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|The next step for Aaron Rodgers will be rising to the level of a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning.|
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn't earn his place as the NFL's Dream Player of Tomorrow with his team's Super Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in February. He merely cemented it. For all the greatness Rodgers displayed that night in Texas, he had been making his name long before he hoisted the Lombardi trophy. He had the numbers, the Pro Bowl appearance and, above all else, the right set of circumstances.
To understand why Rodgers is the best choice for this honor, all you have to do is look at the people around him. His coach (Mike McCarthy) knows how to maximize his talent. His general manager (Ted Thompson) has a keen eye for talent. He also has a receiving corps so loaded that the backups could start for most teams, and a running game keyed by back Ryan Grant and an improving offensive line. Throw in a strong defense, and it's apparent that Rodgers, 27, will have multiple chances to win another Super Bowl.
It's those factors that separate him from the other rising stars in the league. New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez has a great supporting cast, but he doesn't have Rodgers' accomplishments. Atlanta Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan hasn't won a playoff game, and two other young, gifted signal-callers -- Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman and St. Louis' Sam Bradford -- have yet to play in one. And let's not talk about players at other positions who could be up for this award. Running backs can get injured too easily, receivers get too much credit, offensive linemen don't stand out the way they used to and defenders are too hamstrung by rules that favor the offense.
Besides, Rodgers is pretty darn good at his job. All he's done since becoming a starter in 2008 is prove why Thompson and McCarthy had so much faith in him in the first place. Rodgers threw 28 touchdown passes and only 13 interceptions in his first season under center, a year when everybody was debating about how the Packers would survive without Brett Favre. Rodgers came back even stronger in his second season, earning a Pro Bowl appearance on the strength of career bests in yards (4,434), touchdowns (30) and interceptions (seven).
In fact, it's hard to comprehend how Rodgers didn't earn his second Pro Bowl appearance last season, because his numbers once again compared with the league's best (a 65.7 completion percentage, 28 touchdowns, 11 interceptions). Not that these slights bothered him. All Rodgers did this past postseason was take his game to unexpected levels. In the process, he helped elevate a Packers team that few people believed in after Green Bay entered the NFC playoffs as the sixth seed.
Despite losing 15 players to injured reserve by season's end, the Packers stormed through Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago before defeating Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl. Rodgers played a big hand in each of those wins, and dominated both the Falcons and the Steelers. He was so impressive against Atlanta (31-for-36 passing, 366 yards and three touchdowns) that it was hard to see the Packers losing another game in the postseason. As long as Rodgers remained under center, they had an aura about them that all champions eventually achieve.
An obvious benefit that Rodgers gained in that Super Bowl victory was a new stature among Packers fans. Even the most die-hard supporters of Favre had to admit that a new era finally had dawned in Green Bay. Favre had three Most Valuable Player awards, one Super Bowl victory and a slew of NFL career passing records to his credit when he left town. It would never be enough for Rodgers to be a quarterback who delivered big numbers. He also had to be the guy who could bring Lombardi back to Titletown.
Now that Rodgers has become that player, the next step for him is maintaining his place among the league's elite. He'll have to do what Tom Brady has done in New England and Peyton Manning has done in Indianapolis, which is to be the foundation of a franchise that expects to contend for championships every season. Rodgers also will have to do that without anybody underestimating his ability any longer. The days when people would say what he couldn't do -- as opposed to what Favre could do -- have long since passed.
If I had to guess, I'd say Rodgers is eager to face this next challenge. He didn't get to this point by wondering whether he could succeed Favre or live up to the expectations that came with being a first-round pick. He did it with an impressive mix of mental toughness, physical ability and an unwavering belief in himself. As it so happens, those are the very qualities that will make him the NFL player we'll be talking most about over the next five years.
Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.