Rodgers’ Finest Hour

Remember when Aaron Rodgers couldn't win a close game? On Sunday at Miami, Rodgers took a pounding but delivered the best clutch performance of his brilliant career. That's what happens when grit meets talent. (Brad Barr/USA TODAY)

Just call Aaron Rodgers “Captain Comeback.”

Which is a dramatic departure from the narrative of a couple years ago, when he was “Captain Comeback Killer.”

Rodgers, a former Super Bowl MVP and NFL MVP, authored perhaps his greatest performance in Sunday’s victory at Miami. It wasn’t his best game statistically. Heck, the quarterback with the highest passer rating in NFL history didn’t even hit triple-digits. It wasn’t the biggest stage, either, with this being your run-of-the-mill, out-of-conference game against a good but not elite opponent.

Still, Rodgers was nothing short of brilliant. The only thing hotter than the weather was Miami’s pass rush. Yet he lifted the Packers to a critical win with a clutch drive at which he was at his mental and physical best.

“This will go down as one I’ll look back on and smile about.” Rodgers said on his radio show with ESPN Wisconsin’s Jason Wilde on Tuesday.

Packers coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements have witnessed plenty of Rodgers’ great moments in his six-and-a-half years as the Packers’ starting quarterback. Thinking of Rodgers’ signature performances, McCarthy recalled a couple of games during the Super Bowl run of 2010 that maybe were as impressive as Sunday’s game. Impressive, yes; but in a do-or-die situation, this had to be a chart-topper.

“A couple of those plays he made on that last series were extraordinary,” McCarthy said on Monday. “You think about the fourth-down play to Jordy (Nelson) and the (fake) spike and the touchdown throw, that was really right in his wheelhouse. That’s exactly the situation you really don’t want to give him (as the opposing team). It’s definitely one of this best performances. He’s had some great games, my goodness — the Super Bowl, the Atlanta game. He’s had some phenomenal football games.”

After Green Bay’s lone three-and-out possession of the game, Miami drove 79 yards for a touchdown — its third consecutive long touchdown drive — to take a 24-17 lead. The Packers were melting like Frosty the Snowman in May. The running game never was a factor and the pass protection was evaporating. Yet, Rodgers drove the Packers to a field goal and the winning touchdown on his final two drives.

“Our last two drives, we had 22 plays, got 10 points,” Clements said. “We have a two-minute drive with no timeouts remaining and we go 60 yards and he throws a touchdown with about (3) seconds on the clock in difficult circumstances against a good team. It’s hot out, they ran a ton of plays and the guys just pushed through it. He made a great play at the end.”

There was a time not long ago when the Packers probably would have fallen short under such dire circumstances.

From 2008 through 2011 — Rodgers’ first four seasons as the starting quarterback — he was a woeful 3-17 when trailing by one score in the fourth quarter. Yes, the defense and special teams coughed up some of those, but two of the three wins weren’t exactly the stuff of quarterbacking legend, either. The first of those wins came at Detroit in Week 2 of 2008, when Charles Woodson’s pick-six turned a close game into a rout. The third of those wins, at Chicago in Week 14 of 2009, came courtesy of an 11-yard touchdown drive set up by a Nick Collins interception. The criticism went from whispers to shouts in 2010. Rodgers went 0-3 in fourth-quarter comeback situations during a season in which all six losses were by four points or less. Then came the Super Bowl, when Rodgers silenced the critics with a brilliant performance against the NFL’s top-ranked defense, including a clutch fourth-quarter drive that burned off a bunch of clock and turned a three-point lead into a six-point edge.

Rodgers didn’t lead a fourth-quarter comeback in 2011, either, falling short in his only opportunities against the Chiefs in the regular season and the Giants in the playoffs.

Over the last three seasons, Rodgers is 4-7 in fourth-quarter comeback situations. In 2012, there were clutch drives to beat the Saints and Lions. In 2013, there was the legendary touchdown pass to Randall Cobb after missing almost two months with a broken collarbone to win the division at Chicago. And then there were Sunday’s heroics at Miami.


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“There will always be critics and critics thrive on bringing new stuff all the time,” Rodgers said on his radio show. “So, there’s always going to be things that they will look for and spin or highlight to make their point valid. And as long as there’s going to be critics, there’s going to be opportunities to prove those critics wrong. When you prove them wrong in one situation, then they’ll find another situation, so they’re always going to be there. You can’t spend any time or energy worrying about what people are going to try and say about you. They’re always going to be there, I’m just going to keep playing the way I’m playing, and hopefully win a lot of games here.”

If Rodgers, rightly or wrongly, had earned a reputation for not coming through in clutch situations, then Sunday’s game should change that. One play, in particular, featured Rodgers’ talent and guts. That’s the fourth-and-10 play to Nelson. With Olivier Vernon coming free straight up the middle, Rodgers tuned out his flight-or-fight response and threw a pinpoint strike to Nelson for the first down.

“I saw Jordy at the top of his route and then was able to kind of feel some middle pressure, so I actually took kind of a hitch back to just give myself a little bit extra time as the pocket was collapsing and I was about to get rocked,” Rodgers said. “Saw Jordy at the top of his route break out and threw it to a spot. Those are one of those fun moments in a game — it’s fun if it turns out the way it did where you throw a ball and you feel good about it but you have to wait to hear the crowd on whether or not it was a completion.”

McCarthy has seen plenty of quarterbacking greatness, having worked with Joe Montana, Rich Gannon, Brett Favre and Rodgers. The pass to Nelson was nothing short of brilliant.

“That’s the grit. That’s the grit of the position,” McCarthy said. “When you’ve got that pressure defender right in your face, you’ve got to make that throw and he doesn’t even blink. Jordy runs the route; you talk about two guys being on the same page. If you hitch your feet there … if he takes a hitch and reacts to the blitzer, we probably don’t complete that play because it was good coverage but it was an excellent route. His ability just to stand in there and make that throw, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Rodgers said the game “ranks right up there” for the amount of abuse absorbed in one game. He wasn’t feeling any pain, however, after the play.

“It’s never painful when you complete it,” he said.

Of course, this story never gets written if not for T.J. Lang pouncing on Rodgers’ fumble. And perhaps the comeback never happens without Micah Hyde’s punt return or James Starks dragging a linebacker for the required yardage on third-and-10 or Davante Adams’ heady play. Rodgers acknowledged all of that on Tuesday. Just like the 3-17 Badge of Dishonor shouldn’t have been draped over Rodgers’ neck after the 2011 season, Rodgers didn’t pull off these heroics by himself.

“It’s hard to describe, it is. It’s just really special,” he said. “So many guys have to make plays for those things to happen, whether it’s protection for each completion or the catch, the catch and run, getting out of bounds, guys making heady plays. A lot goes into it and there’s subtle adjustments along the way that allow you to finish that off with a touchdown. I think there’s a lot of pride as an offense when you’re put in that situation.

“The quarterback often gets more credit than he deserves, and I like to deflect it when I can to the guys who deserve it. So much goes into each one of those plays but, obviously, T.J. with the big fumble recovery, Jordy with the great route and the catch on fourth-and-10, Davante with the heady play getting yards, getting out of bounds, and Drew running the good route were kind of the highlights, but it all had to come together and work out the way it did for us to come away with the victory.”

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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