Melissa’s Monday Musings: Aaron Rodgers Encapsulates Football’s Beauty

Let us begin not with the process of a catch (that somehow wasn’t an issue today) but instead the process of choosing how to top this column. It’s fairly simple. Watch all the games. Find a storyline that sings. Write. Typically the process is not too treacherous. Maybe two or three topics will stand out. But this week it was one after another. Returning stars, Ryan Fitzpatrick’s 10th wonderful life, the Browns big tie, Tom Brady getting it done. I can go on and the zig-zagging between options only encapsulates what a joyous opening weekend we witnessed, though nothing comes remotely close to the mastery of that wizard in Green Bay…

When Bears cornerback Kyle Fuller dropped an easy interception to start the last Packers drive with Green Bay down 6, anyone remotely familiar with Aaron Rodgers knew how the script would end. Two plays later Rodgers threw a beautiful 75-yard strike to Randall Cobb to complete a miraculous 20-point comeback and cement a 24-23 win under circumstances impossible for anyone not named Rodgers.

Mitchell Trubisky and the Bears offense looked ready to shed the ghosts of Bears teams past, thanks to an offense awakened in large part because of a series of inventive scripted plays from new head coach Matt Nagy and offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich. The Bears jumped out to a 20-0 lead, not only because of the new look offense but because of the disruptive beast that is Khalil Mack. The Bears appeared destined to beat their foils for the first time since 2015.

But the Packers and entire football world faced far more dire circumstances than the score when Aaron Rodgers went down with a knee injury in the mid-second quarter and had to be carted off. Football continued to be played but it felt hollow and jarring as Rodgers’s day appeared over and thoughts of his season permeated. Then the miracle happened. Still a little gimpy, Rodgers came out for the second half, stoically put on his helmet on and treated millions of viewers to one of the gutsiest performances ever seen in football. Rodgers may have been operating on essentially one leg, but his arm was intact. He made throw after throw up the seam, in the flat, everywhere on the field all with the precision and quick release that makes Rodgers the best pure passer in football.

Up 3 with 2:42 left in the game the Bears blew a chance to seal it on a 3rd and 2 from the Green Bay 14.  Chicago’s running game had been dialed in against a tired Packers defensive line and for some reason the Bears opted to pass on that down. I wish I could freeze the emotions of that moment in my household.

On one end of the couch was my increasingly sullen Bears fan husband who went radio silent. I had no words to console him.  In sports fandom terms, how do you console someone on the verge of depressing inevitability? You don’t when it’s the Bears and Packers.  Aaron Rodgers has been tormenting Chicago for ten years, after all. I was on the other end of the couch filled with intrigue and anxiety but also trying to relish how I felt in that moment, appreciating being a football writer and fan in the era of Aaron Rodgers. The situation felt insanely important, and the optics of  Rodgers and his less-than-perfect knee only intensified those feelings Why was he even playing? How was he even playing?

The answer partially lies in what makes Rodgers such a monumental figure in sports beyond his natural taent. He simply wanted to beat the Bears.

I’m going to let you in on a little secret known. Fans often care far more about wins and losses than players. Not in the moment or immediate aftermath, necessarily. A devastating loss is always going to be more devasting to a player involved. But the lingering, not getting over losses is a true benchmark of fandom.  I know several Bills fans who are probably still  more devastated about the Bills’ four consecutive Super Bowl losses in the 90’s than anyone on that team with the exception of Scott Norwood.  Sometimes fans get more entrenched in rivalries as well, like the tales of Steelers and Ravens fans who refuse to make eye contact.  Players understand the magnitude of these rivalries too, of course, and some are fiery. But most will gladly play for a rival if it’s the best business decision.

Rodgers’ aptitude for understanding the importance of a moment is such a part of his appeal. He’s a gamer. He deeply cares. He kind of feels like us except for the whole actually being Aaron Rodgers part.

“It’s the Packers-Bears rivalry and it would have had to take something catastrophic injury-wise to keep me off the field,” Rodgers told NBC’s Michele Tafoya when asked why he re-entered the game.

Le’Veon Bell didn’t even show up to Pittsburgh this week so he could preserve his body for a future pay day. Tom Brady is a pleasure to watch and the most accomplished quarterback of all time (hard to attach the GOAT label in the aftermath of Rodgers’ performance) but at this point it feels like he’s mostly playing to prove longevity for his TB12 brand.

Rodgers is a different breed. Of course he cares about money and marketing and all that jazz. But he’s so enwrapped in football  grit and self awareness that his mere presence on a football field elevates that viewing experience and justifies our deep emotional connection to football. Because whatever we feel, Rodgers feels it tenfold.

Other Week 1 Musings

– This tweet from Le’Veon Bell 10 seconds after the Steelers tied the Browns was absolute garbage.

The Steelers just tied the Browns, a team that hasn’t won a game since Christmas Eve 2015. Who wants to be tormented by Bell in that moment? Great, you were watching. How is letting the world know helpful to anyone? Good for Bell if he wants to hold out and preserve his body for next year’s team. The NFL is a fleeting stage and players should squeeze as large of a paycheck as possible. But I do wonder how much money Bell lost on the free market next year by no showing this week. Hard to imagine a little more wear and tear on his body being less desirable than letting down his teammates. Not to throw Bell under the bus – his  outspoken linemen have escalated matters – but lack of loyalty in the NFL is a massive deal. Bell wasn’t tweeting after James Conner scored his second TD and celebrated with the offensive linemen.

– To echo Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter, “Fitzmagic is back!” Aaron Rodgers is the clear front runner for MVP but Bucs QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is in the second slot after orchestrating the weekend’s biggest upset, an explosive 48-40 win over New Orleans. 4 TDs 156.3 passer rating. Assuming Fitzmagic plays even close to what he showed today during the final two weeks of Jameis Winston’s suspension, how did you give Winston the job back?

– Love the Koetter locker room victory speech

– Speaking of quarterback controversies, this time of the lowest end variety, Nathan Peterman once again proved he has no business as a starting NFL QB. He generated a whopping 24 passing yards in a half of football.  Sean McDermott was asked about next week’s starting quarterback and unbelievably said he had to go watch the film when it’s so clear Josh Allen should be given the keys.

– Welcome back to the NFL, Andrew Luck who very much looked like his old self. Luck shook off some of the hesitancy of the preseason and showcased a lot of accuracy and quick release. But he really shined in the same spot he used to, late in the fourth quarterback heroics. Luck was 8-for-9 and on his way to an incredible 19th game-winning drive when Colts TE Jack Doyle fumbled the run after a catch. Definitely look forward to seeing how he builds upon his return.

– I’ll admit, I did wonder if Baker Mayfield could have extended some of  the Browns drives that were stalled in overtime.

– The Khalil Mack takes were flying fast on Sunday Night. Here’s one more: Jon Gruden may have made a colossal mistake by giving up one of football’s top 2 defenders. But there is a possibility that the Raiders won’t implode.  Derek Carr’s been paid and there simply isn’t enough cap space to pay Mack what he’s worth and allow Gruden to add a lot of pieces, and the Raiders need a ton of pawns. There’s a reason Aaron Donald got paid in Los Angeles and Mack got paid in Chicago: the quarterbacks on those teams are on rookie deals. That’s your window to win a championship because once you have to pay these quarterbacks franchise money, everything changes.

– Coming up this week on The Football Girl Podcast I’ll be in conversation with ESPN’s Suzy Kolber, host of Monday Night Countdown. We’ll talk her love of football and wanting to play as a young girl, replacing her good friend Stu Scott on Monday Night Countdown and whether ageism in sideline reporting will ever cease to exist. To subscribe click here.