By Jason Keidel
I’ve been quite kind to Aaron Rodgers over the years.
I have no provincial interest in Rodgers, the Packers, or Green Bay, Wisconsin, other than a distant admiration for the juggernaut spawned by a fellow New Yorker, Vince Lombardi. But greatness has value, beauty, and its share of admirers. We can debate all day about Rodgers’ place among the greats — some of us assert he’s the best thrower of a football who ever lived. But there’s no denying that pro football is better, and more appealing, when Rodgers is in it.
Now he’s not.
Rodgers is the latest in a conga line of A-List NFL players who won’t play next week, or next month, and likely won’t play until next year. It’s a lousy break (pun intended) for a franchise (Green Bay Packers) that was expected to contend for a Super Bowl title this season. Not because the Packers have a surplus of All-Pro talent. Not because they suddenly play great defense, or built a robust running game. But because just having Aaron Rodgers on your football club makes you relevant. In fact, the Packers have been a walking triage this autumn, losing five tackles, some safeties, and an assortment of other players.
The Packers can overcome losing a left tackle. They can endure a missing cornerback. They can suffer through a few UPS drivers in the secondary. But they can’t lose their best player, and the NFL’s best player, at the sport’s most important position.
Rodgers is not a monstrous man. He’s not a hulking quarterback, in the mold of Andrew Luck, Ben Roethlisberger, or Joe Flacco, who could have played linebacker in another era. Rodgers was born and built to play quarterback, nothing else. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons he’s so good at it. So it’s not a coincidence he gets hurt more than his fans would like. In fact, he’s already broken his left collarbone, and now has a matching right, broken collarbone.
But was it just bad luck? Or was there at least a hint of foul play?
Surfing the early morning sports chatter, it was tough to find anyone griping about the actual hit that broke the bone. As we’ve entered an NFL portal of super-sensitivity, at least regarding quarterbacks, we should ask if Vikings LB Anthony Barr went too far.
Surely you’ve seen the play in the recycle bin of highlights. Rodgers had let the ball fly before Barr even touched him. A push, a shove, a yank on the jersey, are all acceptably forms of letting the QB know how close you got to him. But Barr didn’t just grab Rodgers. He wrapped him hp and tackled him. He didn’t just tackle him, he lunged into Rodgers, drove him into the ground, and used his full body weight to bodyslam Rodgers. It was a textbook tackle… to snap a clavicle.
This isn’t revisionist blather, Monday Morning Quarterbacking at its worse. Football is a rough game played by rough men. There’s a reason the injury rate is 100 percent, and the average NFL career is barely three years. For every Manning, Brady, or Big Ben, who have sprawling, legendary careers that end in retired jerseys and bronzed busts, there are hundreds who sweat for a spot on practice squads, who play with mangled limbs just to qualify for an NFL roster, much less a pension.
Like most red-blooded, 40-something American males, I fell in love with pro football during its halcyon years. The 1970s spawned a sports empire. The NFL was rife with dynasties and iconic quarterbacks and a Wild-West attitude toward tackling. It was a decade of savage violence, of head-slaps and forearms to the helmet and mangled limbs. And now we’re seeing those players in repose, as they limp under the dim lights of dementia.
We’ve come a rather long way from the anarchy of Mike Curtis, Chris Hanburger, and Jack Tatum. But when you consider that NFL stars are dropping like zapped bugs — Rodgers joins J.J. Watt and Odell Beckham Jr. as three of the sport’s five biggest stars on the shelf — you wonder why more isn’t made of how Rodgers got knocked out of the game, and likely the season.
You often hear baseball players say they’re okay with umpires who call the outside strike, even if it’s not a strike, as long as they’re consistent. Likewise, if we’re protecting players in general, and quarterbacks in particular, then do it. Nothing Anthony Barr did to Aaron Rodgers affected or altered the actual football play. It only impacted Aaron Rodgers, whom we won’t likely see in uniform until 2018.
Maybe it was just a hard, clean play. Maybe Barr committed no foul. But we can’t say he did no harm.
Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.