In the end, everyone got what they deserved.
For Aaron Rodgers, winning Super Bowl XLV provides a validation he did not need, but one which will be celebrated anyway.
Watching Rodgers banter with ESPN’s Steve Young afterward on the network, it was hard not to be struck by Young’s affection for the northern California native. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback returned repeatedly to the unique bond the pair now share—having each followed a legend and reached the pinnacle on their own.
And yet, while the parallels seem obvious, there was also an unspoken disconnect.
Young won passing titles and the league MVP but twice lost the NFC Championship game in his first three years as the 49ers starter, earning him the enmity of spoiled fans who saw only who he was not—Joe Montana.
Things are different for Rodgers. Montana was revered not only by fans in San Francisco but by sports fans everywhere. He was a cultural icon and a symbol of many things—above all, winning. Fran Tarkenton, loser of four Super Bowls with the Minnesota Vikings, used to say that he enjoyed standing next to Montana because, between them, they had won 50%.
When Young gleefully paraded about the 49ers locker room following his virtuoso performance to win Super Bowl in XXIX while pretending to heave a monkey off his back, it meant something.
Following Brett Favre surely once seemed equally daunting. But the vagabond quarterback has so diminished his standing in recent years that these days Rodgers is not so much succeeding Favre as building something entirely separate and new, and untainted.
For Ben Roethlisberger, the defeat—and a shaky stat line—ends a run of postseason brilliance that had carried him to the precipice of capturing a third Lombardi Trophy, a feat achieved by only four quarterbacks in history.
Instead, the enduring image of Roethlisberger’s visit to Dallas may be the quarterback admiring Jerry Jones’ scoreboard while lying flat on his back, his lame-duck pass floating into the arms of Green Bay cornerback Nick Collins, who returned it 37 yards for a touchdown.
For the NFL, Super Bowl XLV provided a game that teetered on the brink of a blowout but regained its footing in time to see the Steelers mount a comeback that kept fans on the edge of their seats one more time.
But when the confetti stopped falling, the league’s longest night began. With the NFL’s existing labor contract set to expire on March 3rd, the 800-pound gorilla of professional sports leagues confronts an offseason of uncertainty.
Even the league seemed to acknowledge the moment: The night’s most memorable ad was not sponsored by Bud or Pepsi but by the NFL itself, which wove together images of familiar TV stars into a montage that all but thanked us for the memories.
It seems inconceivable that the owners and players would fail to reach agreement to extend the league’s dominance. But even after accounting for the usual brinksmanship, the sides remain oceans apart, and the threat of a prolonged labor stoppage is real.
In 2010, the NFL lost one of its pioneering voices, former Monday Night Football commentator Don Meredith. At the conclusion of MNF broadcasts, Meredith famously and reliably sang a lyric from an old Willie Nelson song: Turn out the lights/The party’s over.
But if tonight was goodbye for a little while, we can all sleep tight with the outcome.