In April 2005, Rodgers waited nearly four hours to be selected in the NFL draft. He walked the Jacob Javits Center from time to time that day, quietly agonizing as he was the last one in the room to get selected. He tumbled all the way from possibly going No. 1 overall (Alex Smith took the honor instead) to a situation that started another long wait.
After six years in the NFL, Rodgers finally escaped the long shadow of Brett Favre(notes) for good. More importantly, he delivered on a promise he made to Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson the day after Thompson made the quarterback the No. 24 overall pick and set in motion the Greek tragedy that played out so publicly over the past three years.
"I promised him I'd make sure he'd never regret picking me," Rodgers said.
In leading the Packers to a 31-25 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium, Rodgers finally created his own legacy and affirmed the intuition of Thompson and head coach Mike McCarthy. His Most Valuable Player award was well-earned, beyond what his 24 completions in 39 attempts, 304 yards, three touchdowns and 111.5 quarterback rating show.
There were times when Rodgers wasn't just along for the ride in this victory; he was carrying the wheels and engine on his back.
Or as Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said, the respect evident in the timber of his voice: Rodgers was “big time” when it counted most. Such as a 20-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Greg Jennings(notes) that Rodgers threaded among Pittsburgh star defenders James Farrior, Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu. Or the 31-yard strike he threw on third-and-10 to Jennings in the fourth quarter, putting the ball roughly two inches over the outstretched arm of Pittsburgh top cornerback Ike Taylor(notes) and in front of Polamalu.
For those who aren't quite ready to elevate Rodgers past Favre, that's fine. But go back and look at the tape of the throws to Jennings. Consider that Green Bay receivers dropped five passes in this one, including a huge one by James Jones on a pass play that that might have gone for 75 yards on the opening drive of the third quarter.
The players, coaches and staff people in the Packers locker room weren't saying that after the game, but they were saying one thing.
"You can stop saying Favre now," wide receiver Donald Driver(notes) said. "That's done, over. … Brett had his legacy, he did a lot of great things. But Aaron is establishing his own legacy now. He has dealt with a lot of things to get here and now he has his title, just like Brett had his. You can put all that stuff to rest."
For those who aren't quite ready to elevate Rodgers past Favre, that's fine. But go back and look at the tape of the throw to Nelson. Admire the strike to Jennings. Consider that Green Bay receivers dropped five passes in this one, including a huge one by James Jones(notes) on a pass play that that might have gone for 75 yards on the opening drive of the third quarter.
"In our scheme at times, we play a fire zone scheme, so we're around guys and not necessarily on them," Clark said. "With a guy like Aaron Rodgers, you need to be stuck to your man like glue. He threw pinpoint passes all day. If we had them covered over the top, he threw it back shoulder. If you were a little bit underneath, he threw it over the top."
The throws to Jennings were of particular greatness because Rodgers was toeing the tightrope on each.
"If those throws are just a little bit off, they are very different plays," said Polamalu, knowing that an interception or a deflection was only inches away on each play. "Aaron is incredibly accurate and efficient and he made the big plays [Sunday night]."
Of course, the easy analysis from this game will be that Rodgers was great at executing an offense the Steelers' defense simply has trouble stopping. Over the past five years, the Steelers have had nine games (regular season and postseason) against quarterbacks who have started in the past five Super Bowls (Rodgers, Drew Brees(notes), Eli Manning(notes), Peyton Manning(notes), Kurt Warner(notes) and Tom Brady(notes)). They have allowed a rating of more than 100, 23 touchdown passes and snagged only two interceptions while losing six of those nine games.
But this game wasn't so easy. The Steelers' coverage was excellent for almost the entire game. Pittsburgh's secondary did a good job of taking away Jennings (four catches, 64 yards and two touchdowns) most of the time and got some good fortune when Driver suffered a high ankle sprain in the first half.
The Steelers also put good pressure on Rodgers, sacking him three times and forcing him to throw the ball away at least three times. But, in the end, Rodgers was simply too good, too often. His throws were immaculate, his decisions were flawless. He put his stunning release and pretty spirals on display for the world to see.
"Some of those throws are just amazing," Jennings said.
Almost as impressive as the perpetual smile Rodgers had on his face even long after the three-hour game was over. Sitting in the corner of the Packers locker room, alternating between handshakes, hugs and text messages from friends, Rodgers was a picture of contentment. The glum, stone-faced look he wore almost six years ago and the emotionless look he wore for most of the past three years as he fielded questions about succeeding Favre were long gone.
Of course, getting to this point required some of that pain. Rodgers said draft day in 2005 was one of the best days of his career because it "humbled me and made me refocus on what I had to do." Dealing with Favre's legacy was another mental test, the kind of thing that ultimately has served to endear him to the people of Green Bay because of his dignity and class.
Still, it has all been overwhelming. Perhaps that's why, some two hours after it was all over, Rodgers had one last simple request:
"I just want to go home," he said. "I'm tired. Let's go home."
For the first time in his career, Rodgers can truly call Green Bay his own place.
- Green Bay