I've been lucky enough to see a few of the greatest moments in Aaron Rodgers' still-growing career, both in person and on TV.
I was at Lambeau Field the day Rodgers launched a bomb on Sunday Night Football to connect with Greg Jennings and beat the Bears. I watched, transfixed, as Rodgers eviscerated the Atlanta Falcons in the playoffs en route to a Super Bowl win. I remember seeing him thread the needle again and again to beat the Steelers in that Super Bowl, whether it was the game's first touchdown to Jordy Nelson, the rocket ball to Greg Jennings that even Troy Polamalu couldn't knock away, or the game sealing laser, again to Jennings, that helped put Pittsburgh away for good.
Sunday, Rodgers topped them all.
Single moments can come to define an athlete's career, fair or not. Because of a strong Super Bowl performance early in his career, Brett Favre is more often remembered as the efficient champion than the quarterback who sent his own team home with boneheaded interceptions late in his career. And similarly, LeBron James fought his reputation as a choker (despite loads of evidence to the contrary) early in his career when he was trounced by the Spurs in the Finals and bounced by the Celtics his last year in Cleveland. The reputation followed until James himself led a championship parade through the streets of Miami.
In the same vein as James, Rodgers has been rumored to be the guy who might not be able to get it done in the clutch. Every time the Packers lose a close game, ESPN Stats and Info trots out the number about the Packers won/loss record when Rodgers plays. It's a terribly flawed stat, but it's been used to paint the Packers quarterback as one who might just be a front runner who puts up gaudy numbers. While Rodgers may not have redefined his legacy with a single moment on Sunday, he certainly went a long way towards writing one of his own design, one that can't be dismissed by numbers pulled out of a hat.
Needing only a field goal, the Packers found themselves in a horrible down and distance still well outside field goal range. If 4th and 8 on the 48 yard line isn't a death sentence, it's everything but. How many plays does a team have for that situation? Run a route too short and you'll forever be the goat for getting six yards when you needed eight. Conversely, every yard longer than eight and you add untold complications to the equation, either just by throwing more moving parts into the equation or simply increasing the risk that your quarterback will get sacked.
The Packers, however, may be uniquely blessed. Not only do they have a virtuoso performer at the game's most difficult decision, but his most dynamic receiver also once lined up under center. Randall Cobb, for all his lightning speed and open field brilliance, may be most skilled in the mental execution of his position. He thinks like a quarterback, and therefore runs routes that are most advantageous to his quarterback.
So facing 4th and 8 in the no man's land of being too far out for a field goal and much too late in the game for a punt, the Packers turned to a former quarterback and the man who plays the position as well as anyone who's ever taken a snap from center. Cobb was supposed to run an eight yard hitch, but saw man coverage and audibled, bursting past his man into the clear.
Rodgers, meanwhile, did what he does best: recognize a blitz and destroy it. The Bears brought seven on 4th and 8, and were it not for a heroic block by the nearly forgotten John Kuhn, they might have gotten home.
In a season filled with disappointment and unfulfilled promise, the Packers' best player connected with their most dynamic playmaker to save what could have been a lost season.
The Packers may go nowhere in the playoffs. It's just as likely that San Francisco will pound them deep into the Lambeau turf than that they'll actually win, but Sunday night showed exactly what Aaron Rodgers gives the Packers when he's on the field: hope.
His legacy may be a work in progress. There may still be work to do, games to win, and touchdowns to throw. But in the midst of swirling rumors about toughness and a rift with management, Rodgers delivered a strike that ended Chicago's season and carried the Packers to the playoffs. He showed that whenever he's on the field, the Packers still have have a chance. They still have hope.
And if hope is the beginning of what defines your legacy, you're off to a great start.