GREEN BAY — Danica Patrick is not going to be pleased.
She – and whoever else has been involved in the planning of her boyfriend Aaron Rodgers’ surprise 35th birthday party, for after Sunday’s Green Bay Packers-Arizona Cardinals game at Lambeau Field – presumably wanted the clandestine event to happen without their favorite quarterback, you know, somehow finding out about it.
So much for that.
“There’s some sort of surprise being cooked up,” Rodgers said with a smirk late in the week, as he and the Packers (4-6-1) prepped for the first of five straight must-win games to keep their faint playoff hopes alive. “I do know there’s some people I really enjoy who are coming (to town). I’ve gotten word that (ex-Packers teammates) A.J. (Hawk) is probably coming and (Matt) Flynn is probably coming. So I’m pretty pumped about that.”
The discussion of Rodgers’ birthday – while he played a few basketball games during his childhood, the only other time Rodgers has played a football game on Dec. 2 was in 2012 – had been prompted by a remark he’d made after Sunday night’s 24-17 loss at Minnesota. With the season slipping away, Rodgers had been asked how he felt about the reality that he probably wouldn’t be leading the Packers to their second championship on his watch this season.
“That’s definitely frustrating. Obviously, I’ve got a lot more gray in the beard than I did a few years ago,” Rodgers replied. “So, I know that football mortality catches up to everybody, and you never want to lose a season. Especially when you felt great starting the season about our prospects.
“But we’re going to battle the next five weeks and put ourselves in a position to be in the conversation. Then hopefully it’ll be enough, and like I always say, you’ve just got to get in. So we’ve got to win these five and see what happens.”
‘The end is a lot closer’
Asked about his comment several days later and whether he really contemplates his “football mortality” these days, Rodgers – having shaved the beard down to a mustache – rubbed his chin and nodded.
“Yeah. I mean, I’m about to be 35,” Rodgers replied. “Obviously, I always talk about wanting to play into my 40s, but it’s going to take a lot to get there. I know what my contract situation is. And this is my 14th year. That’s a long time. I’d love to get to 19, 20 (years). But 70 percent of my career is over. So yeah, of course, I know the end is a lot closer than the beginning.”
How close Rodgers is to leading the Packers to another championship is difficult to say. Having signed an NFL-record $134 million, four-year extension in August that puts him under contract with the Packers through the 2023 season (during which he’ll turn 40), he is the league’s highest-paid player, but he’s also one of only five players – kicker Mason Crosby, outside linebacker Clay Matthews, right tackle Bryan Bulaga and cornerback Tramon Williams are the others – still on the team from the 2010 Super Bowl XLV-winning squad.
While Rodgers’ numbers this season aren’t bad (3,271 passing yards, 20 touchdowns, one interception, 101.7 passer rating and a 61.7 completion percentage, the second-lowest of his career), the offense has been troublingly inconsistent, hasn’t come through in the fourth quarter in four consecutive road losses and has looked out of sync far too often.
Rodgers himself has missed throws he’s historically made, passed up open short passes while looking for throws farther downfield and absorbed 34 sacks, tied for sixth-most in the NFL. While he suffered a left knee injury in the Sept. 9 regular-season opener against Chicago – a game in which he returned to lead the Packers to a 24-23 comeback victory – he hasn’t worn a protective brace on the knee the last several weeks and has said the knee is no longer a hindrance.
Having missed nine games last season with a fractured right collarbone, Rodgers was asked if the injuries have led him to think more about the potential end of his career.
“No, no. Not at all. Because I know what I can play with and I know I can adjust my game if I have to,” Rodgers said. “The encouraging thing to me in getting healthier is I feel like I can still move around the way I want to move around and I haven’t lost my legs. When I want, I can still get outside the pocket and extend plays and make plays on the run – throwing and running. So I feel good about that part.
“It’s just being old. I was just talking to (rookie first-round pick) Jaire (Alexander) in the weight room, and he’s 21 years old. I’m about to be 35. That’s … that just makes me remember how I felt at 21 looking at my career. And how I look at it differently now 14 years in.”
‘It’s about winning championships’
So how does he look at it? Since winning the Super Bowl, the Packers have gone 76-40-1 (including 5-6 in the playoffs) in games in which Rodgers has started, although since losing the 2014 NFC Championship Game in Seattle – a game in which the Packers had a 16-0 lead and epically collapsed in the final 3 minutes – they are 28-21-1 (3-2 in the playoffs) in games Rodgers started.
The team has reached the conference championship game twice since its 2010 title (2014, 2016), lost in the NFC divisional round three times (2011, 2012, 2015) and in the wild-card round once (2013). Last year, the Packers missed the playoffs for the first time since Rodgers’ first year as the starter (2008).
Rodgers disagreed with the suggestion that the past seven seasons have been wasted. He said he believed two of his teams – the 2011 team, which went 15-1, and the 2014 team, which went 7-1 during the second half of that season to finish 12-4 – should have gone to the Super Bowl.
“I think we had a lot of great teams that just didn’t win championships,” Rodgers said. “We had a lot of success. We won 15 games in ’11, had some great stretches in ’12, had a great comeback moment in ’13 returning from (the first collarbone) injury, ’14 we got on a roll and had a really nice year and had a chance. That was a Super Bowl team. As was ’11. I think those were the two best teams we had. So it’s disappointing we didn’t at least get back there.
“I don’t think they’re wasted seasons. But the ultimate goal is winning championships, and we didn’t achieve that goal. That’s how we look at it. We wasted opportunities, for sure. But not wasted seasons. That’s way too negative for what we accomplished. But we missed out on really good opportunities in ’11 and ’14. In ’16, we got on a roll and the team didn’t probably quite stack up, and then we didn’t play our best in the NFC Championship.
“I take a lot of pride in the way we play and the success we’ve had, but it’s about winning championships. And we haven’t during this stretch.”
Asked if he, coach Mike McCarthy and former general manager Ted Thompson would be viewed differently had the 2014 team made Super Bowl XLIX instead of collapsing in Seattle, Rodgers replied, “If we win, for sure. There’s something about winning two (Super Bowls) that separates you from other quarterbacks and organizations and coaches who have coached and played here and played other places. One is fantastic. A lot of people never get to play in the Super Bowl. But you win two, and you start to enter some different, revered territory.”
Veteran wide receiver Randall Cobb, who is Rodgers’ closest friend on the current roster, joined the team as a rookie in 2011 after the Packers’ last championship. Asked what Rodgers’ legacy is if he doesn’t lead the Packers to another title, Cobb’s one-word response was, “Squandered.”
Then, Cobb added, “For me personally, the past (years) have been disappointments. You look at the team he had in ’11, ’12, ’14 – those three teams had strong chances. You look at ’16, we made it to the NFC Championship Game and got demolished. But each year has its different challenges and we’re right in the thick of more challenges right now.”
For his part, Rodgers still believes there will be another title before his career ends. He knows in order for that to happen, though, he’ll have to play at his expected level, and he’ll have to continue to make a concerted effort to bond with his younger teammates. He has struggled with the departures of many of his closest friends – fullback John Kuhn, wide receivers Jordy Nelson and James Jones, defensive back Charles Woodson, Hawk, Flynn and others – just as his predecessor, Brett Favre, did late in his career with the Packers.
As Rodgers and Favre have reconnected in recent years, Rodgers has become increasingly aware that his individual success will be inextricably linked to how his younger teammates fare. While he still is tough on them – just ask rookie wide receivers Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown and J’Mon Moore – he’s also committed himself to better connecting with them.
That’s why he and Patrick hosted another get-together recently – a Thanksgiving gathering of roughly 30 teammates, friends, family and Packers staffers, including twentysomething backup quarterbacks DeShone Kizer and Tim Boyle.
“That’s the most important,” Rodgers said. “DeShone and Tim, those are two of my closest buddies on the team. and I get to see them every day. It’s a blast hanging out with them and I love that we’re close friends now. DeShone’s 22 and Tim’s 24. Not as many gray-hairs around anymore. Mason makes up for the rest. It’s nice having him, but it’s tough.
“The various events that we’ve had in the last year – whether it’s JJ’s retirement party, getting to have dinner with Jordy (before an August preseason game in Oakland) … just getting together with those guys – seeing James, seeing Jordy, seeing C-Wood and A.J. and those guys, that’s what it’s all about.
“It’s about those relationships. Those are what you take away from the game. And, like I’ve always said, Super Bowl rings.”