I immediately took a step back, not wanting to awaken the ghosts of Unitas, Montana, Elway and Marino, or step on the still-building legends of Brady and Peyton Manning. I was greeted with second thoughts.
Does everyone and everything have to be the best ever? Can't we just enjoy what we're seeing without trying to decorate it with false hype or greater importance and urgency? Well, no (of course not) and yes; I would certainly hope so.
Then again, I realized that the question I tossed out (at first internally, and now, publicly) was done out of a sense of appreciation and not one of intoxication (I was sober this New Year's Eve, thank you) or hyperbole. Yes, I enjoy making Top 10, Mount Rushmores (top four) and Field of 64 lists for everything from pitchers to NBA centers to sitcoms, but I rarely equate latest with greatest.
My favorite movie? It's A Wonderful Life (1946). Really.
Best sitcom ever? With apologies to Seinfeld and All in the Family...The Honeymooners (circa 1955 or so).
Greatest rock band? The Beatles.
Most awesome player to ever grace a baseball diamond? With all due respect to Willie Mays, that would be Babe Ruth.
You get the idea. I try not to live in the past, but I also don't look for bandwagons to jump on—or off, for that matter. So, let's get back to NFL quarterbacks before I start ranking hottest British actresses of the 60s and 70s.
Prior to this year...and even now...my Mount Rushmore of NFL quarterbacks (post-Unitas, as I only saw the tail end of his amazing career) would, in some order, be: Joe Montana, John Elway, Tom Brady and...I vacillate a little between Peyton Manning and Dan Marino.
In expanding this group of five to a reasonable top 10, I generally find room for Steve Young, Brett Favre, Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach, and then, I'll concede a spot to Johnny "U," who some respected pundits still place at or near the top of the whole ball of wax.
Truth be told, if nobody's listening or reading too closely, I try to throw a bone to one of the men who valiantly quarterbacked my Eagles—Donovan McNabb or Randall Cunningham. I loved them both and would rejoice if either or both got into Canton without a ticket, but I can't really justify top 10. Top 16? Getting warmer.
So, what is it about Aaron Rodgers that has me re-thinking my lists? I'm not a Packers fan and have no emotional ties to anything in California, let alone the Cal Bears or Chico, Calif. I'd love it if State Farm killed their Aaron Rodgers ad campaign or at least didn't put them on every commercial break.
Of course, if the only alternative is those insipid Drew Brees / New Direction spots, give me the discount double checks...
What is it about Rodgers that is so impressive? For one, after sitting behind Favre for his first three seasons (he threw a total of 59 essentially garbage-time passes from 2005-2007), he finally was given the keys to the franchise and immediately looked like the real deal.
Frankly, I knew very little about the guy when he took the reigns in 2008, but he appeared more than ready to replace the ghosts of Brett Favre. Despite a 6-10 initial season, one could see that No. 12 could make all the throws and could either escape trouble and buy time for receivers or use his legs to turn losses into positive plays.
Heading into the 2012 postseason (to take place in 2013, of course), his resume sparkles. Three Pro Bowls in his five years as a starter, and it's hard to see how he missed in 2010, although, perhaps, that slight helped inspired him to lead the Packers to a championship that year and a well-deserved Super Bowl MVP.
He also has a regular-season MVP (last year), and while he probably will not win this year's award, he would be a good choice. And yes, I'm also in the Peterson-for-MVP camp.
What else is on his five-season resume? Despite that 2008 record of 6-10, Rodgers' career mark is a terrific 52-26. His postseason record is 4-2, and we will see where he takes both of those marks from here.
Outstanding as these achievements are, they still add up to what seems like a somewhat flimsy basis to begin pondering "best-ever" status. Let me be clear here. If Rodgers had to retire today, one can even debate whether he should be enshrined in Canton, let alone be in that inner room with Montana, Elway and Brady.
He's certainly not there yet, and it would seem that he still needs to put up at least five more seasons of similar productivity and efficiency to deserve a place at that table.
Here are a few things that he already has going for him, along with the Lombardi Trophy and the MVP Awards. Statistically, he is the most efficient passer among all NFL quarterbacks, past or present. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, Rodgers is No. 1, and it's not even close.
Here are the top 10 names, and yes, passer rating is somewhat skewed to players of the last 15 or so years. But, again, Rodgers has a healthy lead over not only Steve Young (very impressive at second place) but two other guys named Brady and Manning...and all the rest.
Career Passer Rating
While I don't know that passer rating is the end-all and be-all of evaluating a quarterback, as single stats go, it's not bad. Yes, nobody in their right football mind would put Romo ahead of Brees, let alone Montana, but it's a testament to Rodgers' brilliance (and he's just now hitting his prime) that his passer rating towers above the field.
One thing that passer rating does not do is take into consideration what a quarterback does once he becomes a runner. Obviously, if he uses his legs to buy time and he throws the ball, it counts. But what happens once he keeps it? Rodgers, while not RG III or Cam Newton in this dimension, has certainly been a Top Five or so quarterback during his career in this aspect.
A component that goes into passer rating is touchdown-to-interception ratio. In his five-plus seasons, Rodgers has thrown 171 touchdowns and been picked off 46 times. If you think that ratio is pretty good, you'd be underestimating.
Rodgers has the lowest interception rate in history (Brady is tied for second) and his touchdown:interception ratio (which is close to 4;1) is also, apparently, the best (Brady's impressive 334:123 is a little less than 3:1).
Looking at his first five years, let's say that Rodgers is able to duplicate these feats in the next five years. Of course, this is guesswork, and he may never approximate them again. But then, what if is numbers get even better?
If he wins another 52 regular-season games or so, that will give him over 100, something that only 11 (and counting) other signal-callers have achieved. His winning percentage will be among the best of that group, topped by only Brady (who has won an insane 78 percent of his starts), Montana, Manning and Bradshaw.
How important should those team numbers be? It's debatable. Some would-be great quarterbacks were victimized by apparently subpar supporting casts. At the same time, no one player exerts as much control over the game's outcome than the starting quarterback. All of this needs to be weighed in some fashion, and there's only so much a single stat or even the totality of stats can do.
This leads us to the all-important, if totally imperfect, eye test.
So, in other words, Rodgers' passing efficiency is unprecedented. He's also among the best runners at his position, and he has led his team to a Super Bowl victory, so he's already checked that off his QB bucket list. But, does he look that good? In a word, "yes."
In almost every Packers game I've seen, I've been amazed at all of the throws he can execute, seemingly at ease, from the touch pass to the absolute cannon blast. As much as any of the geats I've ever seen play the position, he is as accurate as they have come, including Dan Marino, Steve Young and Joe Montana. His arm may not be quite the howitzer of a Favre or an Elway, but he is not nearly as reckless as either with the ball and he is much more accurate.
One amazing aspect of all of this is...and yes, this is also subjective... how good has his supporting cast been? Yes, sacks are sometimes the fault of the quarterback, but AR12 has been sacked more than anyone in the league in two of his five seasons. Given his mobility, quick release and heady decision-making, is it fair to call the Pack O-line about average?
Running backs? To be kind, they have been mediocre. Tight end? If referring to Jermichael Finley, would talented but erratic be fair? Even his wide receivers have not exactly been Jerry Rice, Calvin or Andre Johnson or Larry Fitzgerald. Taking nothing away from guys like Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and even Jordy Nelson, Rodgers has had some good targets, but hardly the type of weapons that demand double and triple teams.
With all this in mind, it's time to revisit the question that launched this discussion, which can only be answered with equal parts art and science.
Is Aaron Rodgers...possibly...the greatest quarterback who has ever played in the NFL?
Yes, absolutely, We need to see more, perhaps a lot more, but it is almost hard to make a case that he is not already playing the position at the highest level that we have ever seen.
Matt Goldberg is, actually, a diehard Philly sports fan and co-author of the brand new book, A Snowball's Chance: Philly Fires Back Against the National Media.
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