NFL Playoffs, the Super Bowl
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I love me some goddamn snacks and foot-fetish videos and cyborg-baiting trash talk. And the latter worked, by the way; Bill Belichick chose to weaken his team at the start of Sunday's game, to prove what point exactly, I and Wes Welker can't be sure. I love that the team we enjoyed last summer on HBO's Hard Knocks has turned out to be exactly who we thought they were, and who they said they were. I love that players are making toe-dragging catches and miming sleep in the end zone and doing celebratory backflips. However briefly—and I hope it lasts a few weeks longer—the New York Jets have reminded the NFL that football is supposed to be fun, and as the baseball promoter Mike Veeck likes to say, fun is good.
But let's not ignore the other football conference. The impending NFC Championship Game matchup between Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Bears quarterback Jay Cutler is loaded with potential. Not only can both guys sling the ball—Rodgers more efficiently, Cutler more rapidly—but there are enough story lines to keep writers and blabbermouths like us happily occupied for the next six days. Hey, they're so excited in Green Bay that the local paper, the Press-Gazette, is promising "new blog posts every hour."
I didn't watch the Packers dismantle the Falcons live, so when I saw Rodgers' 31-for-36 stat line the first thing I did was check for typos. Turns out there weren't any. Rodgers' completion rate was the fifth-best all time in the playoffs. In Green Bay's postseason wins over Atlanta and Philadelphia, Rodgers has completed 78 percent of his throws, with six touchdowns, zero interceptions, and a passer rating of 134.5.
That's all very impressive, but narratively is where Rodgers is poised to take off this week. While the quarterback and his teammates were settling into leather-backed chairs to begin watching film of the Bears, word leaked Monday afternoon, and was later confirmed by the NFL, that some guy named Brett Favre had filed retirement papers with the league. Doing that is a formality necessary to trigger pension and other post-career benefits, and it doesn't prevent a player from saying he didn't really mean it; Favre "officially" retired in 2009 before signing with the Minnesota Vikings. Only Fox Sports reporter Alex Marvez knows who whispered in his ear—or maybe Favre himself texted the big scoop—but the timing sure seemed calculated. The day after two of Favre's former teams, the Packers and the Jets, reach their respective conference championships, Favre manages to get his name back in the news with yet another promise to exit stage left.
It is a measure of how tired we have grown of Favre that even the down-the-middle NFL newshounds who enabled Favre's Hamlet act for so long are admitting their weariness. "Our long national nightmare is over," ESPN's Adam Schefter tweeted after news of Favre's paper-filing broke. (And this sassy behavior after Schefter shared an on-air high-five with Hannah Storm following the sacking of Cleveland Browns coach Eric Mangini. If Bill Belichick ran ESPN, Schefter would be benched for the first five minutes of SportsCenter.) In any event, thanks for the memories, Brett. Now go away. Go. Away.
I'm reading David Maraniss's terrific biography of Vince Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered, so the Packers and their mythology have been on my mind. Despite Favre's many on-field accomplishments, Rodgers seems a far better representative of the Lombardi Way that in the 1960s elevated the franchise from backwater drag on the growing NFL (some owners wanted the team moved) to charmed gridiron throwback. In character, temperament, and reputation, Rodgers resembles Bart Starr more than he does his immediate predecessor.
Rodgers (24th pick of the 2005 draft) was more naturally talented and highly regarded than Starr (199th pick of the 1956 draft). But like the MVP of the first two Super Bowls, Rodgers rode the bench before he was given the team. Like Starr, Rodgers is studious and well-prepared. Like Starr, Rodgers doesn't seem to be a flashy personality who draws attention to himself, on or off the field. (I'm not buying the tempest-in-a-pink-Packers-hat over Rodgers' alleged failure to stop and sign an autograph for a cancer patient in an airport on the way to Atlanta; the TV footage is unconvincing, and the woman is a regular autograph-hound who thinks Rodgers did her no wrong and says he signed items for her in the past.) While Favre strung him along with his I'm-retiring-I'm-retiring-not routine for three straight seasons—three straight years—Rodgers, at least publicly, deferred to the legend and waited. And now he, and the fans who own the Green Bay Packers, are rewarded. Good for all of them.
If you don't have a strong rooting interest, Rodgers seems to me the quarterback to support in the NFL Final Four. The Jets' Mark Sanchez is raw; maybe he shouldn't be let off the hook just yet for all those overthrown passes. The Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger is a lunkhead; maybe he shouldn't, after being accused of sexual assault and suspended by the NFL, enjoy another Super Bowl victory. And the Bears' Jay Cutler is a sourpuss; maybe he should be nicer before his talent is celebrated.
Full disclosure: In the summer of 2006, Cutler was a rookie on the Denver Broncos team I joined, as a placekicker, to write a book about the NFL. It was obvious even to amateur eyes like mine that Cutler had enormous potential as a quarterback: confidence, strength, an easy understanding of playbook complexities, an innate sense of the geometry of the field. As a person, I didn't like him much: He was laconic, unfriendly, sometimes immaturely rude. The bored, eye-rolling, smirking entitlement bugged me, and not only me. When Cutler's rabbi, head coach Mike Shanahan, was fired after the 2008 season, new coach Josh McDaniels clashed with the QB and traded him to Chicago. * Now Cutler is in the NFC Championship Game. McDaniels is looking for a new job. Point, Cutler.
Cutler made quick work of the suddenly irrelevant Seattle Seahawks over the weekend. Given time in the pocket, he demonstrated an ability to work through progressions, locate open receivers, and zing the ball into their chest cavities. He showed his mobility and power, running for one touchdown and sneaking in for another. He also showed his personality. He tugged on his jersey and barked at the refs over a non-call. After his rushing TD, when his momentum carried him to the seats, he didn't stop even for a second to celebrate with the home fans.
I stopped liking Rick Reilly's work around 1999, but he got Cutler exactly right in a column on ESPN.com last week. Petulant? Check. Snarky? Check. Dismissive? Check. Does that make Jay Cutler a bad guy unworthy of support? If, as a fan, an athlete's personality factors into your allegiance, or your decision to buy a replica jersey, absolutely. (If, as a reporter covering the Bears, you're willing to overlook a player's personal flaws when the team is succeeding, apparently not.) Cutler doesn't have to be a bubble-wrapped pitchman to be a great NFL quarterback. He certainly doesn't have to be cordial to reporters, who do ask inane questions sometimes, or even consort with fans in the end zone. Human nature may argue otherwise, but he doesn't even have to care whether those constituents like him or not. He just has to keep winning.
If I hadn't spent time with and around Cutler, I'd probably defend his indifference to all nonessential football matters as a reasonable, and possibly even sensible, response to the irrational passions of fans and media alike. But I did. And I also think athletes, no matter their real feelings, should answer questions respectfully and maybe even thoughtfully—especially The Quarterbacks. It's part of the deal, and really not that difficult. At this point in my life, I mostly just enjoy watching gifted athletes do amazing things (and then scream in exultation). But this Sunday I'll root for Aaron Rodgers to fell both Jay Cutler and the ghost of Brett Favre in one mighty swoop.
Nate, you had a bon mot for every reporter in the Denver clubhouse. And you caught a few passes from Cutler. And you were on a team that reached a conference championship game. Who among our heterogeneous quartet of quarterbacks has what it takes to reach the North Texas Super Bowl?
Correction, Jan. 18, 2011: This piece originally said the Denver Broncos fired coach Mike Shanahan after the 2007 season. He was fired after the 2008 season. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)