Couch: This 4th-Down Call Will Haunt Aaron Rodgers’ Legacy Forever

Aaron Rodgers said this won’t haunt him, that it’ll just hurt for a while. But it’s actually going to hurt Rodgers forever and throughout history.

What happens when you get to a big, defining moment in your life, something you’ve worked for forever? You’re standing there, ready to see how you’ll handle it. And then. . .it doesn’t happen.

You don’t succeed. You don’t fail. You smell the moment, but you don’t get to taste it. That’s what happened to Rodgers Sunday in the NFC Championship Game, where Tom Brady and Tampa Bay beat Rodgers and Green Bay 31-26.

Brady goes back to the Super Bowl, his 10th. Rodgers, who’s 37, goes on to an uncertain future with a team that picked his replacement in the first round of the 2020 draft.

Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur took Rodgers’ legacy right out of his hands Sunday with a little over two minutes left in the game. Just took it away. The game meant so much to Rodgers. He managed a great comeback in the second half and got the Packers all the way down to the 8-yard line. Fourth down. Trailing by 8.

What do you do? Do you let Rodgers take his shot? If you watched the game or got within a mile of Twitter last night, then you already know what happened. LaFleur chose to kick a short field goal in the hopes that his defense could get the ball back. That meant holding Brady, the greatest quarterback of all time, from getting a single first down.

Predictably, Brady never gave up the ball.

How did Rodgers feel about the decision to kick?

“I didn’t have a decision on that one,’’ he said afterward. “That wasn’t my decision. But (I) understand the decision and thinking with all of our timeouts. But. . .wasn’t my decision.’’

Rodgers was disconsolate. Yes, the Packers had all three timeouts left. If they could’ve stopped Brady, then Rodgers would’ve had another shot.

LaFleur said: “You not only need the touchdown but you need the two-point (conversion). The way I was looking at it was, you essentially had four timeouts (including the two-minute warning). We knew we needed to get a stop, and I thought we would get a stop there at the end. . .

“Any time something doesn’t work out, do you regret it? Sure. But the way our defense was playing, it felt like the right decision to do. But it didn’t work out.’’

It was the wrong decision. You don’t take the ball out of your great quarterback’s hands when you’re just eight yards away.

So Packers fans and the Twitter mob — maybe they’re one and the same right now — are all over LaFleur for blowing a chance at another Super Bowl. 

But at this point, I think I feel for Rodgers most of all. I don’t know why exactly. The man has made almost a quarter of a billion dollars as a player — not counting commercials and endorsements — has won the Super Bowl and always seems to be in a relationship with one of the world’s most beautiful celebrity women.

There are worse lives.

But the game was billed as a battle between two all-time great quarterbacks. Brady’s legacy is already set as the greatest of all time. He has won six Super Bowls.

But is Rodgers really one of the all-time greats? Or is he just one of the best in this era? He has won one Super Bowl, which puts him in the same category as Mark Rypien, Jeff Hostetler and Trent Dilfer, who are not legends. 

To have gotten to another Super Bowl would have meant so much, especially if it had come by beating Brady.

Rodgers is now 1-4 in Championship Games, and was outclassed badly in a few of them. The Packers trailed San Francisco 27-0 at halftime of last year’s Championship Game, and it was already over.

Rodgers played well Sunday, throwing for 388 yards, three touchdowns and an interception. This was no choke job.

But Brady, who threw three interceptions, gets the glory again.

The thing is, Rodgers has more talent than Brady and even better career numbers in the regular season. He might have better all-around skills than any quarterback in NFL history, other than maybe John Elway.

But in a team sport, there are just too many factors. Brady has proven this year that he can live without his longtime coach, Bill Belichick of New England, but do you really think Brady would have won six Super Bowls without Belichick?

No.

So that’s the burden for Rodgers. He’ll probably win the league’s MVP award this year, but I suspect that will feel hollow. He’ll beat Brady for the award, but Brady owns the Super Bowl in this generation and Rodgers needed to go take that one from him.

He stood on the 8-yard line, facing his big moment — a chance to send the game to overtime. He said he expected to have his chance. But then he was called to the sideline, where he stayed until the end of the game. Then he came out, hugged Brady and wished him well.

It was a haunting way to end his season.

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

31 Comments

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  1. After reading this article I’m honestly reconsidering my VIP subscription…this is the type of overblown “journalism” I’d expect from ESPN. This game did not hinge upon a 4th and 8 when down by 2 minutes to go. The Packers has 1st and goal at the 8 and Rodgers made three bad plays netting 0 yards, if anything that should “haunt” him. And even if by some miracle the Packers get a TD on 4th down and convert the 2 points, there is still 2+ minutes left for Brady to get a game winning FG, which was highly likely. This game was decided at the end of the 1st half when the Packers blew a coverage and allowed a long TD with no time remaining…and at the start of the 2nd half when Aaron Jones fumbled in Green Bay territory leading to another Tampa TD. That’s a 14 point swing, and that’s the game. Rodgers played well, Brady played just Ok, but everyone seems to forget this is a team game. Tampa’s D limited Brady’s 3 turnovers to only 6 Packers points. The Packers D could not do the same, as Green Bay’s 2 turnovers led to 14 Tampa points…end of story. C’mon Outkick, clean up your act or I’m outta here.

  2. The Tampa touchdown at the end of the 1st half was reminiscent of the 2011 Divisional playoff game against the Giants – also played in Green Bay. Eli Manning threw a Hail Mary TD pass to end the first half. That play changed the complexion of the game and propelled the NYG to the win. Bottom line: the decision to kick the field goal instead of going for it on 4th down did not lose the game. At that point in the game, the packers had less that a 10% chance to win the game no matter what they did. The packers had several other opportunities to win the game. The defense had three interceptions and the offense only turned that into six points. Plenty of blame to go around for this one.

  3. AS a life long Packer fan I can honestly say Bucs were better team yesterday. If you can’t protect your QB its hard to win. If you can’t catch the easy passes, its hard to win. If you lose the turnover battle, its hard to win.

  4. King should have been made to turn in his playbook and shoulder pads at halftime. Letting receiver get behind you is cardinal sin. He was in such bad position he could not commit pass interference. Kings play reminded me of Elvis “TOAST” Patterson, former db of the Giants.

  5. Agree John, I’m a lifelong Packers fan and the NYG Hail Mary is very similar to what happened yesterday, and it basically ended the game. Mistakes like that can be overcome against the Detroit Lions in the regular season, but not in the playoffs. It’s hard to watch the Packers continually get close but not reach the top. Rodgers is a great player, generational talent, and isn’t solely to blame obviously. It’s a team sport, and as a team, the Packers just haven’t been good enough in all phases to get back to the Super Bowl.

    • I’m with you MC. I’m tired of seeing the best QB in packer history continue to come up short in the postseason. I still believe in LaFleur and his system. Need a few more playmakers on both sides of the ball to win big games.

  6. Rodgers did what Rodgers does, can’t win when it matters. Give me a winner over a constant also-ran. The media and pundits love to suck him off with “generational player” and “maybe best of all-time at the position from a pure talent” standpoint. The dude cannot win championships. When the moment is big he can’t get it done. Brady now has the same number of NFC championship wins as Rodgers and Brees.

    Packers D gave him thee, count them three additional opportunities and he flat out could not convert them.

    The QB is the most important position on a football team. Rodgers is a great regular season QB that cannot get it done in the playoffs. Plain and simple. If he did not get that one SB he would be the exact same as Philip Rivers.

  7. The Bucs run D (#2 in NFL) shut down the Packers’ 150 yd/game rushing attack and they sacked the very mobile Rodgers FIVE times and pressured him many more times. GB ended up with 67 yards rushing. Bucs won the line of scrimmage and that’s a big part of the win.
    Have to disagree with the characterization of the TD pass at the end of the 1st Half as a “hail mary”.
    Bucs were at the GB 39 with a short 4th down…would have been a 55-56 yd FG try. Bucs could have called any short pass to get the first down…wasn’t a desperation situation and lets just heave the ball up into the end zone.
    Time out called by Bucs, then for some weird reason, by the Pack…which was when Brady came back out since they had extra time to think about what they wanted to do.
    Brady could have called another TO if he wanted and then try the FG but he saw 2-deep coverage, and the safety was shading to the middle of the field before the snap, so why not give it a shot? You could see him looking middle of the field at the snap and watching Miller out of the corner of his eye from the slo-mo reply end zone camera looking back in Brady’s face. Broken coverage by the Pack and their D Coordinator…30 yd catch and then run. Big impact as everybody’s said.
    Hard to fault Rodgers…shouldn’t be on his shoulders alone.

  8. Chris – Rodgers won a championship in 2010; it was the best Packers team he’s been on outside of maybe 2014 when the blew the NFC championship game in Seattle. Agree, the all-time QBs are considered to be those that win multiple Super Bowls. It is a team game, and Brady was sacked once yesterday and had all day to throw, Rodgers was sacked 5 times and was consistently under duress. Rodgers didn’t give up the TD at the end of the first half, Rodgers didn’t fumble deep in Packers territory…he played well, but not perfect, which was what he needed to do to win yesterday. Rodgers and the team fell short, that’s all it is.

  9. Rick – all good points you make, much better journalism than the author of this article. And the similarity to the NYG Hail Mary is not the play itself, but the way it changed momentum and became too much for the Packers to overcome vs a very good Bucs team. The play is inexcusable and should cost Pettine his job, and King a 2nd contract in GB.

    • Hey MC…I was thinking about how great GB’s D was all year, and then this guy #20 King somehow allows that blown coverage (he had no there responsibility ‘cept guys always wanna be in on the action ball-hawking).
      And then towards the end of the game when GB was trying to stop another Bucs first down, King is caught pulling on the jersey of #18 on TB running across the middle. The back judge threw the flag late but we could all see the grab slowed down #18, so good call.
      Anyway…sucks for all the hard work Rodgers and the Pack put in all year long to have two very costly bonehead plays by one DB.

  10. In one season in the NFC at age 43 Brady has tied Rodgers for NFC championships lol…They weren’t winning yesterday whether they went on 4th down or not. They were lucky that the game was even in reach at that point. At least that opens up Rodgers’ schedule on Super Bowl Sunday, maybe he can organize a BLM rally for that day.

  11. The FG decision was baffling. Regardless, this was a team loss. The awkward clock management before the half with Rodgers suddenly forcing an INT that created the opportunity for TB to have a touchdown before half. Poor trench play. Aaron Jones fumbling. Receivers dropping critical passes. Extremely conservative play calls. Rodgers missing Adams on a wide open TD. Rodgers not trying to run on that 3rd down with about 2:00 to go. Kevin King.

    Packers are similar to the the 2000s Eagles. Get to NFCCG and lose. Rodgers, Manning, and Brees are all fantastic regular season QBs (marathon QBs). Playoffs (sprint QBs)? Brady.

  12. anyone notice what NFL films is doing to the Redskins name and logo?

    i’ve some clips. they are digitally obscuring Redskins and the Logo when they can.

    Go Bucs!!! my old team is being beaten up by the PC world and will be the Washington Red-Feathers in minor league football when the league contracts.

  13. Just to pile on, Rodgers should be much more concerned with the opportunity he passed up to run for the TD on 3rd down, and the other failed goal to go where he forced three straight passes to Adams. One of those passes was very good, but the other two were duds.

    Green Bay just got beat, no one single play decided it (although I thought the field goal was a poor choice). Tampa has the better D-Line, and that was the biggest difference. Rodgers was an awful lot, and that killed drives and kept points off the board. We are getting the better team in the SB. Couldn’t ask for a better SB matchup unless you’re a GB fan.

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