01.15.12

Aaron Rodgers: the NFL’s Best Quarterback of All Time

The Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers has quietly become the best QB of all time. As the Packers and Giants square off, Allen Barra examines Rodgers’s mysterious ways.

Nothing, probably not even Angelina Jolie, is beautiful at birth. The modern world began on Nov. 30, 1876, when a Yale football player named Walter Camp—he who would later be called the father of football—was about to be tackled with the ball by an unknown Princeton defender. Not knowing what else to do, Camp stopped and threw the ball, end over end, perhaps 15 feet to teammate Oliver Thompson. Everyone—the players, the coaches, the referee, the fans, even Thompson himself—was startled. But Yalie Thompson had the presence of mind to clutch the ball to his chest, turn, and run for the goal line. Or at least that's the legend.

No one knew what to do; there was nothing in the rules that specifically prohibited what Camp did. So they flipped a coin to decide whether or not the play would be allowed. Yale won.

Now flash forward 136 years to Aaron Rodgers.

Professional football is a sport that dominates America, the forward pass dominates football, and Rodgers dominates the pass. Or rather, he dominates opposing defenses, and he does it like no passer in football history. Just by snapping his right wrist, he can zip a football 60 yards downfield with a spiral tighter than the plot to Casablanca and with a trajectory so flat he could throw the ball down the aisle of an Airbus 380 from one end to the other without hitting the ceiling. And he can put it in the hands of any of six talented receivers with precision—on the run and at almost any spot on a football field.

Rodgers has just completed his fourth spectacular season in a row with the Green Bay Packers. He is 28 years old and at his physical peak; though he has never been the league's most valuable player—he is the odds-on favorite to win the award this season—he has had a four-year run unlike any quarterback who has ever played the game.

Based on the evidence so far, he is the greatest to play the game. I know, you're probably not much into football statistics, you only want to watch the big games, but bear with me for a moment. After four full seasons and parts of three others, Rodgers is the highest-rated QB ever by the NFL's method (a Byzantine formula that rates quarterbacks by a combination of statistics, including pass completion percentage, touchdowns, and passes-to-interceptions ratio), 7.7 points ahead of the New England Patriots’ Tom Brady and 9.2 ahead of the Indianapolis Colts’ Peyton Manning. His QB rating of 122 this year is the highest by any passer of all time.

Stick with me for another moment: Rodgers has thrown 132 career touchdown passes against just 38 interceptions, a ratio of 3.5 touchdowns per pick; his idol, Joe Montana, averaged just under two TDs for every interception (273/139). Rodgers did not throw for the most yards of any passer in the league this year: that was New Orleans's Drew Brees, but that's only because Rodgers was able to put away most of the Green Bay Packers’ opponents with fewer passes. (The Packers are 15-1 this season and play the New York Giants in the second round of the playoffs today.)

Not only is Rodgers the greatest ever, he may just be getting started. He has now won four straight games in the postseason, including a 31–25 victory over Pittsburgh in last year's Super Bowl, and it seems highly unlikely that anyone is going to stop him this year. Face it: even if you don't follow the sport all season, he's the main reason you're going to be watching for the next couple of Sundays.

To Packers fans, he is the genuine hero that sexting king Brett Favre only pretended to be. To fans around the country, his All-American visage with its five o'clock shadow is more appealing than Tom Brady's "Good Guy in a Lifetime Movie" persona. And yet ... what do you know—really know—about Aaron Rodgers? He's as amiable and unassuming on a David Letterman appearance as the captain of your local fire department, but what do you really know about him?

Rodgers plays for America's only professional town team (as opposed to city). And no matter how many millions of dollars the Green Bay Packers generate in revenue, they are the only major sports franchise to be publicly owned, making them the last pro team with a genuine link to the America of our grandparents. (The Dallas Cowboys actually piss people off when they call themselves "America's Team," and to the degree that America has a team, it's the Packers.)

Rodgers hails from Chico, Calif., an idyllic pristine town in Northern California about a three-hour drive from San Francisco. He still has roots there. His father, Ed, is a chiropractor, and his parents raised their three sons in a devout Christian household. (Aaron's brother Jordan quarterbacks for the Vanderbilt Commodores.) During the off-season he lives near San Diego.

There don’t seem to be any colorful stories or anecdotes to be squeezed out of those who knew him at Pleasant Valley High School, where, according to the school paper, he was just 5-foot-2 and 130 pounds on the freshman football team. (Since then, he has gone through a growth spurt of a foot and 100 pounds). When asked whether he’d had the look of a future great NFL quarterback, his high-school coach paused and replied, "No, I wouldn't say that ... No offense to Aaron. I guess we all missed on him." So did the major colleges. His only heavy recruitment by a Division 1A school was by Jeff Tedford, the coach of the California Golden Bears, who found Rodgers at Butte College after he had been rejected by the legendary Bobby Bowden of Florida State. (Butte coach Craig Rigsbee regularly attended Rodgers' games until Aaron told him, "You don't have to come to my games. I'm coming to Butte." Tedford spotted Rodgers while recruiting another Butte player, but Rodgers still wears Butte jerseys.

Steve Silverman of College and Pro Football Newsweekly told me, "Aaron Rodgers has less ego than any football player I've ever seen. Who else would have spent three years waiting patiently [at Green Bay, who chose him in the first round of the 2005 draft] behind an egomaniac like Brett Favre and not asked to be traded?"

In an age when most sports heroes live their lives as if they were on reality TV, Rogers seems to disappear after the game—not as a recluse, just as someone who quietly recedes into the background to live his life out of the spotlight. He has an ESPN-affiliated radio show but rarely says anything personal or controversial, though he did a bit of tsk-tsking when Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez did a beefcake spread for GQ. A few months ago, Triumph Books published a slim (188 page) biography of him, Aaron Rodgers: Leader of the Pack, which included exactly four pages of information about him before coming to Green Bay. The only incisive passage book is Rodgers reflecting on his religious beliefs, "I like the saying from St. Francis of Assisi, 'Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary use words.'" In Rodgers' case, words have seldom been necessary—he doesn't discuss his faith unless asked. (On your knee, Tim Tebow.)

You never see him at nightclub with a model on his arm, though last April, he was spotted having a drink with ESPN's Erin Andrews at a bar underneath Boston's Liberty Hotel. In fact, so little has been written on Rodgers' off-the-field life that the inevitable gay rumors have been floated, particularly by Paul M. Banks, a Fox Sports contributor and CEO of the website TheSportsBank.net.

For his part, Rodgers seems to take no notice of what anyone says about him. In fact, the edgiest bit of news to attach itself to him is that he is seeing Destiny Newton, a bartender who posted his photo on her Facebook page and was described in Pacific San Diego magazine back in August 2010 as "a hard-drinking, fly-fishing nature girl from Northern California who'd rather be riding horses outside than a mechanical bull in a night club." She described her favorite drink as "Jack Daniels." "And ...?" the magazine wanted to know. "And nothing," Ms. Newton replied. Not what you'd expect from Mrs. Tom Brady, Giselle Bunchen.

Enjoy him now. After he wins the Super Bowl on Feb. 5, Aaron Rodgers will be out of your life until next season.

On Dec. 28, BustedCoverage.com ran a photo spread of Ms. Newton with the teaser headline "Aaron Rodgers' girlfriend, Destiny Newton, remains mysterious."

"In Euro sports leagues," read the text, "Destiny Newton would be splashed across tabloids & the subject of great interest to millions of sports fanatics. In the U.S., she's unknown. A search on Twitter results in zero mentions. Meanwhile, this is the girlfriend of Aaron Rodgers, a quarterback who is putting together two of the greatest back-to-back NFL seasons in football history. How is it possible for a Super Bowl champion QB's girlfriend to remain so quiet?  No idea, but that may soon change."

Don't bet on it. Aaron Rodgers' destiny may be to be with Destiny, but his destiny is always likely to be a bit mysterious. Enjoy him now. After he wins the Super Bowl on Feb. 5, Aaron Rodgers will be out of your life until next season.