For Aaron Rodgers, winning Super Bowl XLV was not a validation of Green Bay’s decision to hand over the reins to the young quarterback in 2008. Nor was it a muzzle to be placed on all the people who had doubted him up until this point and questioned not only the team’s decision, but his place among the elite quarterbacks in the NFL.
Instead, it was simply the result of a unified team effort, one that was decimated by injuries this entire season, yet still found a way to reach the pinnacle of professional football.
"I never felt like I had a monkey on my back," Rodgers said. "The organization stood behind me, believed in me and gave me the opportunity. I told them back in 2008 that I’d repay their trust."
Rodgers might not have had a monkey on his back, but he definitely had a target.
For three years now, fans and media alike both in and outside of Green Bay questioned the organization’s decision to let go of Brett Favre and take a chance on the kid from Cal. After dropping to 24th overall in the 2005 draft, Rodgers held a clipboard for three seasons on the Green Bay sideline, never certain when, or if, his opportunity would come.
Even after Favre’s departure and witnessing all the shenanigans and drama that followed him through New York and Minnesota, people kept questioning whether or not Rodgers was the man for the job.
Despite his impressive passing numbers and the team’s firm stance on their decision, there were still some who bemoaned the loss of Brett Favre, a man who had reached deity status after enduring nearly two decades with the Packers and bringing the Lombardi Trophy back to Titletown in 1996.
But then Rodgers began showing why the team had placed their faith in him and why they had decided to endure such grief after losing Favre. Suddenly, Rodgers was performing in ways that not only made him a fantasy football star, but also turned Green Bay into a serious championship contender.
Still, the doubters remained, touting his unproven status and failing to recognize Green Bay had in fact replaced an aging superstar with an up-and-coming one.
The absurdity continued prior to this postseason. Rodgers had elevated his game throughout the 2010 season, shouldering a franchise that nobody would have blamed for crumbling after enduring a bevy of injuries, including the losses of Ryan Grant and Jermichael Finley, both of whom were among the best in the league at their positions.
And yet, with a depleted roster and an invisible running game, Rodgers amazingly led the Packers to the NFC’s No. 6 playoff seed, a position that seemed all but unreachable after the Packers dropped two straight in the middle of December and needed to win their final two games to clinch.
The backlash came prior to the Packers-Eagles Wild Card game.
"He hasn’t done anything yet!" the cynics shouted.
"It’s idiotic to place him amongst the Brady's and Peyton's of the NFL. He hasn’t even won a playoff game!"
This, in spite of his 423-yard, five-touchdown performance against the Cardinals in their 2009 Wild Card game, an epic shootout the Packers lost because their defense had more holes than one of the foam cheeseheads their faithful fans wear.
This year, the defense was stellar, finishing the season as the league’s No. 2 ranked unit. With a stout defense, Rodgers' abilities were able to shine, and his talents were not wasted.
Instead, he solidified his status among the elite passers in the league today, showcasing his skills throughout the NFL playoffs and saving his best for sports' grandest stage, the Super Bowl.
Rodgers led the Packers against the big, bad Pittsburgh Steelers, a franchise that has endured a bounty of success over the decades, including two titles of their own since 2005.
The Steelers were a decorated bunch, with nearly half their roster having had prior Super Bowl experience and success, not to mention the fact their ferocious defense came into the game as the top-ranked unit in the NFL.
With a sub-par running game, the Packers’ success was going to fall squarely on the shoulders of No. 12, and everybody knew it, including the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"We put this game on his shoulders," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
Despite his admirable front that the team would rely on a balanced attack, he all but abandoned the running game in the Super Bowl, calling only 13 running plays.
"He [Rodgers] had total command of the offense," McCarthy said.
"He’s the focal point of our team," Green Bay's general manager Ted Thompson said.
And yet, the Steelers could not stop him.
Rodgers continued his playoff rampage, completing 24-of-39 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns, finishing with an 111.5 passer rating. He was sacked only twice by the Steelers, a tribute to the team’s terrific offensive line.
But the more impressive stat was the fact that he threw zero interceptions, quite a feat on any given Sunday, and something else entirely when the defense you’re going against boasts Troy Polamalu, this year’s NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
"It’s a special feeling knowing that Mike trusts me enough to make the decisions," Rodgers said. "There’s a lot of similarities between their defense and our defense. We felt confident that we’d be able to move the football."
It’s that belief that has allowed Rodgers to emerge from the depths of clipboard purgatory to soar as one of the best quarterbacks in the league. He would consistently shred the Packers’ defense as a member of the practice squad, which is one of the reasons why the team felt a need to get him into their system, even if that meant losing a legend and dealing with the backlash that was sure to accompany his exit.
It’s a good thing they don’t let fans make the really important decisions.
If that were the case, the Packers would never have succeeded in bringing the Lombardi Trophy back home with their Super Bowl XLV victory, and Rodgers never would have been able to walk away with the game’s MVP award, one of the rare omissions on his predecessor’s decorated resume.
For the playoffs, Rodgers finished with 1,094 yards and nine touchdowns, joining Kurt Warner as the only quarterback in NFL history to top 1,000 yards in a postseason.
The scary thing is Rodgers' MVP performance in the Super Bowl could have, and should have, been better.
The Packers' receivers, for as well as they played, dropped a number of perfectly-thrown Rodgers passes, including two that more than likely would have been touchdowns. Had they held on to the ball, he's looking at a 450-yard, five-touchdown, near-perfect passer rating performance.
But instead of a legendary effort, we’re just going to have to deal with a great one.
Three of those drops came off the hands of Jordy Nelson, a third-year player who had just two touchdowns all season. But instead of getting frustrated with Nelson, glaring at and then ignoring him (something you can envision Tom Brady or Peyton Manning doing), Rodgers instead continued to look his way.
Nelson finished with nine catches for 140 yards and a touchdown.
It’s that confidence and that ability to overcome any obstacle that have allowed Rodgers to emerge from the shadow of Brett Favre to become a household name overnight."
"Nothing changed for Aaron this season," Donald Driver, a veteran who has spent time under both the Favre and Rodgers regimes, said. "I’ve known him since ’05, and he’s the same guy. Now he’s proved that he’s one of the best, if not the best, quarterbacks in this game today."
And if you don’t believe him, Rodgers has the hardware to prove it.