Aaron Rodgers Isn’t Blameless — And Never Has Been

On Jan. 23, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers stepped out onto the “icy tundra” of Green Bay’s Lambeau Field to do something he had never done before: play in an NFC Championship Game at home. Rodgers’ four prior NFC Championship appearances were on the road, with a victory in Chicago in 2010, followed by three losses in Seattle, Atlanta and San Francisco in 2015, 2017 and 2020 respectively.

After a 37-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers in last year’s NFC Championship Game, Rodgers told the media, “We’ve got to get one of these at home. It’s a different ballgame.” After an MVP season in which Rodgers threw for 4,299 yards and 48 touchdowns with only five interceptions, the Packers’ 13-3 record earned them the number one seed in the NFC, and put them in excellent position to finally host the championship game.

As expected, the Packers easily won their divisional round game against the Los Angeles Rams, setting up a matchup against the fifth-seeded Tampa Bay Buccaneers, led by a 43-year old Tom Brady in his first season in the NFC after two decades of success in the AFC.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic meant that Lambeau was far from full, Wisconsin officials still allowed over 7,000 fans — armed with noise makers — into the stadium to bolster the Packers’ home field advantage in the bitter winter cold. Rodgers had exactly what he had long been claiming would be a “different ballgame.”

Yet this NFC Championship game ended like Rodgers’ last three had — with defeat. The Buccaneers offense was hot early on, including scoring a 39-yard touchdown with one second left in the first-half, and then Tampa’s defense took over in the second half to cling to a 31-26 victory. The Packers’ chances at their first Super Bowl in a decade slipped away on their own frozen turf.

For years, Aaron Rodgers’ defenders have always come up with different excuses for why one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history comes up short in the biggest moments. The excuses usually boil down to two reasons: he has no weapons, and he has no defense. The blame never falls on Rodgers, but always on his surrounding cast.

Rodgers’ first NFL Championship Game loss came after the 2014 season, in which Rodgers was NFL MVP. The Packers had two Pro Bowl wide receivers in Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson, as well as two Pro Bowl defenders in cornerback Sam Shields and linebacker Clay Matthews. Rodgers had weapons, and he had a defense. The defense showed up against Seattle, forcing Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson into throwing four interceptions, and forcing a fumble on a kickoff. Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, didn’t show up, completing 19 of 34 passes, with one touchdown and two interceptions.

The Packers did get unlucky in the game; they dropped an onside kick that let the Seahawks take a late lead, and lost the overtime coin toss that led to the Seahawks scoring a walk-off touchdown. While Rodgers played no part in these mistakes, he was still an MVP quarterback who mustered six second-half points, and 178 total yards. The Seahawks defense was elite that season, but by comparison, Tom Brady hung 328 yards and four touchdowns on that same defense two weeks later, without two Pro Bowl receivers. The 2017 NFC Championship game is the one game in Rodgers’ deep pool of playoff losses where he deserved zero blame — the defense had been poor all year and Rodgers’ receiving corps was in an off year. But in last year’s loss to San Francisco, Rodgers performed similarly poorly with a similarly talented roster. Green Bay had the ninth-ranked total defense, with two Pro Bowl defensive lineman, while the offense had a thousand-yard rusher in Aaron Jones and a Pro Bowl wide receiver in Davante Adams. 

Rodgers was not at fault for the defense allowing Raheem Mostert to rush for 220 yards and four touchdowns, but he was responsible for three turnovers that led to 10 points for the 49ers. The defense’s struggles against the run hurt the team the most, but Rodgers did little to boost their chances.

This year, Aaron Rodgers has no excuses. He was the league MVP, he had the league’s best wide receiver and cornerback in Davante Adams and Jaire Alexander respectively, five other Pro Bowl players, and home field advantage. Yet this game ended exactly as the last three, and Rodgers’ had a big role to play in that.

Rodgers threw a costly interception late in the first half that resulted in a Buccaneers touchdown. The Packers defense looked poor early on, and the team was down 28-10 early in the second half. But the defense soon began to clamp down on Tom Brady, picking him off three times in the second half. Rodgers turned the first one into a touchdown, but then went three-and-out the next two times, leaving valuable points on the board.

On the Packers’ final drive of the game, down eight, Rodgers threw incompletions on first and second down, setting up third and goal from the eight-yard line. With acres of space in front of him, Rodgers, a more-than-capable runner, chose to force a bad throw to Davante Adams that went incomplete. The Packers chose not to go for it on fourth down, sealing the loss.

In his five appearances in NFC Championship games, Rodgers is 1-4 with nine touchdowns, eight interceptions, and an average of 276 yards per game. In two of his four losses, he has been that season’s MVP; in three of the four losses, he has had at least one Pro Bowl wide receiver; and in three of the four losses he has had at least two Pro Bowl defensive players. While these players haven’t always shown up, neither has Aaron Rodgers. 

Quarterbacks like Tom Brady have produced some of their best moments in conference championship games, often carrying a weak defense or offense to victory. Rodgers has not done that once. In his one NFC Championship victory, Rodgers threw zero touchdowns and two interceptions in a game that the Packers won on a pick-six.

It’s no secret that Aaron Rodgers is a fantastic quarterback. ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith calls him “that baaaaad man” for a reason. But his production in the postseason has never once matched his numbers and performances from the regular season.

Rodgers has threatened to take his talents away from Green Bay, but it’s hard to imagine a situation where Rodgers would have more than he did this year with the Packers. There are few teams in the league who have the weapons on both sides of the ball that the Packers do. If Rodgers really wants to prove his worth, then he should do it in Green Bay; stop pointing the finger at everyone else, and show the league why you’re a three-time MVP and future Hall of Famer. They say “cometh the hour, cometh the man.” We’re all still waiting.