Lack of Super Bowl Action Might Always Weigh on Aaron Rodgers' Legacy

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistJanuary 20, 2020

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - JANUARY 19: Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers reacts after a play against the San Francisco 49ers during the NFC Championship game at Levi's Stadium on January 19, 2020 in Santa Clara, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

Aaron Rodgers is a future Hall of Fame quarterback with the highest qualified passer rating and touchdown-to-interception ratio in NFL history. He's one of just nine players who have won multiple MVP awards, and his Super Bowl XLV victory ensures that he'll never be viewed the same as ringless legends like Dan Marino, Fran Tarkenton and Jim Kelly. 

But because Rodgers has experienced so much success individually, the fact that he's now gone nine consecutive seasons in his prime without making a Super Bowl appearance could tarnish his legacy. 

Outside of that Super Bowl-winning 2010 season, the 36-year-old Green Bay Packers superstar has just six playoff victories in his 11 other campaigns as a starter. He posted a 112.6 passer rating while winning four of his first five career playoff starts, but since then, he's gone 6-7 with a rating of 95.4.

There are excuses. The 2010 Packers had the second-best scoring defense in the NFL, while their average ranking in that category ever since has been 17th. Only one of Rodgers' offensive weapons (wide receiver Davante Adams) has made a Pro Bowl in the last five years. Under the tutelage of former head coach Mike McCarthy, the offense often lacked imagination and creativity and put too much pressure on Rodgers. And under the tutelage of new head coach Matt LaFleur, there were some predictable growing pains. 

But to be considered the greatest of all time—or even one of the few greatest of all time—Rodgers had to overcome those obstacles at least once.

On the road against a superb San Francisco 49ers defense on Sunday, he couldn't compensate for a horrendous defensive performance.

That alone wouldn't be problematic if not for the fact that the Green Bay offense mustered just 21 points in an NFC Championship Game loss to the Atlanta Falcons in 2016. And the fact that it scored just 20 in a divisional-round loss to the Arizona Cardinals the year before that. And the fact that it put up only 22 in a conference title game loss to the Seattle Seahawks the year before that.

Rodgers completed just 56.9 percent of his passes in those three season-ending defeats. And in his three previous playoff losses to the 49ers (2013), 49ers again (2012) and New York Giants (2011), he had a passer rating of 87.6 and took nine sacks. 

It's not as though No. 12 has never been heroic for Green Bay in the playoffs. Just one week before he and his teammates were overwhelmed by the 49ers, Rodgers made several clutch second-half throws as the Packers put away the Seahawks in the divisional round. He also lit up the Dallas Cowboys in both the 2014 and 2016 postseasons. How could anyone forget this magical moment from the 2016 divisional playoffs in Dallas? 

He was the MVP of Super Bowl XLV, and he toasted the Falcons just a few weeks before slaying the Pittsburgh Steelers in that game. 

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers celebrates with the trophy after the Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in the NFL Super Bowl XLV football game at Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011 in Arlington, Texas.   AFP PHOTO / TIMOTHY A. CL
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/Getty Images

So Rodgers is by no means a playoff choker void of signature moments in January or February. 

But there just haven't been enough of them for anyone to view the two-time first-team All-Pro's legacy the same way we view those of Tom Brady (a three-time All-Pro with six championships and three MVPs), Peyton Manning (a seven-time All-Pro with two titles and five MVPs) or Joe Montana (a three-time All-Pro with four rings and two MVPs). 

And Rodgers could retire as only the third-most accomplished quarterback in Packers history. 

The legendary Bart Starr won five NFL championships and two Super Bowls, and he had superior playoffs statistics, which is almost unbelievable considering the inflation of passing stats in the last half-century. Brett Favre also has just one ring, but he led the Packers to two Super Bowls and was an MVP and first-team All-Pro three times instead of two. The former lost just one playoff game in his entire career, while the latter was more decorated despite similarly inconsistent support. 

How can one be considered a top-shelf NFL legend if he's not even the most successful player at his position in his franchise's history? 

The good news for Rodgers is it's not too late to change that. There were indeed some challenges in LaFleur's first year, and you'd have to imagine the offense will benefit from more familiarity in a second offseason together. 

"The window is open for us, and that's the exciting thing," Rodgers said after Sunday's loss, per Mike Spofford of the team's official website. "It doesn't make this feeling any easier, but that's exciting moving forward. Like I said, the window is open, and I think we'll be on the right side of one of these real soon."

The potential bad news for Rodgers is that while his team should remain talented, there are many indications he's lost it. 

Per The Athletic's Ben Baldwin—who wrote in October that Rodgers is no longer elite—the quarterback's EPA (expected points added) is barely above the league average. His 2019 QBR of 53.5 ranked below those of rookies Kyler Murray and Daniel Jones, as well as interception machine Jameis Winston, and he finished the regular season with the highest bad-throw rate in the NFL. 

Prior to fracturing his right collarbone in 2017, Rodgers had a career passer rating of 104.1. Since then, his completion rate has dropped by about three percentage points, and his passer rating has plummeted to a barely above-average 95.6.

Ben Margot/Associated Press

It's possible he'll suddenly re-emerge as an elite quarterback in his age-37 season, but few quarterbacks have Brady-level longevity. Manning fell off a cliff at 39, while modern-era Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Terry Bradshaw, John Elway, Dan Fouts, Bob Griese, Marino, Montana, Ken Stabler, Roger Staubach, Steve Young, Tarkenton and Kurt Warner all failed to make it to age 40 in the NFL. 

Aikman was done at 34 but was last a Pro Bowler in his age-30 campaign. Bradshaw walked away after his age-35 season but wasn't a Pro Bowler beyond 31. Elway retired after his age-38 season. Fouts didn't make a Pro Bowl after his age-34 campaign and Griese not after 33. Marino made his last Pro Bowl at 34, while Montana started fading at the same age. Stabler was last a Pro Bowler at 32. Staubach's last season came when he was 37, while Young was the same age in his last Pro Bowl year. Tarkenton was last a Pro Bowler at age 36, Warner at 37. 

It's possible—even likely—that Rodgers is more like those guys than he is Brady or Favre. If that's the case, he might never be seen on the Super Bowl stage again. And without another one of those moments, he can't possibly be considered the GOAT.

                           

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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