Monday, January 24, 2011 Updated: January 26, 9:42 AM ET
Aaron Rodgers leaves questions in dust
By Jeffri Chadiha ESPN.com
CHICAGO -- It's too bad Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson is a man of few words.
Aaron Rodgers (left) and backup QB Matt Flynn celebrated the NFC-title-clinching win in Chicago.
If he had a little more Rex Ryan in him, he'd be reminding us of something that should be obvious by now: He made the right call when he turned his team over to quarterback Aaron Rodgers three years ago.
At the time, it was a move that sparked contempt from countless Packers fans who couldn't imagine life without Brett Favre. Now we understand fully what made Thompson so confident in the first place.
The Packers are returning to their first Super Bowl since the 1997 season largely because their quarterback has replaced a legend in record time. Rodgers did not produce stellar numbers in Green Bay's 21-14 NFC Championship Game win Sunday over the Chicago Bears: He was 17-for-30 for 244 yards passing and two interceptions, and he ran for one touchdown. But he made the Packers better merely by his presence in their huddle. Rodgers actually has been so impressive this postseason that even a loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV on Feb. 6 should not taint the perception of him. At the rate the six-year veteran is maturing, the Packers will be championship contenders for many seasons to come.
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Rodgers, 27, just has that look about him these days, that aura that comes from knowing he can overcome anything. He's still the guy who starkly remembers college recruiters ignoring him out of high school in Chico, Calif. Even after he eventually achieved stardom at Cal, 23 NFL teams overlooked him in the first round of the 2005 draft. Then there were so many people questioning whether he really could handle Favre's old job.
"The journey is the sweetest part for me," Rodgers said after beating the Bears at Soldier Field. "I've really enjoyed the road that I've been forced to take in my career going all the way back to high school [in Chico, Calif.]. Just being on that journey and having to work for the success I've achieved -- and never being complacent -- has made it that much more satisfying."
Rodgers first proved his mental toughness by staying quiet and confident while the drama between Favre and Thompson unfolded in the summer of 2008. He then displayed his talent by throwing for 8,472 yards and 58 touchdowns in his first two years as Green Bay's starter. Rodgers also has performed well enough this year (3,922 yards, 28 touchdowns and 11 interceptions) to earn what should have been his second consecutive Pro Bowl nomination. What made those numbers all the more impressive is that they came at a time when Favre's own career was self-destructing.
When we look back at the deal that sent Favre out of Green Bay, all we'll remember is that he had one magical season in Minnesota after his departure. Aside from that, he's leaving the game as a beaten-up, broken-down surefire Hall of Famer coming off his worst statistical season and with Jenn Sterger's footprints clearly visible on his backside.
Meanwhile, Rodgers' career has been trending in the right direction from day one. His success is emblematic of a philosophy Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh always championed: It's better to dump a great player a year early than a year too late.
Rodgers' performance this season has been all the more critical because he often has carried a Packers offense that lost running back Ryan Grant to a season-ending ankle injury in Week 1.
"As we all know, the talk is that we can't run the ball so we've had to rely on our quarterback," said Packers cornerback Charles Woodson. "But he's as good as they come. He can do it with his arm and with his legs, and he's done it all season."
Even when Rodgers wasn't at his sharpest passing, he beat the Bears with his feet.
Added Bears middle linebacker Brian Urlacher: "He's a great quarterback, there's no doubt about that. He knows where to go with the football."
Although Rodgers did throw two costly interceptions against the Bears, he did enough to help his team claim the NFC title. His seven-play, 84-yard, game-opening drive set the tone for the day and culminated in his 1-yard touchdown run. His tackle of Urlacher early in the third quarter -- after Rodgers had tossed a pick deep in Chicago territory -- prevented the Bears from scoring a game-changing touchdown. These weren't the kind of stellar plays that Rodgers had made in a 48-21 divisional playoff win over the Atlanta Falcons, but they mattered in the final outcome.
Rodgers later downplayed the Urlacher tackle -- he focused more on the fact that he never should've have committed the turnover in the first place -- but that humility is what has made him popular in his locker room. He's never been caught up in the idea of letting people know how good he is.
What matters more is that he's accepted as one of the guys. Even when people asked him about his first chance at winning a championship, he often swung the conversation around to older teammates such as Chad Clifton and Donald Driver, players who might not get many more shots at a title.
Rodgers also took great pride in what this Packers team has become throughout the season. Green Bay has overcome injuries and losses that could've crippled its playoff hopes, and it has accomplished all that with many unfamiliar faces.
Said Rodgers: "If you look at our roster right now, the 45 guys that dressed today, I would say that a number of them were either not with us at the beginning of the season, or were not counted on to play a big role. To have guys like that step up says a lot about our character."
Of course, Rodgers also has helped those young guys grow. He's become the kind of quarterback who can inspire a team just by his presence. That's what made Favre so special. When he stepped on the field during all those years in Green Bay, the people around him always sensed they had a chance to win regardless of the circumstances.
You could see that confidence in the way Rodgers performed in a wild-card win over the Philadelphia Eagles. It was there when he riddled the Falcons in the divisional round in Atlanta. Rodgers isn't just a player who can put up numbers comparable to his predecessor. He also can carry his team to the kind of heights that separate all other signal-callers from the pack.
That probably explains why Thompson never wavered from his belief that it was worth trading Favre to the Jets and going with his designated quarterback of the future three seasons ago. As Thompson said after Sunday's game, "I'm very proud of Aaron because he's played well and he's prepared well. He has a lot of God-given talent."
Rodgers also has something else that means plenty as Green Bay prepares to meet Pittsburgh for the Vince Lombardi Trophy -- a chance to put even more distance between himself and the legend who supposedly was impossible to replace.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.