For Aaron Rodgers, the crucible begins tonight. For the Green Bay Packers, five days after the trade of iconic quarterback Brett Favre, there's no turning back now.
The Rodgers Era starts tonight with a prime-time, nationally televised matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals. The football-loving world will be watching, and a vocal minority of the 70,000 expected at Lambeau Field are waiting for him to fail.
This obviously isn't as big of a game as the Week 1 showdown with rival Minnesota. But still, the pressure is on Rodgers to perform at least decently tonight. Rodgers was booed during the Family Night Scrimmage — a scrimmage! — and with the trade so fresh in the fans' minds, he can take at least some of the heat off of himself with a sound performance.
Not that Rodgers' mind-set is to come out and throw for 300 yards and four touchdowns in the first quarter.
"When I do get in, I just want to manage the game, make good decisions and hopefully put some points on the board," Rodgers said.
Rodgers isn't oblivious to the pressure he faces. Replacing a legend like Favre is hard enough. To replace him under these circumstances just cranks up the heat to the max.
"My job is going to be difficult either way," Rodgers said. "There's a lot of pressure just being a starting quarterback in this league, and I'm still following Brett's legacy, regardless of the fact that ... he is in New York now. There's high expectations on myself, on our team, and I think it's still going to be a difficult situation as far as the pressure outside this locker room that's put on to me."
Rodgers got the first taste of that blast furnace on Family Night, when he struggled through a gruesome stretch of 11 straight incompletions and had his night end with an interception. Rodgers, who was introduced to mostly cheers but some boos, exited to a lot of boos.
"It's not the first time it's happened, and it won't be the last. It's not the best feeling, to be honest," Rodgers said. "Anybody who's ever been there knows that when you're trying your hardest out there and people booing you, it's not a great feeling. But, you understand that the fans care deeply about Brett and they have high expectations, as well, about the quarterback play."
Rodgers has done all the right things getting ready for this moment. He hasn't missed a practice since the calendar turned to 2008. He's gone the extra mile to bond with his teammates with weekly gatherings at his house. And, though Favre hasn't been forgotten, Rodgers has earned universal praise in the locker room with how he's handled the unprecedented controversy.
None of that matters, though, if he doesn't measure up on the field. His resume is small, but impressive: an 18-of-26, 201-yard, one-touchdown performance at Dallas last season in relief of an injured and ineffective Favre.
Rodgers is 24 and has spent three seasons learning behind a legend. The coaches, system and supporting cast should give him a great chance to be successful. Now, it's up to Rodgers to not only win games, but win over fans spoiled by 16 years of Favre's once-in-a-lifetime brilliance.
Rodgers says he's been toughened by the controversy, and he knows the time is now. With the talent around him, this shouldn't be on-the-job training. He's trained, and the expectation for him among fans, teammates and coaches is to succeed. Now.
"The think you learn about this league is you could be here today and gone tomorrow," Rodgers said, noting the average NFL career spans about three seasons. "I've reached that. I'm in my fourth year."
Coach Mike McCarthy figured Rodgers would play about a quarter tonight — no more than the No. 1 offense typically plays in a first preseason game — though he said that group would get more snaps if he deems it necessary.
Rodgers' goals are simple but vital, things like getting into a rhythm, making good decisions, being smart with the ball, taking what the defense gives him and getting the offense into the "best situation" on every snap. He hopes when his night ends, he feels good about his performance.
"My biggest job — and I think the linemen appreciate this when this happens, and Brett did it a great job — is getting the ball to a man quickly," Rodgers said. "I'm going to try to make quick decisions and accurate throws."
And if that happens, maybe the fans will forget about No. 4 for a few moments and little kids will cut him some slack as they shout at him from outside the players' parking lot.
"We've got great fans," Rodgers said. "They're very passionate about our team. Obviously, they care about Brett deeply, and you can't help but respect that. You just hope you get the same kind of respect and love admiration from the fans. I know that I'm going to have to earn that, and the only way to earn that is to win games."
Bill Huber writes for Packer Report. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org