When Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady squared off for the first—and, until Sunday, only—time on November 30, 2014, the two dueled down to the wire in an illustrious display of quarterbacking proficiency. Brady, on his final snap, was sacked by Mike Neal and Mike Daniels, forcing the Patriots to try a field goal that would leave them down 26-24 with 2:40 remaining (Stephen Gostkowski missed, leaving the score at 26-21). Just before the two-minute warning, with Green Bay facing third-and-4, Rodgers hung in a perfect pocket and hit Randall Cobb for a win-sealing seven-yard gain. Brady, denied the opportunity to lead a last second comeback drive, screamed an F-bomb and took a seat on the bench, where he fumed (almost literally—it was cold and every few seconds you saw a furious cloud of breath escape his nose).
NFL regular season scheduling rules dictate that the Patriots and Packers to play once every four years. Most viewers of that tremendous 2014 showdown would have guessed that the next battle between these teams would have involved the league’s best quarterback—few would have guessed that quarterback would still be Brady.
It’s not just that Tom Brady has mastered so many of football’s intellectual details and subtleties. It’s that, physically, at age 41, he might be better now than he was in his mid-30s.
During the 2017 season, which netted Brady’s third MVP award, he made myriad critical downfield throws, often with the pocket closing and a big hit looming. This season New England’s improved O-line and a return to more quick-strike passes has alleviated the need for Brady to make these tough plays, but when the situation calls for it he still delivers.
Brady’s often-overlooked downfield throwing ability stems from two traits that drive his greatness but are rarely talked about: pocket mobility and sheer arm talent. Some of his teammates might have parents who can beat Brady in a foot race, but NFL quarterbacking takes place predominantly from the pocket, and here Brady’s footwork, spatial awareness and poise are unmatched. His 6' 4" frame and meticulously refined overhead release help. Even at his advanced age, as a pure thrower few top Brady’s accuracy and velocity.
One of those few, of course, is Aaron Rodgers, quite possibly the most talented passer in NFL history—or perhaps the most talented quarterback period, when you take his mobility into account. While Brady is a living, breathing tutorial on the mechanics of passing, Rodgers is the QB whom high school coaches and passing instructors don’t want their young players to see. A tight release and strong right wrist allow him to flick the ball from awkward release points and angles, even though his feet—a key driver of accuracy—are often all over the place.
Rodgers directs Green Bay’s offense with a similar looseness. While Brady has had a litany of different systems in New England, each executed more brilliantly than the last, Rodgers has had just one, Mike McCarthy’s. And yet Rodgers, now in his 11th year starting, still doesn’t always conduct it on schedule. If Brady were a painter, he would be the realist Gustave Courbet. Rodgers would be the abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock.
Of course, many art critics prefer Pollock to Courbet—especially if Pollock, if so inclined, could also paint portraits as well as Courbet. This is where Rodgers is so fascinating. Unlike Brady, who to some extent is reliant on the success of the play design, Rodgers can make something out of nothing. But what about when Rodgers makes nothing out of something? Almost every week, there are times when Green Bay’s design yields an open receiver but Rodgers doesn’t attempt the throw. Even more perplexing is when he makes something else out of something. Often the play will work, but he’ll ignore the open receiver and break things down, only to later find a receiver (sometimes even that same one) for a bigger play. When Rodgers’s unstructured approach goes well—which is more often than not—the Packers are impossible to defend. But when it doesn’t go well, they become wildly inconsistent.
The choice between Brady and Rodgers comes down to one’s preference for quarterbacking style. Rodgers is certainly more enthralling, but, in the big picture, less effective. In the 11 years since he became the starter the Packers have reached three NFC title games and one Super Bowl, in 2010, when they beat the Steelers. Despite often having worse pass protection and less talented receivers, Brady, in that span, has taken the Patriots to nine AFC title games and five Super Bowls, winning two. And in his first 11 seasons as a starter (2001 to ’11), New England was 5–1 in conference championship games and 3–2 in Super Bowls.
Comparing quarterbacks is never apples to apples; coaching, defense and a thousand other factors help determine playoff outcomes. And each quarterback has already cemented his place as uniquely, historically great. But Brady’s success over 17 years—despite a revolving door of supporting players and ever-changing system—was once considered unthinkable. As barroom debates go, when it comes to Brady versus Rodgers, there really isn’t one.
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This is worth keeping an eye on. The only Colts offensive lineman who wasn’t drafted somewhere between picks Nos. 6 and 37 is right guard Mark Glowinski, who has been stellar if not spectacular the last two weeks. The Colts have a lot of raw talent and athleticism up front.
WHAT TO WORRY ABOUT IN CINCINNATI
The Bengals have already won more games than I forecasted in SI’s preseason predictions, so maybe I need to tread lightly when criticizing this team. But every time you watch their film, their four-man pass rush leaves you wanting. It’s a talented four-man rush, led by perhaps the game’s second-best 3-technique, Geno Atkins (who is stronger but not quite as quick as football’s top 3-technique, Aaron Donald). But this pass rush doesn’t play up to its ability on a snap-to-snap basis. End Carlos Dunlap is the most befuddling. He’s long and athletic, but if he’s not making a splash play he’s often irrelevant. I once asked a Bengals assistant coach why Dunlap was so inconsistent. I expected the coach say something along the lines of, “Well, actually, he’s not inconsistent because he does this tiny thing well and he gets this sort of extra attention from offensive lines, etc.” But instead the coach just stared and said, “I wish I knew.”
DEMARYIUS TO TEXANS
This trade was a good move for both Houston and Denver, but understand that Demaryius Thomas is almost certainly a one-year rental for the Texans. According to Spotrac, his cap number next season is $17.514 million, and that contract can be dumped with no dead money. This is a classic win-now move by Houston.
NON-FOOTBALL THING ON MY MIND
I’ve written this somewhere before but it’s worth revisiting: If Thanksgiving can be on the fourth Thursday of November, Halloween should be on the last Saturday of October. Yes, October 31 is All Hallows’ Eve, which begins the three-day observance of Allhallowtide, where people remember and honor the dead. But the commercialization of Halloween has overshadowed that for most Americans, and certainly for all trick-or-treating kids. By moving our commercialized Halloween to Saturday, we not only ensure that trick-or-treating and partying happen on a weekend, we also re-open October 31 as a chance for those who so wish to celebrate All Hallows Eve in a more reverent sense. This is too much of a win-win to ignore.
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