhile, spent all that time quietly persevering in Green Bay, biting his lip as people depicted him as a bust and sucking it up when Favre, for each of the past two offseasons, elected to forestall retirement. Last November, with the Pack going nowhere, Favre hurt his elbow in a Monday night game against the Patriots, and Rodgers finally got a chance to play in a semi-meaningful game. But he broke his left foot in a dismal, 35-0 defeat, robbing him of some potential playing time down the stretch.
Of course, the only way Rodgers is ever going to start even a single game while Favre is still around is if the 17-year veteran literally cannot trot onto the field. Favre's streak, like Cal Ripken's toward the end of the great infielder's career, has become so revered and consuming that the Packers sometimes get forced into behavior as irrational as that of many of their fans.
On any other team, the logical move now would be to rest Favre until his shoulder and elbow are sufficiently healed, to make sure he's in the best possible condition for the playoffs. As Rodgers showed on Thursday, he's good enough to help Green Bay secure a first-round bye (the Pack remains 2½ games ahead of its closest pursuers, the Bucs and Seahawks, in the race for the NFC's No. 2 seed) while Favre gets right for the games in which his team will need him most.
That'll never happen, though, because as much as McCarthy has established himself as a quality head coach with a growing power base, only the ghost of Vince Lombardi would have the clout and gall to tell No. 4 to put aside his streak and take one for the team.
No, the only way Favre sits is if he's physically incapable of playing, a state of affairs that before Thursday would have been considered a death knell for the Pack in 2007.
Now, at long last, we know the kid can answer the bell.
TAKE IT TO THE ATM
I've been rough on the Detroit Lions lately, but I see Rod Marinelli's bunch rising up to defeat the suddenly legit Minnesota Vikings in the Metrodome. … Buoyed by coach Sean Payton's best game plan of the season, the Saints will stay alive in the NFC South by pulling out a close one against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. … Kurt Warner might have to throw for 400 yards again, and the season-ending injury to sublime safety Adrian Wilson is a brutal blow, but the Arizona Cardinals will outscore the Cleveland Browns in the desert.
PLEASE, BOSS, SEND ME TO …
That stirring showdown between the Denver Broncos and Raiders in Oakland, because I'm hoping I can say I was there for JaMarcus Russell's first NFL play – and because it's really hard to get on an airplane after a Saturday evening rivalry game.
LIES, LIES, LIES
1. Eli Manning's demeanor in his postgame news conferences is extremely significant and should be cited often when assessing his on-field performance.
2. The decision not to let Vince Neil sing the national anthem before the rain-delayed start of the Steelers-Dolphins game weakened America's moral fiber.
3. For those of you whose cable companies don't carry the NFL Network, don't worry, you didn't really miss anything on Thursday night.
WORLD'S SIMPLEST POOL
Luke Campbell had to sweat out his second week in the pool, surviving along with the Patriots' undefeated season as New England came back to beat the Philadelphia Eagles by a 31-28 score. It must have inspired the hip-hop impresario, because now he's really living on the edge: He's picking his hometown Miami Dolphins – yes, the 0-11 Dolphins – to beat the Jets on Sunday.
"The Dolphins are horrible," Campbell explained. "They could lose to some high school teams in Miami. But the Jets are sorry, too, and I can't see (Eric) Mangini motivating them for this game. He likes to use boxing analogies. What's he gonna say this time: 'You guys are like Mike Tyson, getting ready to fight Michael Jackson?' "
MY BUDDY'S ANNOYING FANTASY ADVENTURE
Thanks to a banner week by Kolby Smith (pause while I take a bow) and a little bit of help from the turf gods, Beat the Gypsy eked out a victory over Team 420 by less than five points to improve to 8-4 on the season.
"You were right about Kolby Smith," my friend Malibu conceded after the Chiefs' rookie halfback exploded for 150 yards and two touchdowns in K.C.'s defeat to the Raiders. "But give me credit – after that atrocious first game of his, I didn't drop him. I stuck with him." Why? "Because you hooked me up with Adrian Peterson before the season," he said. "After four years, I'm finally starting to trust your judgment – a little."
The lentil-soup-like grass at Heinz Field Monday night kept Team 420's dynamic duo, Ben Roethlisberger and Hines Ward, from scoring enough points to overtake BTG, though that was partially offset by the Pittsburgh defense's 16-point contribution. BTG, which owns a one-game lead in its division with two games to play, has already clinched a playoff berth, allowing Malibu to do some fine-tuning before the playoffs. And with The Franchise set to return after missing two weeks with a strained knee ligament, Malibu is banking on a big return. "I'm playing Adrian Peterson and benching Chester Taylor," he said. "I want to see what AD's got before the games get really important."
Malibu and I agreed that playing the Washington defense, facing the Bills amid tragic circumstances, was a decent play this week but that a change would be necessary before its game against the Bears on Thursday. "Not to be harsh," he said, "but coming back from a Sunday game and a Monday funeral, they're in trouble."
OXYGEN-DEPRIVED THOUGHT FROM ABOVE
After rallying the Patriots to that victory over the Eagles on Sunday night, Tom Brady has 26 career fourth-quarter comebacks – and, since becoming the team's starter in 2001, the exact same number of total defeats, including playoffs. I'd love to say I figured that out on my own, but I got those numbers from a man with a name very similar to the future Hall of Famer in question. As Tom Brady Sr. readily admits, "Only a father would know this stat." I'm glad he shared it, because it's yet another indication that we are watching something absurdly exceptional. And the show seems to be getting better.
LET'S DO SOME DON JULIO SILVER SHOTS FOR …
Chiefs tackle Kyle Turley, who is so appalled by the plight of many retired NFL players with substandard benefits – and the seeming inability of the NFLPA and the league to attack the problem – that he is donating his Week 16 game check (about $25,000 after taxes) to Gridiron Greats, an outside organization committed to giving financial assistance to needy ex-players, and challenging his fellow players to do the same.
"I think a surprising number of guys will step up," Turley says. "The NFLPA and NFL are going to continue to drag this out and blame each other, while guys out there are homeless and in need or surgeries they can't afford. If Mike Ditka and Gale Sayers and this organization can find these guys in one year, why can't the league or the players' association get to them? I know they (the NFL) just announced they were throwing $10 million at the problem, but what good does that do if they don't have a means of distributing it?"
Turley got the inspiration for the donation while researching the issue on the internet. "I read something a retired player had written on one of those sites which said, 'Do the active players really care? Do these guys who are making millions really know what we're going through and appreciate the sacrifices we made?' That really touched me, because a lot of us do care. And I wanted us to stand up and say, 'Hey, we understand, and we want to help.' "
Also, like the rest of the NFL community, we'll be pouring out liquor for Sean Taylor and his friends and family at this tragic time.
YAHOO! SEARCH WORDS OF THE WEEK
"The Play video long version"
IF CAL WINS A FOOTBALL GAME I'LL …
This was supposed to be the payoff week for this regular feature, the time when someone like former Cal quarterback Kevin Brown would agree to give up a pinkie or small toe to get his alma mater to Pasadena or, worst-case scenario, the national championship game. It didn't quite work out that way, but I know Kevin well enough to understand how badly he wants the Bears to win their sixth consecutive Big Game at Stanford on Saturday, so I'm keeping the '86 Big Game hero (or, as his friends like to call him, 'BGH') in the mix. And by the way, if you want to see what Mr. Brown looked like when we were in school, check out the above-referenced video of The Play; he's the guy on the sidelines with the No. 16 jersey and the fashionable haircut. Says Kevin: "I can't even consider going the Bob Haas and Jim Hanifan route of forgoing the lovin' of my girl, Diana, who happens to be a hardcore Golden Bear (class of '89) and was at my side 21 years ago after our upset win in '86. As the father of three girls, I'd be happy to give up anything having to do with Hannah Montana, Webkinz, or Nintendo Wii games at $49 a pop, but something tells me that won't be easy to get past you. So, if we beat the Trees, I vow to give up my pre- and post-game rituals (some might call them fetishes) at a home game next year, routines which usually include some combination of stops at Top Dog, Henry's, the Fun Zone, perhaps a fleeting moment or two with Cal's resident rock star (Adam Duritz), brief turbulent skirmishes with my wife and kids as I get more uptight as kickoff approaches, and post-game Zachary's pizza eating while breaking down the Tivo of the game. Which reminds me, I also agree to cease all stalking behavior toward the coaching staff – specifically my constant hounding of defensive coordinator Bob Gregory to come by my house and watch the Tivo replay with me. But for one game only."
ROLLIN' WITH THE ROYALS
Reading is now 0-3 since I returned from the UK and claimed it as my club which, coupled with my alma mater's recent efforts on the (American) football pitch, probably means that I should consider switching my allegiances to someone I truly despise. But I'm hoping the Royals, who dropped a close 2-1 decision at Man City (which has won every home game this season), don't see it that way – and that they bounce back over the next four games, three of which are against teams below them in the Premier League standings.
I know they're aware of the urgency of breaking the losing streak on Saturday at Madejski Stadium, because defender Ibrahima Sonko told the team's official web site, "We have Middlesbrough next and they are a team we could beat. We are at home so it is a massive game that we must win."
Give the Royals credit: After falling behind 1-0 at Man City, they equalized late in the first half when American Bobby Convey threaded a through-ball to fellow midfielder James Harper, who volleyed it home. It looked like the game would end that way until a brilliant long-range strike by Stephen Ireland in second-half stoppage time gave Man City the victory.
LYRIC-ALTERED SONG DEDICATION OF THE WEEK
This one's for Tom Coughlin and the rest of the NFL's coaches, from a shell-shocked Mike Shanahan, to the tune of Blue Oyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) The Reaper." Get that cowbell poppin' …
All our times have come
Heed or you'll be gone
Broncos didn't fear D. Hester
But he ran like a hurricane wind
So don't do like we did
Come on Tommy … Don't kick to Hester
Punt the ball out of bounds … Don't kick to Hester
I swear to God he can fly … Don't kick to Hester
Or they'll call you a clown
Sauerbrun is done
Man that kid can run
Romeo and Belichick
Are together in agreement here
Romeo and Belichick
All the other coaches understand … Like Romeo and Belichick
Don't let Lovie play his only hand … Rethink field position
Coaches throwin' headsets to the ground … You can be like they are
Come on Tommy … Don't kick to Hester
Don't put the ball in his hands … Don't kick to Hester
He's a slippery guy … Don't kick to Hester
He's a bad, bad man
And he ran at us … Then he started to fly
He looked backward and said goodbye
Don't blow a lead like we did
Take the ball out of his hands
Don't let that man near leather
Come on Tommy … Don't kick to Hester
TRIPPIN' ON E(MAIL)
"Great article on the Sean Taylor tragedy. As a society, the value we have placed on life and honest work continues to plummet. It used to be you worked hard at a job to provide for your family and to enjoy life. Now, if someone wants something that is yours, they take it; A car, an Ipod, a life. … I was going to text you but I seemed to have lost your cell #."
I appreciate it, and were the subject in question not so horribly sad, I'd have laughed at the joke at the end of the email.
"When, when, when will the American society change this right-to-carry-weapons culture? Every time we mourn an important person when they are shot to death but at no time do I see legislation outlawing these guns that cause so much pain and suffering! What does it have to take before the American people finally stand up and say no to guns! You have already said successfully 'no to drugs!' so why not? I hope it will finally happen in this lifetime before we (have) so many people killed or injured and families suffering."
Thanks for your perspective. Now, I'm afraid, Sir Charlton Heston would like a word with you.
"One of the best pieces of journalism I have read for quite some time. You demonstrate through convincing examples very delicately that what people don't want to see, or are not shown, is cause for concern, not just in the NFL but in American society. Thank you for this!"
San Pedro Sula, Honduras
Thank you for your kind words, and for providing some additional international perspective.
"What does Taylor defending his home have to do with this? Are you saying if he hadn't applied his aggressive mentality he'd be alive? Did someone make you write this or are you always this stupid?"
I'm saying that in 2005, Taylor was accused of pulling out a gun during an argument and later pled guilty to a related charge. As I stated in the article, we don't know the circumstances surrounding his death and thus can't yet even begin to speculate.
"With the way you started the article … I feared for your life! But you did it well, got into the life of the players and passed no judgment on any of them. Well done."
My pleasure, and I'm going to assume you were joking in your first sentence, because otherwise I'm going to have to reevaluate my career choice.
"Thanks for the article Michael. Luckily the NFL provides well for its athletes. I have friends and family that have served in Iraq and gone through similar transitions upon returning home. Unfortunately, the military can't keep up as well as the 'big business' that is the NFL. A month after a friend returned we were forced to find alternative sources to bring him back to 'reality' after nearly shooting his 5-year-old daughter who he thought was enemy combatant in his kitchen. Six months (and $20K) later, I feel these military 'combatants' are getting the 'short end of the stick' when compared to our 'entertainers' when seeking proper medical care. While all parties make their own decisions for employment … I feel the real 'combatants' never get their full due for allowing us to drink our beer and celebrate touchdowns on Sundays. Just my two cents …"
That is truly chilling. My thoughts and prayers are with your friend and all of the other brave soldiers who are coping with similar transitions. They deserve all the support we can give them.
"Most of my friends and neighbors consider Madison the embarrassment of Wisconsin. The city is full of out-of-touch career students and over-paid bureaucrats."
One man's embarrassment is another man's nirvana, I guess. Thanks for the feedback.
"Mr. Silver: You wrote: 'Yo, David Carr, paper or plastic? Uh, Mr. Carr? Hello? MR. CARR????' Are you trying to imply that David Carr will be bagging groceries soon? If so, why would you/anyone be asking him 'paper or plastic'? That's a question that the bagger would be asking? Keep up the good (free) work, but try looking for an editor that actually reads what you write."
I was implying that he's indecisive. Keep up the (free) advice, and kindly stop insulting my editor.
"Great piece on David Garrard. In a season where the 'Fantastic Four' of (Tom) Brady, (Peyton) Manning, (Brett) Favre, and (Tony) Romo are getting all the attention, it's nice to see a column that points out that there are plenty of 'under the radar' QBs (among other positions) who are having outstanding seasons in one area or another. I've always wondered about Garrard because I never get to see Jacksonville play unless they're playing either the Giants or the Patriots; they have a good record more often than not and usually give Indy a good run. Thanks for pointing out one of the reasons why. I'd like to see you do similar columns on Philip Rivers, Jay Cutler, and Derek Anderson, among others. These guys need a little spotlight tossed on them so maybe the rest of the league wakes up and says, 'Maybe we should stop recruiting 40-plus year olds and let these kids have their shot.' Sure, they may have a losing record for a season or two, but why pay these guys millions to never even get a shot at the bright lights? It doesn't seem to have hurt the Giants yet (cough)."
Don't forget Aaron Rodgers. At least those guys you mentioned have had a chance to start.
"Hopefully, your trip to Jacksonville was more pleasant this time. Was it? From the tone of your David Garrard coverage, I'm betting that it was. It takes a few trips here to figure this place out. It's actually a great place to live."
Amelia Island, Fla.
I had a nice time in your fine hood, but that doesn't change my opinion that it is by far the worst Super Bowl host site in history.
"Whenever someone doesn't understand the Dave Matthews Band, I immediately assume they have poor taste in music and might just be stupid. A friend of mine who doesn't enjoy DMB but owns everything the Backstreet Boys ever released is my best example. I know you're not stupid. I love your columns. But, I understand the success of the Dave Matthews Band."
I detest the Backstreet Boys. I have great taste in music, if I do say so myself. I'm not opposed to jam bands, having attended way, way too many Grateful Dead shows and thoroughly enjoyed them. But I still don't get it!
"You can not understand why the Dave Matthews Band is so popular? Where do you live? Under a rock? Have you seen the band? Have you listened to every single song? Or just the radio cuts? Maybe you need to drop the arrogance you have. If you can not see the talent in the Dave Matthews Band, I don't know what to say. Even if you are not a fan, their drummer is one of the most respected in the business. It's just so typical of an 'opinionated writer' to make comments like they are the end-all, be-all of everything. Oh, if the whole nation could have their blogs viewed like your articles, we can truly see how backwards we are going as a society. "
No, I don't live under a rock. But I do rock. Hard.
"How you knew that my father was at Hooter's yesterday defies me."
Kenny McEntyre Jr.
You go, Kenny McEntyre Sr.! The question is: does the greasy chicken wing fall far from the tree?
"Even as just a semi-dedicated Star Trek fan, I know that there was no episode called 'Edith Keeler Must Die.' Perhaps at 4 AM it was hard for you to see that the proper title is The City on the Edge of Forever.' (I wonder how small the subset is that consists of both Star Trek fans and Michael Silver readers.)"
Given that the latter pool is so enormous, I'd say there's a decent overlap. My bad on the title mishap, however. And I have no idea who put the words "Houston Titans" together in that column, but kindly stop insulting my editor.
"Mike, in the spirit of the Big Game, I do hope that you will acknowledge the great contributions of Bob Murphy (Stanford '50 something) over the years to the wonderful conflagration that is the Stanford-Cal rivalry. Shame with global warming, no more bonfires. Bob is leaving the Stanford booth after 40 plus years and is probably as obnoxious a Stanford supporter as you are a Cal snob. You have to respect that. As always, but particularly painful to admit this week, you do a great job and are a credit to your alma mater. Go Stanford."
Loren Hillberg (Stanford '80)
That is very big of you, and because of that, I'll wish Murphy a pleasantly wretched finale and let you in on a little secret that I will not repeat during my blaze of glory through Berkeley and Stanford over the next 48 hours: This year, for the first time in a long time, I sincerely fear The Tree. That said, whatever happens, the majority of so-called Cardinal fans are … how shall I put this? … deplorably benign.
"I don't know if you realize it yet, but you are asking for trouble. Your brilliant fantasy football musings have been spot on. You will now receive hundreds, if not thousands of e-mails from hapless owners pleading for your advice on how to manage their crummy 'teams.' Most of these idiots don't have the intestinal fortitude to make calls for themselves and if they suspect someone has inside information, they will latch on like blood- sucking leeches. Prepare for the onslaught. P.S. I have Cedric Benson who just went down with an ankle injury. Should I pick up Andre Hall, Maurice Morris or Adrian Peterson of Chicago? Thanks for your time and expertise."
Ah, if only my friend Malibu appreciated me half as much as you. So thanks. And to answer your question: Any Adrian Peterson is a good Adrian Peterson.
"Hey thanks for the advice on picking up Kolby Smith a couple of weeks ago, it really paid off for me. And I've seen Dave Matthews live and he still sucks."
Thanks for your great sacrifice.