Discover more from The Sports Column
IF WATCHING BRADY MAKES US SAD, RODGERS IS ONLY MAKING US MAD
This is the year when two greats finally succumbed to time and a youthful quarterbacking insurgence — and while we worry about Brady’s well-being, Rodgers is acting like a pompous ass
He stuffed the towel further into his pants, so no one else would notice the blood stains. This was among too many haunting visuals on an evening we’d rather forget, the night when it became disturbingly evident that Tom Brady shouldn’t be playing football anymore.
As he was pummeled and punished by Baltimore’s attack dogs, you wondered if the nearby ambulance would be summoned. When he tried to run from pressure, the experience was more painful for us than it was for him, a slow-motion stagger that exposed the bulky brace on his left knee. He was reduced to a doddering interloper in a game owned by the dazzling antithesis of what Brady has become, Lamar Jackson, who controlled a victory with his legs and arm as a prototype of how quarterbacking has evolved in the third decade of the 21st century.
For the first time, in his unprecedented foray into an NFL midlife, Tom Brady looked every day of 45. Short of wearing blinders or ignoring Tampa Bay games altogether, I’m not sure how to approach this sad landmark in our sporting lives, at least for those who’ve admired him since he used the incentive of being drafted 199th to soar as the Greatest Quarterback of All Time. Not since 2003 has Brady lost three straight games. Jackson was age five at the time.
Struggling again in the red zone, settling for field goals when the Buccaneers needed touchdowns, he wasn’t aware of a story that popped on an aggregated news site. He’d be informed soon enough. Whether it was pink slime or legitimate, the content brought the same cloud that has darkened Brady’s life since he retired last February, then unretired 40 days later. Gisele Bundchen, the report said, has given her husband the same months-long ultimatum. Said a “source,” if you believe Us Weekly: “Gisele told Tom either he leaves football to spend time with the family or she is gone for good. She doesn’t want him to continue to get injured and not be able to enjoy life in the future. She is doing it for her family.”
Meaning, retire immediately.
The Bucs won’t play for nine days. Will we never see Tom Brady under center again? SHOULD we never see Tom Brady under center again? I’m thinking no, that he should save his relationship with his family, but anyone who has studied Brady’s competitive inferno knows he’s staying put. To his way of thinking, the Bucs are in a lousy and very winnable NFC South, giving him an escape route from the ugliest abyss of his 23 seasons.
“Do you ever think about quitting?” he was asked this week on his podcast, “Let’s Go!”
“I said last week that there’s no immediate retirement in my future. There was a retirement in the past, but I moved on from that,” Brady said. “I made a commitment to this team, and I love this team, and I love this organization. I told them in March I was playing, and I’ve never quit on anything in my life.
“If you look at a loser mentality, you do quit when it gets hard, you do quit when things don’t go your way, and I think the beautiful part about life is the adversities challenge you to figure out who you really are. Everyone can be there during the parades, everyone can be there when they’re telling you how great you are. (But) who you are when things aren’t great, who you are when things don’t go your way when you face adversity, who are the people who stand by you? That’s what adversities really challenge you to figure out.”
By Thursday night, after a fifth loss in six games left the Bucs at 3-5, he was left to mumble cliches, refusing to remove his uniform after numerous teammates had dressed and gone home. “I don't think you can erase what happened the last eight weeks,” he said. "We've gotta dig deep, see what we're all about, come to work, try to improve and give ourselves a better chance to win.”
Across from Brady’s locker, right tackle Tristan Wirfs said wistfully, “I know he’s hard on himself. … I hope he plays as long as he can. I’d love to play with him forever. I love Tom. I wish everything was going as perfect as possible for him, if it is the last year for him, or whatever. We're just trying to ball, and it's frustrating when stuff's not working and you don't have the answer in front of you."
I’m afraid 2022 is the year when great quarterbacks grew old and turned unwatchable, as Tom finally loses to time in a season when gray speckles in Aaron Rodgers’ beard reflect an aging process ending his back-to-back MVP run. He, too, looks every day of his soon-to-be 39 years. Unlike Brady, who evokes sympathy, nothing is sad in Green Bay. He just makes people mad.
The problem with Aaron Rodgers, narcissist, is that his raging self-love affirmations rarely are requited. Pat McAfee and Joe Rogan probably love him, because he brings traffic to their shows with holier-than-thou views on life and football, politics and ayahuasca. Keep thinking. Does anyone else love him?
Girlfriends come and go, never ending well. He hasn’t been close with family members since he morphed into a social-media-driven celebrity/diva years ago. Through all the drama, whether he was manipulating his bosses or publicly denouncing COVID-19 vaccines, you figured he always had his teammates in the locker room. They liked Rodgers, right? They thought he looked cool in a modified man bun, which channeled the look of a drug smuggler in an action movie, and they marveled when he leveraged a “Jeopardy” guest-hosting gig against management, and they certainly embraced him when he was firing lasers like few men who’ve thrown an NFL spiral, as if the leather was coated in nitroglycerine.
But once the 2020s hit, and the world spun uncontrollably into whatever it has become, Rodgers turned pompous and petty. The more awards he won, and the more psychedelics he used on his hippie-trippy journeys into the Peruvian rainforest, the more Aaron Rodgers was consumed with Aaron Rodgers. Who loved him? You saw it last winter, after failing to reach the Super Bowl for the 11th straight season, when he was unnecessarily vague about his future. Would he retire? Demand a trade? His favorite receiver, Davante Adams, wasn’t sure, lost patience and fled to Las Vegas. With more cap space available, Rodgers treated himself to a hefty raise: a record $50 million annual salary. Minus Adams, he was left without an elite weapon, and the Packers’ championship hopes faded. Aaron got paid, though, which put a smile on his face in training camp, where he was asked to define his current motivation.
“Love, probably,” said the man who isn’t loved back.
And here we are today, Rodgers mired in his latest and sorriest theatrical twist, more ego-excessive than even the original baseball A-Rod. When the Packers desperately need the best of his leadership skills, we instead are reminded that he’s lacking as a trailblazer amid adversity. At the most important and influential position in team sports, a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback is required to provide services beyond passes. Rodgers, at least in part to blame for an inexperienced and thin receiving corps, is being scrutinized closely in how he develops younger pass-catchers. That’s what we once knew about him, back when he was one of America’s admired athletes: He made everyone around him better, as the greats do.
These days, he is making everyone around him miserable. Often looking like he’d rather be anywhere else than in his No. 12 jersey, Rodgers chose his weekly appearance on McAfee’s program to lash out at underperforming players on offense — mostly, those receivers. The most effective, savvy leaders keep criticism in the house, especially when, in this case, he is contributing to the morass. True, his offensive line is in tatters, but whose isn’t in the NFL? His running game isn’t as robust as expected. Yes, the Packers are beset by fumbles and dropped passes, but isn’t this when Rodgers is supposed to earn his money and spend the week cleaning up the mental lapses? What is he doing on Sundays?
He’s stinking out the stadium, too. He ranks 26th among 32 qualifiers with a total quarterback rating of 40.5. His average completion travels only 4.2 yards downfield, a stunning league-low stat normally associated with stumblebums, which suggests Rodgers has given up on his targets and prefers to avoid errors that would bring blame his way during a 3-4 start.
So, he takes the weak way out. He slips on a black beanie and a green Milwaukee Bucks hoodie — he owns a small piece of a team that actually has a recent championship and is contending for another — and sits on his couch to trash teammates for the ears of a broadcast audience. He made a point of telling McAfee that he graded out well, of course, in last Sunday’s loss to the feeble Washington Commanders. Certain teammates, he said, are the ones who suck and deserve to be benched. Rodgers sucks more for saying so over a live mic. Has he also alienated his teammates now? Add them to the Aaron Antipathy Association?
“Guys who are making too many mistakes shouldn’t be playing. Gotta start cutting some reps. And maybe guys who aren’t playing, give them a chance,” Rodgers told McAfee. “We can’t have the same double-digit, 15-plus mental errors (per game) and expect to move the ball efficiently.”
Voiced behind closed doors, the criticism is valuable and welcome. He doesn’t understand that sharing such disparagement with the masses only undercuts his message, a counterproductive form of poison. Among those slamming Rodgers were two former teammates. Said Greg Jennings: “You can’t do this. You can’t sit down on a show and start talking about who should and shouldn’t be playing because of mental errors.” Tweeted T.J. Lang: “I don’t think saying that publicly will help your young players gain any confidence.”
Rather than issue an apology, which might help team unity entering an unwinnable gauntlet Sunday night in Buffalo, Rodgers doubled down a day later. “I don’t think it should be a problem to any of those guys to hear criticism,” he said. “We all hear criticism in our own ways, and we’ve all got to be OK with it and take it in, process it, and if it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t fit. But if it fits, we’ve got to wear it and improve on those certain things. I said it. I’m not going to be a robot. I don’t understand why people have a problem with things that are truthful. I’m calling things the way I see it. People who don’t think I need to air that stuff out, that’s their opinion. But I’m doing what I think is in the best interest of our guys.”
He wasn’t finished as he stood by his locker, within earshot of many teammates and coaches. He challenged them to visit him if they have a problem with him. “I've tried a lot of different things from a leadership standpoint this year, and I was just relating my personal feelings on the situation,” Rodgers said. “I didn't call anybody out by name. I think we all need to be on the details, and that includes me.”
Well, that’s good. Mister Me finally got around to himself. If his approach sounds like he’s usurping the duties of the head coach, Matt LaFleur, well, Rodgers has tried to coach this team for years, since the tenure of Mike McCarthy, who is faring better in Dallas, by the way, than Rodgers is in sub-.500 hell. The Cowboys might do postseason damage in the wide-open NFC. The Packers wasted midweek time wondering if they should have a come-to-Jesus talk. “I’m right here, and I'd love to have a conversation," Rodgers said. "I enjoy those conversations. I enjoy any type of conflict like that because I know the resolution on the other side is going to make us a better unit, a better friendship, a better cohesion on the field. But nobody has come to me and said, ‘I’ve got a problem with what you said.' I think everybody knows, Matt included, that everything's got to take a little uptick, get a little better.”
LaFleur, five years into the gig, is noticeably feeling pressure. He has yet to reach a Super Bowl as one of the original branches of the Sean McVay coaching tree, while another branch, Minnesota’s Kevin O’Connell, is 5-1 and well ahead of Green Bay atop the NFC Central. For now, LaFleur has no choice but to agree with Rodgers. What, he’s going to engage Rodgers in a power struggle and make a bad situation worse?
“We have to be truthful with one another," LaFleur said. “Sometimes the truth hurts. ... I don't think he publicly called out individuals, I don't believe. I didn't sit there and listen to the whole thing, so I just think that you have to get to the root of the truth.”
Every so often, Rodgers takes playful shots at LaFleur. If the season goes sideways — and it will if the Packers are blown out as expected as massive underdogs against the Bills, the league’s premier team — you wonder if Rodgers will start pointing his long finger at the coach. He obviously thinks LaFleur has flaws this season as a motivator and talent groomer, or he wouldn’t be invoking the demanding voice of the original Lambeau Field sideline tyrant, Vince Lombardi.
“You can be a dangerous team when you feel like you have a lot to prove, and when you're kind of counted out," Rodgers said. "So I welcome us being counted out as much as possible. I've always enjoyed that feeling. And for these guys who have a lot to prove, hopefully they embrace that as well. It's time to make a name for yourself in this league, and a lot of guys are going to get opportunities on Sunday. On national TV, with millions and millions of people watching — a great time for some of those guys to step into the limelight.”
Or, if the Packers fail to acquire a vertical threat before Tuesday’s trade deadline, he’ll turn to his usual fault puppies in the front office. He spent two years hammering general manager Brian Gutekunst, and while they’ve supposedly called a truce, Rodgers has been demanding help. Jerry Jeudy is out there. Brandin Cooks is available, at a $18 million guaranteed price next year. Kadarius Toney no longer is available, after the Chiefs shipped two 2023 draft picks to the Giants. Patrick Mahomes is a happy guy today. Aaron Rodgers continues to bang and blame after chasing away his guy, Davante Adams.
For the first time in his 18 NFL seasons, Rodgers enters a game as a projected double-digit loser. In four previous games as an underdog of a touchdown or more, he is 0-4. This is new and difficult territory for the diva, much less Packers fans who’ve gone hysterical, and the unusual anxiety prompted him to fire away on McAfee’s platform.
All of which is eroding his legacy. At this rate, he is finished winning Super Bowls, leaving him with one championship way back in 2011. If that isn’t an indictment of his leadership deficiencies, what is? Brady’s methods, at times involving sideline tantrums but never calls to replace teammates, have led to seven championships. Joe Montana was a leader. Peyton Manning was a leader. John Elway was a leader.
Today, as pro football and the quarterbacking position evolve, Mahomes is a leader. Jackson is a leader who bet on himself and is forcing the Ravens to meet his financial demands, as shown by the “Ravens, Pay ‘Em Now” sign he accepted from a fan and waved in the Raymond James Stadium tunnel. Josh Allen, who faces Rodgers this weekend, is a leader who might succeed Rodgers as MVP. All are in their mid-20s, at the edge of Generation Z, which doesn’t respond well to public rants from middle-aged men.
They have supplanted the old guard. They are showmen, and spectacular as they are, it hasn’t been pretty for the fading fixtures. Russell Wilson (and his $245 million contract) is nothing but skunk spray in Denver, especially when compared to Geno Smith, the renaissance journeyman who replaced him in Seattle. Matt Ryan was benched, for good, in Indianapolis.
Aaron Rodgers is still headed to Canton. He’ll wear his one Super Bowl ring, if he so chooses, on his next Peru trip. But if he expects to enter the most exclusive level of the all-time pantheon, he’ll be rejected.
A great quarterback must lead his team. To the bitter end, against all human logic, Tom Brady will continue to do just that. “You’re challenged mentally, physically and emotionally, that’s what sports are about — that’s what life’s about and how you overcome it,” Brady said on his podcast. “Do you place blame or how do you accept responsibility?”
“Nobody's pointing the finger at Tom Brady," said receiver Mike Evans, per ESPN. “It's a whole team. A team game. The ultimate team game. It's not just one player. It never has been. … He's the best to ever do it. I mean, he hates losing. That's all he knows is winning and being 3-5 is not good enough, so we've gotta turn it around and soon.”
It doesn’t mean we have to watch. Prayer suffices.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question 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.