BY ANY RATIONAL MEASURE, AARON RODGERS CANNOT BE THE NFL MVP
Just as Indianapolis' bright season is clouded by the positive COVID-19 test of unvaccinated Carson Wentz, Rodgers' no-vaxx status still could sabotage Green Bay's championship hopes
Have you watched the football explode from his right arm, as if the leather is coated in nitroglycerine? How he threads it between two or three defenders and inevitably finds a green-jerseyed receiver? The TV production trucks dazzle up such pass completions with a yellow blur, but when Aaron Rodgers is throwing, the effect should be smoke.
In any other era, one that isn't labeled in epidemiology-ese, the current discussion would involve his place in history. In his last five games, he has thrown 16 touchdown passes without an interception as the Green Bay Packers have ascended to the NFC's No. 1 seeding and, perhaps, the favorite's role to win Super Bowl LVI. Only four men have thrown more scoring passes in NFL history, and if Rodgers proceeds to win his second championship, there will be no obstacle between him and a place on Mount Passmore — alongside Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Joe Montana as the four greatest quarterbacks ever.
Except, that is, the lie he told.
It was a big enough lie — he was "immunized'' for COVID-19, he said, failing to mention he wasn't actually vaccinated — that it overwhelms any argument that Rodgers is the league's Most Valuable Player for the second consecutive year. Unless MVP stands for Most Vile Perjurer, one cannot be considered for a monumental award when he has jeopardized the health of teammates, coaches and personnel all season. Still among 55 million American adults yet to be jabbed even once, let alone three times, Rodgers would be the last player to get my vote. Do you realize, amid the Omicron variant's swirling uncertainties, that he's capable of sabotaging the Packers at any moment by spreading the coronavirus — whether he's considered asymptomatic or not, because he probably won't tell the truth about symptoms — inside the team facility, on a plane, in a hotel, in a locker room, anywhere?
Or possibly contracting it himself, though he isolated with COVID-19 last month — because Omicron and Delta don't care about antibodies or have mercy on repeat sufferers? A minute doesn't pass without another NFL player testing positive — a record 96 on Monday alone, 476 since Dec. 13 — and when Bruce Arians was placed in isolation Tuesday by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, he became the latest head coach to test positive in recent weeks, joining Kevin Stefanski, Sean Payton, Robert Saleh, Nick Sirianni, Mike McCarthy and Matt Nagy. The NFL always has stood for Not For Long. Now, Not For Long means the active status and availability of a player or coach.
I don't normally quote Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization. Today, it's important to wave reality in the face of a sports world playing loose and fast with COVID and believing shortened quarantine periods are a reprieve. "Delta and Omicron are now twin threats driving up cases to record numbers, leading to spikes in hospitalization and deaths,” Ghebreyesus said at a Wednesday news conference in Geneva. "I am highly concerned that Omicron, being highly transmissible and spreading at the same time as Delta, is leading to a tsunami of cases.''
Anyone in the NFL listening?
You see what is happening this week with Indianapolis quarterback Carson Wentz, who, like Rodgers, has dared the coronavirus gantlet all season. He tested positive, inevitably, leaving the hot-as-a-racecar Colts with untested rookie Sam Ehlinger as their likely starter if Wentz can't play in the critical games ahead. Or, if coach Frank Reich is desperate, a plea to Philip RIvers to come out of retirement. At the most important position in team sports, it's beyond revolting that starting QBs — with all the money they make, all the responsibilities they carry — are so willing to prioritize their own beliefs and politics over the health and dreams of others in an organization. They have been told the basic life-and-death truths: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an unvaccinated American is 14 times more likely to die from COVID than a fully vaccinated person. Wentz doesn't care.
Rodgers doesn't care. He is not protected by a legitimate vaccine, just ivermectin — used to deworm animals — and other quack potions and monoclonal antibodies endorsed by esteemed health expert Joe Rogan. Thus, Rodgers is nakedly vulnerable to catching the virus and infecting others, even if most teammates are vaccinated. In sports and everyday life, if you haven't noticed in recent weeks, breakthrough cases are the norm. His decision to reject vaccines feeds the very definition of selfishness — and stupidity — and, in the end, he might be remembered in history not for his Hall of Fame speech but for his sickening spiel on "The Pat McAfee Show.'' You thought Alex Rodriguez was the steroids-deceptive nitwit. This A-Rod is one-upping him.
"I am somebody who is a critical thinker," Rodgers said. "I believe strongly in bodily autonomy and ability to make choices for your body: Not have to acquiesce to some woke culture or some crazed group of individuals who say you have to do something. Health is not a one-size-fits-all for everybody. I consulted with a now good friend of mine, Joe Rogan, after he got COVID, and I’ve been doing a lot of stuff that he recommended.''
It's fair to wonder, too, if the outbreak currently ripping through the Packers' locker room has anything to do with Rodgers. Ten players have been placed on the reserve-COVID-19 list over the last week, and rather than embrace the joy ride, head coach Matt LaFleur gasps every time he receives a text from head athletic trainer Bryan Engel. "I’m always kind of holding my breath now,'' he said. "It’s just like, 'All right. Who’s next?' That’s why we’ve got to make sure that guys are trying to take every precaution that we can to make sure that we stay healthy, safe and available.''
But how can he when Rodgers is front and center, the leader of the Pack in every conceivable way, every single day? "Certainly you’re trying to take every step to mitigate the risk, especially within your building,'' said LaFleur, speaking in generalities. "We’re definitely going to look at how we can do that around here, just making sure that we mask up as a team when we’re inside, and then trying to keep people as spread out as possible. We’ve even contemplated potentially, if we get more of these, maybe even going to virtual meetings and then just showing up when we want to get together to go out on the field. We’ll look at everything. I think we’re a pretty darn good football team, and we need to try to keep as many people available as possible."
This element cannot be mentioned enough in the coming weeks: The next time Rodgers is scheduled to be tested for COVID-19 — days before the Super Bowl — the Packers could be preparing for the big game. Already, DraftKings has set better-than-even odds that he'll test positive (not true, but would it surprise you?). While the NFL has granted risky relief for such a doomsday scenario by reducing quarantine time from 10 days to five days — even if an infected player is unvaccinated — Rodgers conceivably could cause an outbreak and kill the Super Bowl with one sneeze.
Please don't be a prisoner of the football moment. Yes, Rodgers has been magnificent on the field, playing through a broken pinky toe that he claims to have injured during his week in quarantine. But the strain he has placed on the franchise is unforgivable.
So is, for that matter, his offseason drama. Don't forget how Rodgers blasted the Packers' front office throughout the spring and summer — namely, general manager Brian Gutekunst — and postured for a trade, still brooding about not being informed before quarterback Jordan Love was drafted in 2020. Which made him appear disingenuous, to say the least, when he grew emotional on Christmas Day upon breaking Brett Favre's team record for most touchdown passes.
"Hey, 12, congratulations, man, on passing my touchdown record,” Favre said on the Lambeau Field video board. "I have one request. Go get us another Super Bowl. Congrats."
Said Rodgers: "Definitely got me a little teary-eyed on the bench. A moment I’ll never forget, for sure. I’m thankful for Favre’s message, for the response from the guys and the crowd obviously was really special.''
Oh, so NOW he's happy? Did you not want to hurl when he went full-blown-Cheesehead romance on the Fox post-game show? "I'm so fortunate to be able to play here in this stadium, with these fans, and in this great organization the last 17 years,'' he said. "This is what it's all about. I mean, it's Christmas Night at Lambeau. Where would you rather be? It's a special place. I'm eternally blessed. I don't lose sight of that. That's the most important thing. As you get older, having that perspective of living your life and counting your blessings — not the things I don't have. I have a lot of blessings here in Green Bay. I'm really thankful to be here.''
If Packers fans were reaching for hankies, the rest of us looked for barf bags. Rarely has a prominent athlete been so polarizing, magnified in particular by the coronavirus factor. It shouldn't be lost how Rodgers' unvaccinated status gave strength and validation to someone such as Wentz, whose only anti-vaxx explanation came in early September: "I'm not going to go into depth on why, but I will say it's a personal decision for me and my family. I respect everybody else's decision, and I just ask that everybody does the same for me. I know that's not the world we live in, not everyone is going to equally view things the same, but yeah, no one really knows what's going on in someone else's household and how things are being handled. It's a personal decision. That's just where I'm at on it and with the protocols and everything the way they are, really for us, it's about understanding them clearly and making sure that we are dotting our I's and crossing our T's.''
There are two I's and one T in isolation, where Wentz joins 14 teammates on the reserve/COVID-19 list, including top linemen who need to be protecting Ehlinger: left guard Quenton Nelson and right tackle Braden Smith. The Colts have won eight of their last 10 and were starting to resemble the proverbial don't-want-to-see-them-in-the-playoffs sleeper. Now, assuming they clinch an AFC playoff berth, they could be one-and-done as a wild card.
All of which further qualifies Jonathan Taylor as the true league MVP. With COVID looming as a locker-room threat all season, Taylor — who is vaccinated— literally has carried the Colts into contention. He is football's dominant running back, and when he rushes for 100 yards, his team is 9-0. In a sport that mistreats and undervalues ballcarriers, this defense-buster deserves to break the streak of QBs winning the award — the last eight years and 12 of the last 14. Tom Brady? He's 44, we know, defying health and science every day, but he's also whining a lot. When he couldn't manage a point in a home loss to New Orleans, he approached the Saints sideline and told defensive coordinator Dennis Allen, "Go f— yourself.'' Nice. Late in the same game, Brady flung a Microsoft Surface tablet to the ground and broke it.
"I did get a warning from the NFL," Brady said with some snark on his podcast. "I can't throw another Surface or else I get fined. Imagine that! Imagine that." Half Brady's age, Taylor is twice as mature in the heat of the moment. On a "Hard Knocks'' episode — HBO picked the right team for its first in-season docuseries — Taylor stood in the locker room unimpressed as an NFL Network commentator raved about him on a TV. Seems he doesn't like attention, unlike Rodgers, who craves it and eats it for breakfast, lunch, dinner and a late-night snack. Notice his Wednesday news conference, where he dangled the carrot again, saying he could return to the Packers next season, follow through on a trade demand — or retire. “I’m just savoring this year as much as anything,” Rodgers said. “It won’t be something where I’ll drag it out for months and months. … I’m not going to hold the team back from anything and once I commit — and if it’s committing to move forward here — it will be a quick decision.” Please, give me Taylor’s humility.
"It’s not like track and field where I’m lining up, it’s just me and I’m racing the other guys next to me,” Taylor said. "It takes all 11 guys on the field in order to have a play go. All it takes is one guy to not be on for a play to crumble. That’s why I try and go out there every single play and make sure that I’m on, because I trust and truly believe that every single guy on that field, all 10 other guys are doing their job to a T.''
His teammates speak for him. "It's ridiculous. He's a cheat code. I mean, he's a walking touchdown," defensive lineman DeForest Buckner said. “You’re always thinking this can be a touchdown. With his size, speed, agility. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He’s close to 20 touchdowns. Leave no doubt he’s going to get it. Almost 2,000 yards. For me it’s a no-brainer. When looking at an all-around football he’s the guy. JT is the MVP, baby.''
"What he is doing now in this NFL,'' said linebacker Darius Leonard, "there’s absolutely no question that he is the MVP.''
That would be the same Darius Leonard, a defensive beast and emotional leader, who also is unvaccinated and also tested positive.
Jay Mariotti, called “the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.