At his season-ending press conference on Wednesday at Lambeau Field, Packers coach Mike McCarthy spent more than 30 minutes saying a lot about nothing. Fielding questions on a wide variety of topics concerning the 2008 season, McCarthy often deferred to the company line when asked about his coaching staff and his team's failures, as he did throughout the season.
There was one question, however, to which he was quite clear with his answer.
Asked to assess the play of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and whether the team made the right move in moving on with him as quarterback, McCarthy replied with little hesitation.
"Yes, I think we definitely made the right move at the quarterback position," he said.
Rodgers, of course, "officially" took over as the Packers' starting quarterback after Brett Favre un-retired and was traded to the Jets amid a media circus at the beginning of training camp. Like it or not, the Favre-Packers messy divorce will define the 2008 Packers season, one that ultimately resulted in a 6-10 season.
Rodgers found himself in the eye of a hurricane this past summer with the Favre drama surrounding him. When it was all said and done, and Favre was on his way to New York, Rodgers faced not only the difficult prospects of being a first-year NFL starter, but the daunting task of following a legend at the most spotlighted position in the league. Plus, he and the Packers were dealing with the unrealistic expectations created by a magical 13-3 season in 2007.
Rodgers responded under immense pressure, maybe more pressure than any quarterback has faced. If there were a category for "best season following a legendary quarterback," Rodgers would probably be the winner. The statistics would suggest that really only Steve Young, stepping in for Joe Montana with the 49ers, can compare.
Rodgers finished the season as the NFL's sixth-rated quarterback at 93.8. He was one of only six quarterbacks to throw for 4,000 yards. He threw 28 touchdowns against just 13 interceptions, giving him a 2.15 TD-to-INT ratio, a mark topped only by four other season-long starters (Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning, Chad Pennington, and Jason Campbell).
"I was pleased with the productivity from the quarterback position," said McCarthy. "From an individual standpoint, I think Aaron Rodgers played at a very steady, steady level which was a high level based on his statistics. He's given us a baseline, a standard that we will hold him to and the offensive group as we move forward."
Critics can certainly point to Rodgers' fourth-quarter failures, an area he certainly can improve in, but Rodgers answered the call everywhere else — most notably in the health department, where he started all 16 games, the last 12 after injuring his throwing shoulder on Sept. 28 at Tampa Bay.
Favre, on the other hand, failed to sustain a promising start (which included a six-touchdown performance against the Cardinals on Sept. 28) with the Jets. He finished as the NFL's 21st-rated passer at 81.0, nearly five points below his career rating. He threw 22 touchdowns against 22 interceptions, the worst ratio among season-long starters.
Perhaps most telling, Favre fizzled down the stretch, looking every part of a 39-year-old quarterback when the Jets needed him the most. He threw just two touchdowns against nine interceptions over the last five games as the Jets lost out on the AFC East title and a playoff spot after starting 8-3.
Favre's consistent failures in adverse weather conditions and games late in the season (including the playoffs) has been an issue really since the 2001 season after a six-interception debacle at St. Louis. The only other times since then that the Packers have threatened for a Super Bowl, Favre played a large part in the demise of his team's season with overtime interceptions in a divisional playoff game at Philadelphia in 2003 and against the Giants in the NFC championship at Lambeau in 2007.
Rodgers, on the other hand, at least showed signs this year that the Packers' passing game can flourish late in the season when the weather turns frightful. In the fifth coldest game ever at Lambeau (Dec. 5 vs. Texans), he threw for 295 yards. With a wind chill of minus-13 in Chicago (Dec. 22), he hit 24-of-39 passes for 260 yards. And on a windy season finale in Green Bay, he hit 67.7 percent of his passes for 308 yards and three touchdowns.
"He held true to the type of quarterback that I felt he was going to be as far as his decision-making ability and his ball accuracy," said McCarthy. "He was able to sustain that for 16 games."
Though the Packers clearly missed Favre's intangibles, the legendary quarterback would have made little difference in the standings for one more year. The Packers would have missed the playoffs, just like the Jets. They had more problems, defensive and otherwise, than the leadership of Favre could have solved.
The Packers are better off having made the move to Rodgers this year, an idea McCarthy all but proclaimed Wednesday. Quite simply, the Packers have one of the best quarterbacks in the league and a bright future at the most critical position on the field. Not many teams can say that headed into next year, or any year for that matter.
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org