NFL's best? Rodgers can take big step - NBC Sports

NFL's best? Rodgers can take big step
Everyone's talking about how great Packers quarterback is,but he still needs to clear a major hurdle in Chicago on Sunday
January 20, 2011, 4:01 pm

They occurred in 2004 at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Rodgers was still attired in Cal gear. It was first and goal at the 9 in the game's final seconds. USC was ranked No. 1, Cal No. 7, and Rodgers was on the precipice of making history. Instead, the result of that drive: one sack, three misses, no points, no victory.

That seems like the last time Aaron Rodgers failed.

That's not true, of course. But in terms of mass perception, there have been three phases of Rodgers' career: 1) college star, 2) Brett Favre understudy, 3) field surgeon of the moment.

This Sunday, we'll find out if we're on the verge of a fourth: best quarterback in football.

Whenever we make these pronouncements, they're always based on screwy hyperbole, because really, until a guy does it, he hasn't done it. And any suggestion that he can do it, or will do it, is just crystal ball gazing with a little tarot card reading thrown in.

Yet Rodgers is currently inspiring such chatter because, when it comes to your ideal quarterback tale o' the tape, Rodgers has almost everything except three more inches of tallness.

Peyton Manning is masterful at this. So are Tom Brady and Drew Brees.

And Rodgers - in a relatively short period of time; remember, this is his sixth NFL season, but only his third as a starter - is reading way beyond his grade level.

Reading is not enough. Rodgers also delivers a near-perfect ball to the intended targets. For all the bombast around the Jets' Mark Sanchez, count how many times he overthrows, or throws behind, his receivers. Then chart Rodgers' daggers. It's like comparing the country club golf pro with a weekend hacker.

Escapability is also a handy skill to have. Of the four quarterbacks competing this weekend, Rodgers comes in at a strong No. 2 to Ben Roethlisberger, who is like tackling a buttered bull. In relative terms, adjusting to Rodgers' lesser frame, Rodgers is almost Big Ben's equal in this department.

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There are stories on the internet about the early days of Jay Cutler in Denver. He wasn't exactly Russell Crowe in "Gladiator" during his stint. He lived on Cutler Island, which was isolated and had sharks around it. It seems odd that Rodgers and Cutler are friends and texting pals. But then again, I have Facebook friends that I barely know.

Rodgers is the anti-Cutler.

Perhaps Rodgers' most important preparation for this moment of ascension to QB royalty was the three seasons he sat behind Favre in Green Bay. While Favre soaked up the adoration like a faded crooner at a cheesy awards show, Rodgers sat quietly and learned. He didn't whine. He didn't cause a stir. He didn't even offer the mildest Kevin Kolb-like "I want to be starting somewhere."

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Favre has since overdosed on limelight, revealing himself to be a great quarterback with an even greater opinion of himself. He's not only out of Green Bay, he's out of the picture completely.

You can tell that the apprenticeship Rodgers served in Green Bay created respect among the Packers for him. Players want to rally around someone who is team first. The Packers certainly supported Favre during his many years there. But Rodgers has his own unique appeal. He is more humble, more gracious, but no less determined.

It's a bit knee-jerky to knight Rodgers after his performance last week in Atlanta. He scalded the top-seeded Falcons by completing 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns in a 48-21 blowout. It marked Green Bay's highest-scoring playoff game in history. It was also more passing yards than Favre ever amassed in a postseason contest.

In three career playoff games, Rodgers has completed 77 of 105 passes for 969 yards, 10 touchdowns and one interception. Oh, and the Packers have scored 121 points in those three games.

That's what happens, you know. As an NFL quarterback, you're only as good as the last big game you won. And if the last big game you won isn't the very last game of the season, then that's just another incomplete on your stats.

Rodgers has raised his reputation way above that loss at USC in 2004. No matter what happens this weekend, it's still likely to keep moving upward from here on.