denis gullickson | talking titletown | january 2017
Part Two of a Two-Part Series
“Can Aaron Rodgers Be the Type of Quarterback the Packers Need?"
Sportswriter Tyler Dunne posed the question in a mid-November piece that peered into Rodgers' psyche. The Pack was smack-dab in the throes of a four-game losing streak against teams a playoff-bound aggregation would have bested. Rodgers himself was struggling — his passer rating an anemic 87.5; a far cry below his lifetime 103.3 average.
Dunne's treatise seemed to be throwing light on one of Shakespeare's tragic characters: Coriolanus. Hamlet. King Lear. Macbeth. Othello. Rodgers. Another Prince was falling to the vagaries of fate — the football field a stage and the men merely players.
“Give yourself paralysis by analysis studying all the factors around No. 12," Dunne wrote. “Injuries. Personnel whiffs. Stale coaching. The fact remains this is a two-time MVP, a $100 million investment, a player who'll have a street named after him in Brown County one day.
“Aaron Rodgers cannot be ordinary. He must be extraordinary. He must be the one holding the lantern, leading the way, out of this abyss."
Dunne found teammates willing to parse their leader's foibles.
Former tight end Jermichael Finley painted a picture for Dunne of a lonely figure — as isolated as Caesar. “He goes into his little shell," said Finley. “He's not a guy who hangs out with the fellas. He's real self-centered."
Former linebacker Desmond Bishop had a different take. “It's not, 'Come on guys, let's go!' It's 'I'm going to come out here and put my heart on the line. Follow me. Step your game up like I'm stepping mine up.' That's the kind of leader he is."
Wide receiver Jeff Janis — the recipient of more than a couple scowls from his leader — said, “It's hard to tell if he's mad at himself or made at you. But I think it just goes along with him wanting to be perfect. He's done it at a high level and that's what he expects."
Blind side tackle David Bakhtiari said, “There's no one else who can do what he can do. He's Aaron Rodgers for a reason."
“He attacks his profession like a maniac, a savant, a wizard," said defensive tackle Letroy Guion — each of those a solitary place.
A former acquaintance told Dunne that Rodgers has not spoken to his family in two years, suggesting that the quarterback has alienated many he was once close to and it's taken a toll. “You can't live like that, man. The people who live like that end up getting f*cked over. That's kind of what's happening here, but he's so prideful and will never admit he's wrong. Ever."
And then, Rodgers did the unthinkable. Following a fourth-straight loss to Washington and with six games remaining in the season, Rodgers declared to the press that the Packers could “run the table" and “win out."
The guffaws were audible. Surely, it was a case of hubris-driven dramatic irony.
It's a different world for a quarterback in the modern game. As “foot-ball" chucked its hyphens downfield, the “quarter-back" position steadily transformed into the prima oumo role we know today.
And make no mistake about it: In the contemporary, parity-driven NFL, a team is either solid at the quarterback position and willing to mortgage its soul to stroke its star player, or it is wracking its conscience trying to find a signal caller who can at least manage a game plan.
You can run your finger down a list of NFL teams and reasonably project each one's success based solely on its quarterback.
Reflecting the transition between the run-only and run-pass attacks of the Roaring Twenties, many NFL teams assembled a bevy of “utility backs" — guys like the Packers' Johnny Blood — who could run, pass and kick the pigskin. A key to Curly Lambeau's early-Packers' success — including the NFL's first Three-Peat — was constantly tweaking his stable of backs.
Emerging from this ilk, came guys like the Giants' Benny Friedman — probably the prototypical “QB" of the modern era. Friedman stood out at every aspect of the game — particularly tossing the ball — and he developed the swagger that went with being the team's main man.
Giant's owner Tim Mara bought the Detroit Wolverines franchise to secure Friedman and proceeded to pay Friedman an unheard-of annual salary of $10,000 — adding swagger to Friedman's step. However — with Friedman running Mara's offense — Mara saw a $62,500 swing in his football fortunes between 1928 and 1929.
The game itself continued to evolve, incorporating the pass and accommodating the passer. Rules that discouraged throwing the ball in the 1920s seem arcane today, but there they were: The ball was still snapped where the last play had ended — a yard-in from the sideline if the previous play had gone out of bounds. An incomplete pass into the end zone resulted in a touchback and a turnover. A quarterback had to drop back at least five yards before attempting a pass.
Accordingly, two-thirds of plays were still runs. By the mid-thirties, these rules had all been ditched or changed. Reflecting the quarterback's emerging preeminence as the pivotal man in the backfield, the “T-formation" became the standard offensive set.
By 1945, passes and the quarterbacks who tossed them became an exciting aspect of a team's success. For the first time in football history, teams were gaining more ground throwing the pigskin than running it. The Packers' and Giant's Arnie Herber; the Redskins' Sammy Baugh; the Bears' Sid Luckman and the Browns' Otto Graham were celebrated in the nation's headlines while leading their teams to championships. More than mere signal-callers, these field generals commandeered their squads' on-field strategy.
Though running plays still outnumbered passes, the '50s and '60s continued the trend. To the point where an iconic 1961-photograph by Ralph Morse in “Time" magazine gathered all 14 starting NFL quarterbacks, representing the crème de la crème of the league — the pantheon of the NFL's Golden Age. It included six Hall of Famers (with more likely to come): Milt Plum, Bobby Layne, Sam Etcheverry, Bill Wade, Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, Norm Snead, Zeke Bratkowski, Jim Ninowski, Fran Tarkenton, Don Meredith, John Brodie, Sonny Jurgensen and Y.A. Tittle.
More names have been added since then: Montana, Favre, Manning, Staubach, Bradshaw, Young, Marino, Elway, Brady and … Rodgers.
As of this writing, Rodgers' bold prediction of “running the table" stands at five down and one to go. That one, an NFC-North Division Showdown with the Detroit Lions that will dramatically wrap up the 2016 NFL regular season.
In the stretch, Rodgers has shown himself, again, to be the “type of quarterback" the Packers need. Indeed, some of his loudest critics are averring his name in the NFL-MVP discussion — forgetting completely their carping of just a couple months back.
(This might not include that drunk guy in a “Favre" jersey, cited last issue, who screamed that Rodgers was “an arrogant motherf*cker" who “sucked.")
Deep down, the groundlings at Shakespeare's matinees were pulling for the prince to fall; not likely the case among Packers fans when it comes to Aaron Rodgers.
For every guy or gal who has ever thrown a football, there's a certain fantasy of taking the snap in a pro stadium with 80,000 onlookers and the game on the line. In an actual NFL game, the pressure is real and a thousand times more intense than that fantasy can conjure.
Few can take that actual snap. The reality is crushing. The din of the crowd on the cerebral periphery alone would make most people curl up in a fetal position.
Heady, intense, precise, demanding, courageous, gutsy — willing to shoulder a team, a city and a fan base on his quick feet, banged-up running legs and throwing arm and take that snap — Aaron Rodgers has picked up his personal game, posting a quarterback rating of 120.0 since his “run-the-table" declaration.
Most would call that walking the walk after talking the talk; others might call it delivering on a promise — or a threat.
Of Rodgers, Letroy Guion said, “He is the leader of this team. We go as he goes. That's the reality of it. He's the quarterback. He's the superstar."
In a sitdown with an agent representing a certain, popular Packers' wide receiver back in 2006, this writer heard the following: “We consider our client the face of the franchise now; Brett Favre is unapproachable."
Now there was a mouthful. The modern quarterback had ascended through the mortal strata to God Almighty.
As a 2016 season that has pressed most therapists in Titletown into overtime wraps up, here's to the quarterback.
Oh, and Packers fans “R-E-L-A-X" — because Aaron Rodgers is as good as it gets.
And that question about his ability to lead the Packers? His play has pretty well answered that. Again.
As 2017 gets rolling, educator, author, farmer and horseman Denis Gullickson continues to write about all things Titletown from a farm west of Green Bay and a cottage near Lakewood.