Green Bay Packers fans are slow to change and hesitant to embrace the new. They do not follow fads or fall for hype. The Packers fan's sense of football history sweeps across decades and generations. Packers fans never fail to love their Packers with all their hearts and souls, but they are cautious, to a fault when crowning legends.
General football fans are only slightly more forgiving. We grow infatuated with our flavors of the month, a month at a time. We dangle the "elite" title in front of great quarterbacks on fishing lines, yanking it away after any loss or mistake. Fame and praise are cheap, but immortality is conferred slowly, often too slowly.
Aaron Rodgers has a Super Bowl ring. He has an MVP award and may soon be given a second. He has been Super Bowl MVP, first-team All Pro, Bert Bell Player of the Year. He generates statistics that boggle the mind in an era of mind-boggling statistics: 139 touchdowns and just 25 interceptions in the past four years, the best quarterback rating in NFL history.
But Aaron Rodgers lives in the twin shadows of four quarterbacks, or at least he lived in them until Sunday afternoon.
In Green Bay, Rodgers has always battled to live up to the standards of Bart Starr and Brett Favre. On the national stage, he has spent his career trying to seize some spotlight from Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
On Sunday, in a gritty, inspiring, inspired 26-21 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, Rodgers finally earned once-and-for-all equal partnerships with the local and national Olympian gods. It's no longer Starr-Favre-Rodgers in that order or Brady-Manning-Rodgers in that order. They are two pairs of three-of-a-kind.
All Rodgers needed was what every Packers legend needs: a career-defining game against a great Cowboys team.
Starr had the Ice Bowl, which added more to his lore than either of his victories in those early, sideshow-scented Super Bowls. Favre went 0-3 in playoff losses in Dallas to the Troy Aikman Cowboys, and the losses nearly swallowed his legacy before the Cowboys stepped aside so the Packers could beat the likes of the Carolina Panthers on their way to the Super Bowl.
Those Cowboys losses kept Favre forever behind Starr for a generation of Packers fans. He's still there for many fans who remember the 1990s, in Green Bay and elsewhere: the giddy, gaudy gunslinger whose improvisation got the better of him against the most disciplined foes, who could not win the way Starr won.
Rodgers, meanwhile, has remained trapped behind the Favre mystique the way he remained trapped behind Favre himself in his first three seasons. Fans of a certain age like to throw random obstacles in front of Rodgers on his road to acceptance into the Starr-Favre inner circle: He's not as clutch or not as creative or lacking in some intangible way that usually boils down to the quarterback I am watching at age 45 doesn't excite me like the one I remember watching at age 25, when everything was a lot more exciting.
Most of the comparisons fall apart upon scrutiny, but some have a smidgen of merit. Super Bowl ring aside, Rodgers' postseason record has not been great: three first-round losses, lost duels to Colin Kaepernick and Eli Manning and an NFC Championship win as noteworthy for Jay Cutler's absence as Rodgers' two-interception presence. Before Sunday, Rodgers came in third in the postseason litmus test behind Favre, who at least reached championship games frequently, and Starr, who won everything that could possibly be won.
The national stage presented a similar drama. Scouts and statisticians could pound our fists and call Rodgers the NFL's best quarterback all we wanted. He was not in the championship game. Brady, Peyton and Roman numerals were in the championship game. Rodgers was nouveau riche, and "legend" status is the province of the old guard.
Welcome to the old guard, Aaron Rodgers. Sunday was your initiation: a baptism by trial, injury and Cowboys.
A calf injury took away his mobility. It limited his ability to step into throws. Cold weather and a chopped-up field forced him to limp gingerly around an often-shaky pocket. Rodgers responded by sprinting forward near the end zone and knifing a touchdown pass to Andrew Quarless in the back of the end zone, hopping away on one foot after the throw. He hung in the pocket and waited on other plays or hobbled toward the sideline to buy time. He absorbed hits to give receivers an extra moment to flash open. It was the kind of toughness that becomes legendary.
The Cowboys defense took away Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb for most of the afternoon. The calf injury clearly affected Rodgers' follow-through, making deep passes tail away from the receivers who did get open. Rodgers trusted rookie receiver Davante Adams, who finished with seven catches for 117 yards and a touchdown. He threw four times to Quarless and once to backup tight end Richard Rodgers, netting five catches, 44 yards and two touchdowns. It was the kind of resourcefulness that becomes legendary.
Rodgers needed 123 rushing yards from his running backs; he himself could only stagger backward for minus-four yards. He called audibles at the line, feeding the ball to Eddie Lacy or James Starks whenever he saw the Cowboys in their conservative Cover-2, deep-safety shell. Bart Starr knew a thing or two about letting Jim Taylor or Paul Hornung take some pressure off. Peyton Manning and Tom Brady have earned over a decade of accolades for well-timed audibles that put the football in the hands of the running backs. It's the kind of game generalship that becomes legendary.
The Cowboys matter to a Packers quarterback's legacy, because the Cowboys, when very good (like this year's team), bring symbolic power with them wherever they go: They remain America's Team, the glamorous, corporate flipside to Green Bay's small-town, working-class ideal. The Cowboys, when great, always arrive with Destiny herself sitting next to millionaires and governors in the luxury suite. Everything the Cowboys do, and everything done to them, earns national notice, even in their worst years, but especially in their best. This year's Cowboys looked enough like the great teams of yesteryear to strike that America's Team pose.
The Cowboys took a 14-7 lead, forced a fumble on a botched snap, and appeared ready to pull to a 17-7 lead before halftime until Datone Jones nipped a Dan Bailey field goal attempt ever-so-slightly. With 29 seconds to spare, Rodgers threw short to Cobb, shook off a sack, found Cobb again along the left sideline for 31 yards and set up a momentum-changing field goal.
The Cowboys stretched their lead to 21-13 in the third quarter. Rodgers answered with two nearly flawless touchdown drives, executing the no-huddle and distributing perfect strikes as if his calf were fine and the temperature were 60 degrees.
The Cowboys nearly came back from a 26-21 deficit, but a 4th-and-short bomb to Dez Bryant became an incomplete pass when replay officials saw the football's nose wobble against the dirt. Lacy could not kill the clock for over two minutes by himself. Rodgers delivered a 3rd-and-3 dart to Adams, who wrestled away from Sterling Moore for 26 yards. Facing 3rd-and-11 a few plays later, Rodgers gimped to his right, fired the ball through the outstretched fingers of a Cowboys defender and found Cobb coming back to take a 12-yard pass away from Orlando Scandrick. Forget the Ice Bowl II; it was Sea of Hands II territory.
It was the stuff of legends. All that is missing is the 35-millimeter film, the slow motion, the music and the narration. NFL Films should be working on all of that as I type this, because Aaron Rodgers' performance was that great.
There's an NFC Championship Game in Seattle against the defending champions left to play, then perhaps a Super Bowl. But there is no reason to withhold admission to the Legends Club. Favre did not win 'em all, or even most of them. Brady and Manning lose championships and Super Bowls, not always to each other. Even Starr lost to the Philadelphia Eagles once.
Rodgers has already met all the other qualifications. All he lacked was a signature playoff victory that captured the imagination, defined the breadth and scope of his capabilities and carried enough historical gravitas to echo back to the memories of quarterbacks who gained immortality in the mid-60s or late-90s or a decade ago.
Our imaginations have been captured. All possible standards have been met. Aaron Rodgers, welcome to immortality.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.