SANTA CLARA, Calif. — By the time Aaron Rodgers had taken his first snap of the second half, the Packers were trailing by 27 points. Their defense had been gutted by the best rushing performance in a single half of football since 1964. Most major casinos had already posted Super Bowl betting odds featuring Green Bay’s opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, in order to capitalize on the trigger finger of gamblers too bored to endure the blowout.
On that first play of the third quarter, Rodgers faked a handoff and, immediately sensing the pressure of three surging 49ers defenders, back-footed a comeback route to Davante Adams a few yards ahead of the first down marker. It somehow created almost three yards of space where none had existed previously, over the heads of the best pass rush in football. It was close to perfect.
It’s funny how the muscle memory hotwired to a beautiful mind can function despite turbulence or, in this case, some combination of indifference, anger and bewilderment that had to be creeping into anyone wearing green and yellow. The Packers showed up with a defensive game plan more fantastical and reality-distant than some of the Silicon Valley startup pitches taking place a few miles down the road. San Francisco’s quarterback went more than an hour and a half between passes with no recourse. The completion seemed to do nothing for Rodgers’ expression, which remained flat as he chugged across midfield to try and make the most of a bad situation.
He would later admit that sure, losing to the 49ers in the NFC Championship game is harder to swallow when you’re 36. For years, the three-headed quarterback class of 2004—and all those still hanging around who entered the league prior—provided cover for the idea that Rodgers would ever get older. That kind of talk was for Brady and Brees, Manning and Rivers. Rodgers would be in Green Bay forever, just like his predecessor, rambling around in the backfield, evading defensive ends, hurling darts into an open target the size of a wormhole, miles downfield.
But on a chilly Sunday night in northern California, that throw, and all the nearly perfect throws that came before and after, took on a different meaning. They were almost in a vacuum; separate moments that had no bearing on the final score (37-20). If turning 36 is the realization that there are more attempts at another Super Bowl behind you than ahead of you, how does a game like Sunday’s color the shots you have left?
When there is that much of a difference between your team and the team that ended your season, how do you interpret the final chapters of a career that will require so much more than an arsenal of perfect passes in order for the best quarterback in his era to get back to the title game?
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“It’s a little raw right now for sure,” Rodgers said. “It definitely hurts a little more than earlier in the career just because you realize how difficult it is to get to this spot.”
Rodgers jogged off the field and past a line of five 49ers fans hanging over the stadium railing on Sunday just as some thin bits of silvery confetti began to shoot from the stands. The first notes of “Don’t Stop Believin’” were playing over the loudspeaker and the crowed began to chant “Su-Per BOWL! Su-Per BOWL!” A party was unfolding on the field, in the locker room, and behind every closed door a 49ers coach could find a moment to break character and scream at the top of their lungs.
The Packers’ locker room was understandably bleaker. Lockers already stripped of most personal belongings, bundled away for the haul back to Wisconsin. But Rodgers, along with a few of the most veteran members of the team, did their best to couch this as another beginning.
Right tackle Bryan Bulaga said, “We developed a way to find out what guys are good at and put them in a position to succeed.”
Devante Adams said, “I wouldn’t change anything about what we have going here other than winning the game. We have all of the pieces in here. We’ve got the players, we’ve got the coaching, we’ve got the right attitude.”
And then there was Rodgers. So many times before, on big stages like this, he could use the pulpit and a string of carefully chosen words to torch the niceties typically associated with the moment. He would let the coaches and the organization know that this was rudderless. That he needed help.
He didn’t do that on Sunday. He said that the 2019 Packers made football enjoyable for him again. He said that, while the gap between them and the 49ers looked “big” it wasn’t, really. He lauded the efforts of general manager Brian Gutekunst and first-year head coach Matt LaFleur. He singled out some of the free agent acquisitions that, a few years ago, may have never made it in the door.
Rodgers, a man smart enough to see that he is running out of time, used the moment to sell the vision of those in charge. When you know there may be a finite number of those perfect throws left, that is no small gesture.
“The one thing that’s constant in this game is change and I know there will be some changes this offseason,” he said. “The exciting thing is that I have a lot of faith and trust in Brian and his staff. I think Matt LaFleur deserves a lot of credit for the way that we performed. He set the vision every week.”
He added: “The window is open for us. That’s the exciting thing. It doesn’t make this feel any easier, but that is very exciting moving forward.”
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