On Dec. 19, 2005, Rodgers replaced an ineffective Brett Favre late in a 48-3 thrashing on a miserable Monday night at Baltimore. Rodgers, by his own account, played like "dog trash" in completing 8-of-15 passes for 65 yards. He was sacked three times and intercepted once.
"You know what? I don't remember much" of that night, Philbin, the Packers' offensive coordinator, said on Friday. "If you would have asked me what's the first (extended appearance), I kind of think about Dallas in '07. That night was such a nightmare. To be honest with you, I wouldn't even have known that."
Almost four years later, Rodgers and the Packers will host the Ravens on Monday night. Back in 2005, Rodgers was just an inexperienced kid, with one pass attempt in his professional career before that game. On Monday, Rodgers will be five days removed from his 26th birthday. He's older, wiser and more experienced.
"Yeah, you know what, everything was moving so fast for me, I felt like I was stuck in cement," Rodgers recalled on Thursday. "There were guys coming from all over the place. It was a tough game. We got thrashed on ‘Monday Night Football,' but it definitely was a stepping stone in my journey to where I am now."
The jumping-off point on that journey seems like eons ago now, and memories of last year's 6-10 face-plant will seem like eons ago, too, if Rodgers and the Packers earn a critical win to improve to 8-4 and take a bold step toward the playoffs.
"He's fun to watch," Philbin said. "We're very pleased with what's he done. What is he, 22 to five (touchdowns to interceptions)? That's pretty good; 104.9 rating, that's pretty impressive. He does a good job in the huddle, I think he does a good job at the line of scrimmage. Some of the passes that he throws — if the Big Guy upstairs was showing someone how to throw a football, he's probably one of the guys that he'd show. It's been fun watching him grow."
There's been a lot of growing in the last four years.
"I took my lumps and learned from it. I'd like to say it got better, but my next opportunity to play, I didn't play very well either," Rodgers said. He was alluding to a 2006 performance against New England, when he took three sacks — showing an immature "what am I supposed to do?" look on his face — and sustained a season-ending broken foot.
Aaron Rodgers is making all the right decisions. Morry Gash/AP
Back then, there were questions about Rodgers' ability to produce and stay healthy — questions enhanced because of the legendary, unbreakable quarterback who was the icon of the franchise. Since taking over as the starter last season, Rodgers has erased any doubts about whether he can produce and he's shown plenty of toughness, but could he win?
For a year-and-a-half, the yards, the accuracy, the touchdowns, they were all there. What was not there were victories. After suffering back-to-back losses to Minnesota and Tampa Bay at midseason, Rodgers' career record as a starter was merely 10-14. Outside of a thunder bolt of a pass to beat Chicago in Week 1, there were nagging questions about Rodgers' ability to produce in the clutch.
Those questions haven't gone away, but with the Packers' season on the line, he's completed 70.8 percent of his passes for 881 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions, giving him a gaudy passer rating of 108.3 during a three-game winning streak.
When Rodgers has had to make plays, he's delivered. His clutch third-and-long completions propelled a pivotal touchdown drive against Dallas. He staked the Packers to a big lead against San Francisco, then moved the chains on third down with the 49ers mounting a late rally. He buried the Lions in the third quarter on Thanksgiving. No, he hasn't led a game-winning drive, but with the season on life support, he's hardly wilted from the challenge. He's been decisive with the ball and hasn't come close to making a costly mistake.
With those three wins, there are signs that Rodgers is progressing from quarterback to winner, but the season-ending five-game gauntlet that awaits will be the determining factor.
Baltimore ranks fourth in the NFL in scoring defense and is playing for its season. Chicago's playoff hopes are dead but it's 4-1 at home against Green Bay under Lovie Smith. Pittsburgh ranks ninth in scoring defense and could be playing for its season. Seattle could provide a breather in the next-to-last week, but Arizona ranks 13th in scoring defense and might need a win to clinch the NFC West.
Those five games stand between Rodgers and the playoffs. Those five games stand between Rodgers being merely a fantasy football stat machine and being a legitimate, top-tier quarterback. Those five games stand between Rodgers emerging even more from Brett Favre's shadow or feeling the weight of Favre's presence weighing him down even further.
"We feel good about the last three weeks," Rodgers said. "Offense I think has been building the last couple of weeks. We've been playing a little better. We just have to keep getting better. We know what lies ahead of us is a tough stretch, four cold-weather games and hopefully get to Arizona and be in a good position. It's one a time. We have to win both our home games, so it starts this week."
It does start this week. Four years ago, Rodgers turned in a forgettable performance in a no-win situation. On Monday, Rodgers gets his chance to turn in an unforgettable performance in a must-win situation. The stakes are infinitely higher, and they'll get even higher next week and the week after and the week after that. With the season on the line, it's time for Rodgers to prove, once and for all, that he's the franchise quarterback.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.