For the rest of time, NFL fans will debate the merits of individual accolades, statistics and team accomplishments when assessing and comparing great players, particularly at the all-important quarterback position.
Peyton Manning and Brett Favre won a combined eight MVPs but only three Super Bowls, while Dan Marino is one of the most prolific passers in league history but a zero-time Super Bowl winner. It's very difficult to compare their resumes to those belonging to Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana and Roger Staubach, who won a combined 10 Super Bowls but earned just three MVP awards.
On Saturday night, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers officially joined the category of great quarterbacks with Hall of Fame credentials who haven't achieved the team-level accomplishments you'd expect.
Rodgers won his third league MVP award, matching Favre. He's now one of just five quarterbacks ever to win more than two MVPs (along with Favre, Manning, Tom Brady and Johnny Unitas). But that comes less than a fortnight after his Packers were upset at home in the NFC Championship Game, leaving the three-time first-team All-Pro out of the Super Bowl for the 12th time in 13 seasons as an NFL starter.
Favre made two Super Bowls during his 16 seasons as a starter in Green Bay but also won just one ring in his 20-year pro career. Rodgers has technically been in the league 16 years and has just one NFC title to show for it.
That could always pose a problem for him in the eyes of those who figure that the elite of the elite must lead their teams to multiple championships. After all, that's what the sport is all about. Skill set, individual awards and numbers count for something, but can Marino truly be the greatest without having reached the pinnacle?
Manning won a record five MVPs but was merely a one-time champ before a dominant defense carried him to another Super Bowl win late in his career. Still, he played in four Super Bowls and continues to be viewed in many circles as less accomplished than Brady, who has two fewer MVPs and inferior rate-based stats but a ridiculous six Super Bowl rings and nine Super Bowl appearances (and counting).
There's an important distinction that could help clarify where guys like Rodgers, Favre and Manning stand next to Brady, Montana and Bradshaw. Some quarterbacks were/are better than those who are more decorated or accomplished than them. The most skilled quarterbacks in history aren't necessarily the most accomplished quarterbacks in history, and the best quarterbacks in history on paper aren't necessarily the winningest quarterbacks in history.
It's easy to argue that if a player has five MVPs and nobody else has more than three, and if that player also won two championships and played in four, he's the best there ever was. But it's just as easy to argue that if a player has 10 Super Bowl appearances and six or seven rings, while no other player at his position has more than five appearances or four rings, and if that player also has three MVPs to boot, he should, in fact, be considered the GOAT.
That, in a nutshell, is the Manning-Brady debate. Introduce Rodgers and his significantly superior statistics and it becomes even trickier.
Rodgers' 103.9 passer rating is more than six points better than Brady's (97.3) and more than seven points better than Manning's (96.5). His touchdown-to-interception ratio (4.63) towers over Brady's (3.04) and Manning's (2.15).
However, Rodgers is separated from Brady and Manning by nearly a decade, and the overall trajectory of passing production and efficiency in a sport that increasingly favors quarterbacks can't be disregarded. Technically, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson are the first- and second-highest-rated qualified passers in NFL history. And technically, the legendary Unitas—who played in a vastly different era—ranks tied for 95th in that category, behind names like Matt Cassel, Kyle Orton, Sam Bradford, Case Keenum and Mitchell Trubisky (incidentally the 33rd-highest-rated passer in league history).
So from a statistical standpoint, it's almost impossible to compare quarterbacks across eras, even if their NFL tenures overlapped to an extent the way it has with Brady, Manning and Rodgers. And that alone could make it difficult to achieve a consensus regarding Rodgers' place on the all-time NFL list.
With a third MVP, Rodgers is compensating to an extent for his lack of Super Bowl success and should at least be in a post-1970 AFL-NFL merger conversation with Brady, Manning, Favre, Montana, Bradshaw, Marino and John Elway. Beyond that, it becomes even more complicated if you attempt to compare any of those guys to Unitas, Bart Starr, Sammy Baugh, Otto Graham, Bobby Layne, Sid Luckman, Fran Tarkenton and Norm Van Brocklin.
Broadly speaking, MVPs should count for more than Super Bowls. Quarterbacks like Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson and Jeff Hostetler can find themselves in the right place at the right time and wind up with a ring, and no quarterback can completely carry a team to a championship in a sport that places 22 players on a field at once. MVP votes typically take one's supporting cast into account, while championships can come almost entirely as a result of performances from supporting casts.
Rodgers and Manning don't have as many signature playoff moments as Brady, and that counts for something. But Rodgers threw three touchdown passes in a heroic performance to earn MVP honors when the Packers beat the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV, and that also counts for something.
|Most accomplished QBs of the modern era|
|Pro Football Reference|
There was also that incredible throw to Jared Cook in the 2016 postseason to set up a game-winning field goal, two Hail Marys in a road playoff game during the 2015 season and some of the most clutch comebacks in regular-season history.
Rodgers hasn't always received as much support as his elite counterparts, but he's checked all the boxes. There's still time for another championship, which could transform his reputation in the eleventh hour of his career (it happened to Manning). And there's still time to pad the stats and accolades.
Yeah, he's 37. But he's also coming off the second-highest-rated passing season in NFL history.
For now, he continues to be a lot less decorated than Brady, whose Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat his Packers to get to this year's Super Bowl. That might never change, but a fourth MVP or several more dominant seasons for Rodgers could give him enough of an advantage individually to make up for the edge possessed by Brady when it comes to Vince Lombardi Trophies.
He also remains in Manning's shadow in both fields, but there's still time, and the Super Bowl gap is much smaller in that case.
At the very least, he's pulled within reaching distance of Montana (four rings and two MVPs versus one ring and three MVPs), he's on par with Favre at a minimum, and he's about to leave Hall of Famers Elway, Bradshaw and Marino in the dust.
That, however, is completely up for debate—one that we'll likely have for decades to come.
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