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RETIREMENT? THE TIME LOOKS RIGHT FOR BRADY AND RODGERS
After Mahomes and Allen dueled for the ages, pushing boundaries no longer makes sense for Brady, whose G.O.A.T. legacy is intact while Rodgers will find difficulty winning glory with a new team
If he listened closely, through the swirling snowflakes and gathering gloom at frostbitten Lambeau Field, Aaron Rodgers might have heard a voice from a higher power: “I still own you!’’
The quarterback with the God complex has been foiled by life itself, again losing his last game of a season when, this time, he was supposed to finally win it. And if he chooses to retire, which he lists as an option, I speak for many Americans — certainly, the fully vaccinated and boostered sectors — who won’t be shedding tears while actually viewing it as a sagacious choice. If he remains with the Packers, now less likely than a row of palm trees appearing on Lombardi Avenue, or ventures off to Denver or Las Vegas or Pittsburgh for a new opportunity, he should know his best chances to win another Super Bowl are behind him, and that only more schadenfreude and torture await him.
And if Tom Brady ached from the gray matter caving in his brain and noticed the blood on his lip — tormented by Aaron Donald and a Rams defense that might allow Los Angeles to host its jittery team in a Super Bowl — he might have heard a voice of reason Sunday: Why are you still doing this, old man, when you’re regarded universally as The Greatest Quarterback Of All Time, own seven championship rings and have nothing more to do in football except, oh, break limbs and suffer more blows to the head? Why be teased by a comedy of Rams turnovers, bring back the undermanned Buccaneers to the edge of overtime, only to see Matthew Stafford loosen the choke noose and find Cooper Kupp, who might be the NFL’s real Most Valuable Player?
Outweighing all of that, while Brady and Rodgers watched at home as eliminated postseason losers, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen showed in an all-time, chills-atop-thrills duel why they are the new gold standards for quarterbacking. Tom Brady? Aaron Rodgers? Who? Make way for the post-video-game age, led by two audacious showmen with cannon arms who produced a combined 25 points in the final 1:54 of regulation, just before Mahomes reclaimed the role of AFC favorite for the Kansas City Chiefs with a blurry touchdown drive in overtime.
“One heck of a game. Josh played his ass off, pardon my language,’’ Mahomes said after the 42-36 victory over the Buffalo Bills. “We’re going to be playing a lot of games like that against those guys. … To be in this moment in this game against that team, to make a play to walk off a game at Arrowhead, I'll remember this game for the rest of my life.”
“One of the great divisional (round) games of all time,’’ Jim Nantz said on CBS.
“The most perfect quarterback play to finish a game, maybe ever,’’ said his partner, a hyperventilating Tony Romo.
All of which gave two legacy QBs — combined age: 82 — even more to think about. Namely, two revolutionary QBs who have changed the game — combined age: 51.
Why would Brady subject himself to more frustration, though he continues to play at a high level, at 45? How many more adrenaline rushes, commercials, documentaries, and scoring passes does he need? Why miss more family time with Gisele and the kids? Why deal with more ungrateful saboteurs such as Antonio Brown, more injuries to offensive linemen and key weapons? Everything that fell into place in Tampa Bay last season isn’t magically returning next season. Much as Brady views “winning a Super Bowl’’ as the perfect ending, he had his chance to exit on top in February and didn’t do it. If he truly is considering retirement, as he and his friends are floating to media outlets, this is the best time — while he still has his mental and physical health and his kids still don’t confuse him for the gardener.
Assuming he hasn’t decided already, Brady clearly is deliberating. The Bucs, who haven’t developed a possible successor, want to know if he’s coming back for a 23rd season. Originally, he said he wanted to play until 45. That day arrives Aug. 3. Last week, he told the NFL Network’s Willie McGinest, his former New England teammate: “"I felt like then that was a great goal to set and I still have that goal of wanting to get to 45. We'll see how it goes. I think I'm pretty much in (uncharted) territory." His head coach, Bruce Arians, said he’ll be “shocked’’ if Brady doesn’t return because of his passion during practices.
But during NBC’s game telecast, Al Michaels spoke of an interview days earlier, when Brady said of retirement, “I think I’ll know when I know. But there’s a lot that’s inconclusive.’’
After the 30-27 loss, Brady hardly shut down the conjecture. “I haven’t put a lot of thought into it. So, we’ll just take it day by day and see where we’re at,” he said. “Truthfully, guys, I’m thinking about this game and not thinking about anything past five minutes from now. … It all sucks to lose in the end.”
As the NFL’s most decorated champion, he sounded pained about the prospect of a Tampa Bay rebuild. “It’s always the reality of football,’’ he said. “It’s one team one year, and it’s never the same after that. You’ve got to work hard to put yourself in position to be successful.’’
He has done that 22 years. Can he muster the energy for a 23rd?
Why? Wisely, he is asking himself the hard question.
Welcome to a fascinating interval in time. Two of sport’s foremost figures of their era are weighing the end in the same offseason, after devastating playoff losses that finally may have drained their seemingly impregnable spirit. I can make a case why both should keep playing. Maybe both will do just that. But the less taxing argument is why both should retire.
Once as admired as anyone in the NFL, Rodgers shrunk into a holier-than-thou, smart-ass-smirking, smack-talking, social-media-one-upping, attention-addicted, Joe Rogan-worshipping megalomaniac. But when any sports superstar ventures down Pompous Place, he’d better back up his rap by, in his case, winning a championship. Rodgers and the Packers fell in the playoffs yet again, failing to win the NFC for the 11th straight time since his only league title in 2011. The world is a better place when we aren’t consumed by daily doses of Rodgers news — on Twitter, on Pat McAfee’s show, in news conferences where he doesn’t wear a mask. It’s an even better place without the chance of Rodgers, still defiantly unvaccinated after telling his “immunized’’ lie in midseason, testing positive early next month and sabotaging the Big Game.
You might say he has been immunized from Super Bowl LVI, thanks to a San Francisco defense that ignored a sub-zero wind chill, sacked him five times, limited him to a career playoff-worst 19.3 QB rating and held him without a touchdown pass in a postseason game for the first time since 2010. His limp performance — amid devastating special teams breakdowns that gifted the 49ers a memorable 13-10 victory in the NFC divisional round — came as a shock to those who assumed Rodgers was title-bound. But he also must know, as a uniquely polarizing figure who was ordered by President Biden to “get the vaccine,’’ that millions of people — pro-vaxxers and sports fans alike — are very much enjoying his demise. Did he really have to spend valuable time, two days before the elimination defeat, slamming Biden’s ‘’fake White House’’ during a 28-minute ESPN phone interview? And he wonders why so many Americans root against him. Much of the post-loss mockery is in Chicago, the city he has tormented throughout his career, which he noted when he screamed at Bears fans this season: “I own you. All my f—ing life, I own you. I still own you.’’
Now, karma owns Aaron Rodgers.
“That’s life sometimes,” he said, contemplating a vague future during a 17-minute media gathering. “You think things are going a certain way — and they take a big course correction and you just have to keep moving on and moving forward, even when you don’t think it is possible.”
With those words, a new Rodgers drama begins: Does he leave the Packers or flee to a new team, using Brady’s blueprint? It’s unlikely he’d stay in Green Bay after a tumultuous 2021, when he ripped the team’s front office and all but issued a championship-or-leave edict, then enjoyed an MVP-type season that he described before Saturday night’s crusher as “the most fun I’ve ever had.’’ After the loss, he sure sounded like a man leaving Cheeseland in his rear view.
“I’m still super competitive, still know I can play at a high level, so it's going to be a tough decision," he said. “I have a lot of things to weigh in the coming weeks. But man, just so much gratitude for this city and this organization and such a long, long career here that I'm proud of and really thankful for all the men and women that work here, the men I've gotten to cross paths with, coaches and players over the years.”
Pointedly, Rodgers said, “I don’t want to be part of a rebuild if I’m going to keep playing.’’ Meaning, the Packers’ braintrust must decide if they’re still chasing championships — which would require a contract extension for Rodgers and a lucrative deal for his favorite receiver, free agent Davante Adams — but a rebuild might be the only option because projections have them $44.8 million over the 2022 salary cap. In other words, the odds are high he’ll be traded. Unlike Brady, who waited until free agency to leave New England, Rodgers is not a free agent and would have to agree with the Packers on his next destination. Which is why a trade to an AFC team is far more plausible than shipping him to an NFC competitor such as New Orleans.
"I didn't think we'd be talking about this after this game," Rodgers said. "I'm going to take some time and have conversations with folks around here, and then take some time away and make a decision —obviously, before free agency or anything gets going on that front. It's fresh right now. A little shocking for sure. I was hoping to have a nice weekend for the NFC Championship, to enjoy the lead-up and then start contemplating some things, so I haven't even let the moment really sink in yet."
For now, the Packers are employing necessary public relations. They don’t want to be perceived as the bad guys by a fan base wounded in 2008, when Brett Favre was traded to the New York Jets after a bitter Green Bay divorce and later played for the arch-rival Minnesota Vikings. “Certainly we want him back here," said Packers coach Matt LaFleur, who hasn’t advanced as the conference’s top seed the last two seasons. "I think we'd be crazy not to want him back here. He's going to be the two-time MVP. This guy does so much for our football team, not only what you guys see on Sundays or every game day, but what he does in that locker room, how he leads. I know what he puts into this thing, and certainly I'm extremely disappointed in that we couldn't get over the hump for not only him."
Even with a trade, there’s no guarantee Rodgers comes close to a Super Bowl. The AFC will be controlled by Mahomes, Allen, Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert for the foreseeable future, and Rodgers turns 39 next season. That’s why retirement not only is a possibility but, in reality, his smartest play. As a self-styled renaissance man, he acknowledges a new life is possible. Might a “Jeopardy!’’ hosting gig still be on the table, as the show still isn’t committed to Ken Jennings and Mayim Bialik beyond 2022? He says he has little interest in a traditional network analyst job, but his appearances with McAfee and Rogan might inspire a talk career with a political bent. Maybe then he can spar with Bears legend Dick Butkus, who, upon finally winning his quest to be blue-check-verified on Twitter, immediately went after Rodgers. "Now that I have the blue mark I can kick people off of the platform right," Butkus wrote. "You hear me @AaronRodgers12."
Getting him kicked out of the Super Bowl tournament is even better. A famous Chicago drunk-food place, The Wieners Circle, is celebrating the loss by giving away all-you-can-eat fries with Wisconsin cheddar while pointing out, “Aaron Rodgers hasn’t won the Super Bowl since Obama’s first term.’’ Does he want more mockery in 2022, 2023 and beyond?
Brady could not have been smarter in waiting out his freedom, scoping the best options and finding the perfect ready-to-conquer team in Tampa. No doubt Rodgers is frustrated that he can’t do the same — and that, while having repeated postseason chances, he has won five fewer Super Bowls with the Packers than Brady won with the Patriots. It’s also incorrect to compare him in any way to Michael Jordan, as Rodgers did before the season, when he and Adams posted Instagram messages referring to “The Last Dance’’ of the 1998 Bulls as possibly the end of their time in Green Bay. Jordan won six NBA titles in Chicago, five more than Rodgers in the small town where he has toiled since 2005.
The pill couldn’t be more bitter. For possibly the last time in green and gold, he walked off the field in numb silence, eyes drooping, face looking every day of his 38 years, noticeable gray in his beard stubble. Never has the frozen tundra looked colder. It’s a snapshot for sports history.
“Sad,’’ Rodgers said.
For him, yes. For Wisconsin, yes.
For America — still in a pandemic that has killed almost 870,000 and infected 71 million — not so much.
Tom Brady carries no such angst. His legacy is written. He has nothing more to accomplish. Life awaits, with his TB12 Method brand and his production company and his NFT and cryptocurrency pursuits. A good guess: He won’t be hosting a game show, but maybe he’d appear as a guest contestant on “Jeopardy!’’
“These two legendary quarterbacks got out when the going was good,’’ Rodgers will say, “and went on to live happily ever while Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen dominated the 2020s.’’
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.