The most difficult task in the NFL is the replacement of a successful, long established and much loved quarterback.
It’s not an easy thing to prepare for: the last thing an aging star wants to see is a young college player looking over his shoulder as he tries to eke out what remains of his career, often with new personnel around him and declining physical prowess.
For evidence of the problem, look no further than Miami. For season after season, from 1984 until 1999, Dan Marino dominated the league’s passing statistics, linking up with excellent receivers like Mark Clayton and Mark Duper. Miami never won the Super Bowl, but they were a perennial playoff team.
When he finally hung up his shoulder pads it was an end of an era in more ways than one. During the decade that just ended, the Dolphins had 14 different starting quarterbacks, none of which have proved to be successful.
Now look at the Buffalo Bills, a team which made the Super Bowl on four consecutive occasions when Jim Kelly was their quarterback from 1986-1996. Since then they too have struggled to settle on a reliable starter.
San Francisco managed the trick of handling the dream succession when Steve Young and Joe Montana led the team from 1981–1998. Then their luck ran out and the team has not enjoyed success in the new millennium. They couldn't repeat the trick twice.
Of course, some teams never seem to be able to pick or develop a winning quarterback for various reasons, not the least of which is luck and recurring injuries. Look no further than Detroit where player after player has failed to make the grade, despite the franchise regularly having a series of stellar high draft picks.
So what do the coaches and management at Lambeau do when their great quarterback Brett Favre, although still playing well, is nearing the end of his illustrious career? They use-up their precious first round draft pick in 2005, at a time when there must have been a pressing need to shore up or develop other areas of the team, on another quarterback who couldn’t hope to contribute in the immediate future.
Although it was expected that Rodgers would be taken early in the draft, by great good fortune, teams having earlier picks had more pressing needs to address which allowed Green Bay to step in at 25th spot.
There followed a period of learning and development in 2005 backing up Favre, but there was little playing time. Given an opportunity to start in 2006 after Favre was injured, Rodgers broke a foot in a loss against the Patriots and was not able to play for the rest of that season.
There were numerous rumours about Favre retiring before the 2007 season, but at the last moment decided to play on. Rodgers, destined to spend another season kicking around the sidelines with a clip-board and headphones, was rumoured to be the subject of a trade involving Randy Moss and the Oakland Raiders. By great good fortune this didn’t happen.
The end of 2007 again witnessed the usual “will he or won’t he?” debate about Brett Favre’s retirement. This time Favre announced in March of that year and although he later changed his mind (again), it was to the enduring credit of the management that they decided to stick with Aaron Rodgers and Favre was traded to the Jets to accompanying howls of disappointment from some Packer fans.
During the 2008 season there inevitably followed a virtual game by game dissection, analysis and comparison between those who bemoaned Favre’s departure and were impatient for Rodgers to start winning on a regular basis.
They remembered the impressive 13-3 record of the 2007 season, but forgot that the Packers were the youngest team in the league and going through a necessary period of transition. Every time a close game was lost, and there were plenty of them, the tongues would wag and Rodgers would often get the blame. Despite this, Rodgers finished fourth overall in the NFL with 4,038 yards passing and 28 touchdowns.
He became the only quarterback in NFL history to pass for over 4,000 yards in each of his first two seasons as a starter and has led the Packers into the playoffs, with a fifth ranked 11-5 record.
The critics are silenced. There are no longer any invidious comparisons.
Packers fans everywhere should offer up a silent prayer of thanks that we have one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL and that careful planning, foresight, and good management brought him to Wisconsin and kept him there.