The hype that came with the NFC West was inevitable, really.
It started in the offseason, when the Los Angeles Rams made a blockbuster trade for quarterback Matthew Stafford and the Arizona Cardinals added big names such as defensive end J.J. Watt and wide receiver A.J. Green to a mix that already included quarterback Kyler Murray, receiver DeAndre Hopkins and outside linebacker Chandler Jones.
Add in the San Francisco 49ers, the 2019 NFC champions, getting healthy over the offseason and the star power of quarterback Russell Wilson and coach Pete Carroll for the defending division champion Seattle Seahawks, and we knew this season had potential. And it has been fun, starting with the division going a combined 7-1 over the first two weeks (the loss was in overtime, by the way) and the Cardinals entering Week 6 as the league’s sole undefeated team.
These storylines prompted FiveThirtyEight to wonder if the NFC West is best division in NFL history. While that will play out eventually, we know that a) the NFC West can ball and b) that it’s shifted 180 degrees from where it was in 2010, when the Seahawks became the first team in NFL history to win a division with a losing record.
ESPN reporters Josh Weinfuss (Arizona Cardinals), Lindsey Thiry (Los Angeles Rams), Nick Wagoner (San Francisco 49ers) and Brady Henderson (Seattle Seahawks) answer the most pressing questions in the division:
Has the NFC West lived up to its preseason billing as the toughest division?
Weinfuss: It’s really good but I’m not sold through five weeks that it’s the toughest division. The 49ers have lost three in a row and haven’t looked good at times, and the Seahawks don’t look like the Seahawks of old. Is the NFC West a great division? Yes. Is it the toughest? The AFC West and NFC South may want a word.
Thiry: FiveThirtyEight’s argument the NFC West could be the best division in NFL history has passed the eyeball test through five weeks, but moving forward it seems disputable given that Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is sidelined indefinitely and 49ers quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance are also dealing with injuries. Nevertheless, all four teams have greater than a 25% chance to make the playoffs, putting the entire division in the postseason ahead of 17 other teams, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
Wagoner: So far, yes. The division was a Seattle late-game meltdown against Tennessee from becoming the first in NFL history to start the season 8-0, proving the strength of the group when playing other NFC divisions and the AFC. The Cardinals are the NFL’s only undefeated team and the Rams have a win against the defending Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In addition, the in-division games have mostly been hotly contested. The West already looked tough, but the Cardinals’ emergence has taken it to another level.
Henderson: Well, it’s got more combined wins than any other division, and the league’s lone unbeaten team. So … yeah. We’ll see if the Seahawks can stay afloat and avoid dragging things down. Hard to argue this hasn’t been the best division so far.
How’s your quarterback?
Weinfuss: Murray has been pretty good. That was sarcasm. Murray is one of the best in football right now. He’s the co-favorite with the Buffalo Bills‘ Josh Allen for MVP according to Caesars sportsbook. Statistically, he’s one of the top quarterbacks in the game. He’s a conundrum for defenses because of his ability to run, sidestep, stop, cut, and then throw every type of pass in the book. There isn’t much he can’t do physically. As long as he stays healthy, which was the issue last season during Arizona’s 3-6 finish, Murray will continue being one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
Thiry: Stafford is delivering exactly what was expected when L.A. completed a blockbuster trade for the veteran quarterback during the offseason. Stafford’s arm, understanding of the defense and ability to throw under pressure has enabled coach Sean McVay to open the playbook, including explosive throws downfield the Rams lacked in recent seasons. Through a 4-1 start, Stafford has passed for 1,587 yards, the third-most in the NFL and the fourth-most by any player during his first five games with a team in NFL history. He has completed four passes for 40-plus air yards, despite having five such completions last season with the Detroit Lions. And according to Stafford, even better days lie ahead. “We’d love to be 5-0,” he said after a 26-17 Week 5 win over division rival Seattle. “But we are where we are, and I think the fun thing is being 4-1 and knowing that my best game of football hasn’t been played yet.”
Wagoner: The 49ers have the most complicated quarterback dynamic in the league, not just the division. Coach Kyle Shanahan has stuck by his word that Garoppolo will be the starter, with rookie Lance getting situational snaps. Lance made his first start against Arizona when Garoppolo was dealing with a right calf injury. Lance flashed the dual-threat ability Garoppolo simply doesn’t have, leaving many to wonder if he increases San Francisco’s upside. Barring another injury, it seems Garoppolo will return as starter after the Week 6 bye, but it remains to be seen for how long. If the sagging offensive production (and the accompanying slow starts) continue, Lance’s time will come. That’s especially true if the Niners don’t get their season pointed in the right direction.
Henderson: It’s not good in Seattle. But under the circumstances, it could be much worse. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reports there’s a strong chance Wilson can return in as few as four weeks. That stretch includes the Seahawks’ bye as well as two winnable games — Sunday night at the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oct. 31 at home vs. the currently winless Jacksonville Jaguars. A Monday night game against the New Orleans Saints in between will be more difficult. But backup quarterback Geno Smith is competent enough and the schedule is favorable enough to think the Seahawks have a chance at emerging from that three-game stretch at 4-4. They’d need their defense to show up and running back Chris Carson to stay healthy — he missed last week with a neck injury — so the Seahawks can lean on the running game and take the pressure off Smith.
What’s the biggest issue facing each team?
Weinfuss: Injuries for the Cardinals. Through a 5-0 start, Arizona has shown the NFL that it has the offense and defense to win big. This team doesn’t have many, if any, major weaknesses. Until scoring just 17 to squeeze out a win over the 49ers on Sunday, Arizona was averaging 35 points a game. It has been dominant. If the Cardinals can keep up that type of offensive rate, the only thing stopping them this year is staying healthy. If they can do that, the ceiling is really high. If they can’t, an injury to key players could stop the momentum before it really gets going.
Thiry: Inconsistency for the Rams. A week after an emotional 34-24 win over the Buccaneers, the Rams suffered a significant letdown in a 37-20 loss to the Cardinals. At times, the offense, defense and special teams appear to be Super Bowl-caliber units, with Stafford completing highlight-reel throws and the defense standing strong at the goal line, but each phase has also been prone to letdowns and therefore the team has had to grind out what players described as ugly wins in Indianapolis and Seattle. For the Rams to achieve their full potential and forge a deep playoff and Super Bowl run, they must consistently prepare week-to-week and develop the ability to play consistently in all three phases throughout a game.
Wagoner: The 49ers, mired in a three-game losing streak, have had many issues, but most of them seem to fall under the disappointing offensive performance umbrella. The dominant Super Bowl defense of 2019 isn’t around anymore, meaning the offense needs to make up the difference. So far, that hasn’t happened. The Niners are still moving the ball fairly consistently but are lacking big plays (their 15 plays of 20-plus yards are tied for 27th in the league) and have been getting off to painfully slow starts. In the four games after Week 1, the Niners have scored a combined 21 first-half points. No matter who is at quarterback, the Niners need more from everyone on the offense, Garoppolo and Lance included.
Henderson: It’s Wilson’s injury for the Seahawks, but we’ll get to that in a second. Because unless Seattle can fix its broken defense, it won’t matter how long it takes Wilson to get back. The Seahawks have allowed at least 450 yards in four straight games. According to ESPN Stats & Information, that’s the longest streak in team history and tied for the longest in NFL history. The issues are across the board: problematic cornerback play, an underperforming pass rush, not enough takeaways and not enough impact plays from Jamal Adams, who isn’t blitzing as often. Seattle’s defense got off to another historically bad start last year, and it lasted longer than this one has before it did a 180 around midseason. The impetus was the pass rush getting going. The Seahawks have as much firepower as last year, which suggests they can pull off another turnaround. But if Smith is going to have any chance at keeping them alive, it can’t wait until midseason. It has to happen now.
How will the division shake out?
Weinfuss order of finish: Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks, Niners. The Cardinals won’t just win the division — they’ll be one of the top two seeds in the NFC.
Thiry order of finish: Cardinals, Rams, 49ers, Seahawks. The Cardinals will win the division. It remains a somewhat risky pick, given Kliff Kingsbury’s squad started hot last season before collapsing through the second half of the schedule. Murray is playing terrific with another season of experience and the defense has tightened up.
Wagoner order of finish: Rams, Cardinals, 49ers, Seahawks. The Rams and Cardinals reach the postseason but don’t be surprised if the third-place finisher here does, too.
Henderson order of finish: Cardinals, Rams, Seahawks, 49ers. The Seahawks will get Wilson back and fix their defense in time to at least make things interesting down the stretch.
New York Giants hire Buffalo Bills executive Joe Schoen as general manager
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The New York Giants have hired Buffalo Bills assistant general manager Joe Schoen as their new general manager. He replaces Dave Gettleman, who retired last week after a four-year stint that produced a 19-46 record.
Schoen becomes just the Giants’ fifth general manager in the past 41 years. His first order of business will be to drive the organization’s search for a new head coach. Joe Judge was the third consecutive New York coach to be fired after two seasons or fewer when he was dismissed after a 4-13 campaign.
“Now, the work begins,” Schoen said in a statement. “My immediate focus is to hire a head coach, with who I will work in lockstep with to create a collaborative environment for our football operations.”
The Giants are expected to request permission to speak with former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores for the opening, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
The Giants are also expected to speak with Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Dan Quinn and Bills offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, among others, sources told Schefter.
Hiring a coach will just be the beginning for Schoen, as he has to fix a franchise that is tied for the worst record (22-59) over the past five seasons with the New York Jets. League sources have indicated the Giants painted the impression with candidates that the next GM will receive sort of a carte blanche to reshape the structure of the organization as needed.
Schoen has worked closely with Bills general manager Brandon Beane, building Buffalo into a powerhouse in recent years. The Bills won their second consecutive AFC East title this season and are set to play the Chiefs on Sunday in an AFC divisional-round playoff game.
A former quarterback/wide receiver at DePauw University, Schoen was part of the group that selected quarterback Josh Allen with the seventh overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft. The Giants grabbed running back Saquon Barkley that year at No. 2 overall. It was a franchise-changing decision for Buffalo, which has recorded double-digit wins each of the past three seasons.
Schoen’s career began in 2000 as an intern in the Carolina Panthers‘ ticket department. He worked his way up the ladder from there, spending time in personnel with the Panthers, Dolphins and Bills. He rose to director of player personnel with the Dolphins under Bill Parcells, then reunited with Beane, his former co-worker in Carolina, in Buffalo.
Schoen has worked extensively with the analytics, personnel and football operations, and has been described by co-workers as someone who “never stops working.” He also interviewed with the Chicago Bears and was involved in the Panthers’ general manager search last year.
Tennessee Titans RB Derrick Henry to be activated, expected to start vs. Cincinnati Bengals
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Tennessee Titans will activate running back Derrick Henry for their AFC divisional-round playoff game against the Cincinnati Bengals on Saturday, and he is expected to start when the offense takes the field, a source told ESPN.
The team has until 4 p.m. ET on Friday to make the move official.
Titans coach Mike Vrabel wanted to see how Henry would respond to contact during practice on Tuesday, when the team was in pads, before deciding whether the team would add Henry to the 53-man roster. Running backs coach Tony Dews put Henry through a series of drills during the individual period of practice; each drill concluded with a collision with two defensive players.
“It has been a while since he has had contact,” Vrabel said. “We are going to have to do these things that will come close to replicating what is going to be asked of him in a football game.”
Henry took part in all practices this week and didn’t have any setbacks. The Titans felt that Henry showed progress throughout the week as his workload increased.
“I felt great,” Henry said. “I just wanted to get some pads on. Haven’t them on in a while and got some contact going.”
How much of a workload Henry will get against the Bengals on Saturday remains to be seen. Offensive coordinator Todd Downing said the team will monitor how Henry progresses during the game.
Henry said he isn’t concerned about getting a heavy workload and is willing to do whatever it takes to help his team win. He feels he’s done everything he can during practice to get ready so he can contribute on game day.
Downing acknowledged that the flow of the game could also dictate how much Henry plays. But he is looking forward to the potential of having the “three-headed monster” in the backfield, which would consist of Henry, D’Onta Foreman and Dontrell Hilliard. Foreman and Hilliard combined for 916 rushing yards and five touchdowns in nine games.
The Titans designated Henry for return to practice from injured reserve on Jan. 5. The designation opened a 21-day window for Henry to be added to the 53-man active roster.
Henry was placed on injured reserve on Nov. 1 because of a fractured foot he suffered in the team’s 34-31 win over the Indianapolis Colts in Week 8. Despite only playing eight games, Henry’s 937 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns rank sixth among all running backs this season. Henry led the NFL in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns at the time of his injury.
The unfiltered year of Aaron Rodgers
SITTING IN WHAT has become the most famous living room in football, sipping a scotch and wearing a half-zip with a Masters logo, Aaron Rodgers couldn’t stop grinning.
Peyton Manning and Eli Manning had just asked him, as part of their ManningCast that streams during Monday Night Football, what some of the books were on the bookshelf behind him. What had he been reading? Rodgers, who frequently does interviews from his home, with his bookshelf in the background, was happy to share his tastes with the world.
“I’ve got ‘Atlas Shrugged’ here by Ayn Rand,” Rodgers said, trying hard to suppress a smile. The look on his face was a fairly obvious tell, especially to those who watch him being interviewed weekly. But this was intended for a different audience.
The truth? He’d never read “Atlas Shrugged.” Rodgers wasn’t even aware of how to properly pronounce Rand’s first name. He picked it because it was the book with the biggest spine on his bookshelf. He suspected that alone might annoy certain people.
He was right. Social media erupted with chatter, thousands ripping into Rodgers because they assumed he was celebrating Rand’s most famous novel, a libertarian laudation of capitalism and rugged individualism. But in different circles, the selection was applauded, and Rodgers was hailed as an independent thinker. Rodgers found the whole episode painfully predictable.
“I was laughing about it before,” Rodgers said in an exclusive interview with ESPN two days before the Green Bay Packers were set to play the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC divisional round. “I was moving some books over and replacing some things behind me, I was like, ‘Oh dude, I could never read this book.’ It’s however many pages. That’s how stupid this thing is. I’m reading some mentions or Twitter stuff and these people are loving me up. They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, libertarian, blah, blah, blah.’ I’m like, ‘What the f—?’ And then the people on the other side canceled me. ‘That’s kind of trashy, he’s reading Ayn Rand.’ I’m like, I haven’t read it! And even if I did, who gives a s—? It’s a book. I can read something and not immediately have it overtake my personal ideologies. And that’s the problem with society, is everything is triggering and offensive. It’s wild.”
It was the perfect anecdote to explain a season that has, in myriad ways, been a distillation of Aaron Rodgers’ entire being. In both his cleats and from the confines of his couch, he has behaved as though he feels blissfully unrestrained at age 38.
On the football field, Rodgers has flexed his gifts so frequently and with such brilliance, it is the rare season of quarterback play that feels like he has left behind mechanics of the position and transformed them into something closer to art. His stats (4,115 yards, 37 touchdowns, 4 INTs) barely scratch the surface of explaining what it’s been like to witness. Every game, Rodgers seemed to make a handful of throws that felt like a testament to his genius: throws where he was off-balance, throws where he was falling down and throws where he couldn’t see his receiver, where the ball would whistle through the arms of four defenders, land in someone’s arms, and the difference between euphoria and disaster could be measured in fingernails.
Off the field, he has been equally brazen, leaning into culture wars, showing the world he is unafraid to fight back or denounce anyone he believes has lied about him or wronged him. Just as there appears to be no single throw he won’t attempt, there is also no opinion he will back down from if he feels he is right.
The two sides of Rodgers felt intertwined, each fueled by the same flood of self-confidence and unapologetic joy. At the start of the year, he looked miserable and frustrated with his own team, and admitted he’d contemplated retirement. Now he seemed as happy as he’d ever been.
Last week I sent an email to the Packers, wondering if Rodgers would agree to speak on the phone, and I crafted some questions I thought might intrigue him. To my surprise, he said he did want to talk, and called on Thursday afternoon. He was blunt when I asked him why.
“It seemed like you’re thinking about writing a hit piece,” Rodgers said. “So I just want to make sure that you got questions answered from me before you went ahead and did that.”
I had spent all season studying his interviews, watching his games and reading books he’d recommended on “The Pat McAfee Show.” The impression I got was that he wanted to be understood, but he didn’t feel like most people (particularly his critics) were even willing to listen.
Rodgers explained that he didn’t think he was right about everything. He was saying it was essential we listen to opposing views, and then be allowed to debate.
“We isolate ourselves into these echo chambers where we’re only going to listen to things or read things or watch things that confirm our initial thoughts about things,” Rodgers said. “That’s no way to grow; that just keeps us divided even more.”
His entire season, on some level, had been about this: He wasn’t going to back down from anything.
LET’S START WITH football. Do you remember Rodgers’ fiery, cathartic fist pump against the 49ers?
It’s OK if you missed it. The season was just getting started. So much happened before and after. But it’s an important part of the journey.
The Packers weren’t a juggernaut back in September. No one was sure, early on, how engaged Rodgers was going to be, particularly after his failed offseason rebellion. The team looked listless in a season-opening 38-3 loss to the Saints, and Rodgers looked awful, throwing two interceptions, playing one of the worst games of his career. One of his ex-teammates, Jermichael Finley, went on ESPN Radio in the days after the loss and declared Rodgers didn’t have the hunger to win another championship, then also speculated he wanted to quit. Boomer Esiason mocked his “man bun” and his search for “inner peace.” Nate Burleson said Rodgers looked bored on the sideline. Bill Cowher questioned his commitment to continue playing football and said he looked selfish.
An easy win over the hapless Lions in Week 2 offered only minor reassurances. During his weekly appearance on “The Pat McAfee Show,” Rodgers made it clear he did not appreciate the baseless critiques of his mental state and suggested the “blue checkm wearks” on Twitter were trying to use him to get famous. He wanted to make it clear he wasn’t going to listen to people lie about him and stay quiet. Not anymore.
“I think for so long in my life, I was very private about everything and didn’t like really a whole lot of anything out there,” Rodgers told me. “And I still do enjoy a separation of private life and [professional] life, but there were far too many people who were trying to write the narrative of my life and writing things or speaking for me that perpetuated this idea about who I was or what I felt or what the truth was that was just patently false. So, it wasn’t so much about caring what people said about me, it was wanting to halt narratives about me that are just, at their core, not true.”
It wasn’t until Week 3, a Sunday night game in San Francisco, that the real narrative of the season began to take shape.
With 37 seconds left, the Packers looked like a boxer trying to stay upright after absorbing a flurry of punches. Jimmy Garoppolo had just thrown a touchdown to give the 49ers a 28-27 lead, and the Packers had no timeouts. Levi’s Stadium was thunderously loud. Rodgers paced the sideline alone, all emotion drained from his face. Even early in the season, it felt like a moment.
What happened next was as audacious as it was mesmerizing. The 49ers came out in a four-deep zone, prioritized cutting off any passes thrown toward the sideline. Middle linebacker Fred Warner, among the best linebackers in football, retreated to the middle of the field. For half a second, he leaned the wrong way, and that was all Rodgers needed. Standing at his own 14-yard line, he lasered a pass with a flick of his wrist. The playcall was one he and Matt LaFleur had made up just days prior. Rodgers wasn’t throwing the ball to Davante Adams as much as he was flinging it toward a spot only he could envision, a tiny pocket within the 49ers’ defense, trusting Adams to be there. Warner jumped as high as his body would allow, his right arm straining and fully extended. But the ball whizzed past his fingertips and into Adams’ arms at midfield. An extraordinary throw made to look mundane.
“He’s just calm, cool and collected,” Adams said, describing after the game what Rodgers is like with the game on the line. “He’s intense, but he doesn’t say much.”
Another completion to Adams followed, then a spike to stop the clock with three seconds left. As Rodgers ran off the field, ceding the stage to kicker Mason Crosby for the winning field goal, he uncorked a vicious fist pump in the direction of the Packers’ sideline. He was energized and ebullient; he’d just reminded the world there is no one else like him.
“It gives us some legitimacy,” Rodgers said after the game. “It felt like in the locker room that we finally had the energy I’ve been waiting to see. It felt like a growth moment for us. It feels like, ‘OK, now we’re on our way.'”
In his postgame news conference, Rodgers took a break from X’s and O’s talk to field one philosophical question: Why was he still capable of so much magic, especially considering how poorly regarded he was as a high school prospect?
“I always felt like there are things you can’t measure,” he said. “I’m not the tallest guy, I’m not the fastest guy by any means, but I feel like I have the intangibles. And I’ve grown over the years. All great competitors have to be first critical of themselves and look for growth opportunities, and there are things I’ve said and done that I wish I’d done better over the years. But I’ve always tried to lead with authenticity and stay true to who I was.”
He didn’t wear a mask when he met with the media, and hadn’t done so all season, a violation of the NFL’s protocols for unvaccinated players. But that wouldn’t become clear until a month later, when Rodgers tested positive for COVID-19 and had to miss the Packers’ game against Kansas City. (He was eventually fined $14,650 by the NFL.) Asked in the preseason whether he was vaccinated, Rodgers uttered what may go down as four of the most infamous words of his career: “Yeah, I’ve been immunized.”
The phrasing, he said on Thursday, was not misleading. It was in fact purposeful and specific.
“I had a plan going in for that question to be asked,” Rodgers said. “It was a pseudo witch hunt going on — who was vaccinated, who wasn’t vaccinated. I was in a multimonth conversation that turned into an appeal process with the NFL at that time, and my appeal hinged on that exact statement [immunized]. So what I said was, number one, factually true. I went through a multi-immunization process. And at the end of that, I don’t know what you would call it, I would call it immunized.”
Why did one of America’s most highly regarded athletes, a former “Jeopardy” host, no less, thrust himself into the center of the vaccine debate? The clues, if you were looking, have always been there. This is who Rodgers has long been — skeptic, alternative thinker and contrarian — dating all the way back to his childhood growing up in Chico, California.
He doesn’t think he’s a jerk, as some people have implied. All he’s doing, in his mind, is being true to his beliefs.
“I don’t want to apologize for being myself,” Rodgers said. “I just want to be myself.”
AS A TEENAGER, he felt like a boy adrift between cliques despite being a star quarterback for Pleasant Valley High School. The colleges where Rodgers wanted to play football had no interest in him, most of them convinced any high school football played north of Sacramento wasn’t worth the effort it would take to scout. Florida State wouldn’t even look at him. Illinois told him he could walk on. When he sent Purdue some tape, someone on the staff replied with a polite letter explaining their lack of interest that contained the line: “Good luck with your aspirations in college football.” The innocuous line enraged him. Rodgers highlighted it and stewed over it for years. His favorite band, Counting Crows, became the perfect soundtrack for his ruminative teenage brooding.
The interest he did have was from Division III schools like Occidental College, Lewis & Clark and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. He contemplated quitting football entirely. It wasn’t until — the burly, affable head coach at Butte Community College — begged Rodgers to play for the Roadrunners, the junior college just south of Chico, that he figured out his non-traditional path forward.
“His mom said, ‘No son of mine is going to junior college,'” Rigsbee said. “I said, ‘Look, our general ed classes are the same as they are anywhere, whether you’re at Stanford, Cal or Harvard. The War of 1812 doesn’t change just because you’re at Butte College. Those classes will transfer anywhere in the world. Your degree isn’t going to say Butte College.'”
That resonated with Rodgers, who agreed to enroll at Butte as long as he could compete for the job as a freshman. By the end of preseason two-a-day practices, Rigsbee named him the starter, giving him the nod over a senior who’d been with the program for three seasons.
“That other guy was a really good player, but he ended up quitting, and his mom wrote me the most scathing letter,” Rigsbee said. “She said, ‘Coach, you’re an offensive lineman, you don’t know s— about quarterbacks. My son is 10 times the quarterback Aaron Rodgers is, he’ll never do s—. You wait and see.'”
A year after leading Butte Community College to a 10-1 record, Rodgers was playing at Cal. Two years after that, he was a first-round NFL draft pick. It’s a story that’s been told many times, but it’s one that is crucial to understanding him. Chico and Butte are where he learned to trust his own instincts and that knowledge could come from anywhere. It’s where he drifted away from what he considers the dogmatic religious views of his family.
“Ultimately, it was that rules and regulations and binary systems don’t really resonate with me,” Rodgers said on a 2020 podcast with then-girlfriend Danica Patrick, discussing how he came to see himself as spiritual rather than religious. “Some people just need structure and tradition. That works for them. I don’t have a problem with it. It just doesn’t resonate with me.”
Rigsbee has, over the years, remained close with Rodgers. Maybe not in his inner circle, but something not too far outside it. The coach, now retired, thinks of the quarterback almost like family. He has two signed jerseys of Rodgers’ hanging in his rec room, one thanking him for believing in him when no one else would. They text off and on, and Rigsbee tries to see him play in person at least once a year. Rodgers has even taken him backstage at Counting Crows concerts. It’s not something many people from Rodgers’ hometown can say. In order to become the man he wanted to be, Rodgers decided to leave certain pieces of Chico behind, an evolution that’s not uncommon for aspiring intellectuals but one that isn’t without complications and sadness. Rodgers hasn’t spoken to his parents or his two brothers in several years, for reasons he has declined to disclose.
“Aaron’s traveled the world,” Rigsbee said. “He’s seen a lot. He’s not some little Chico, California, boy anymore. He’s seen people be phony to him, he’s seen his good friends dog him, his relatives dog him. You end up really shrinking your inner circle of friends.”
Rigsbee says he wasn’t surprised when his former player became embroiled in a controversy over the COVID-19 vaccine. “He’s a true independent thinker,” Rigsbee said. “He doesn’t want to be anyone’s activist; he’s not a Democrat or a Republican. He believes you should be able to think for yourself. I think the press is mad at him because they didn’t follow up when he said he was immunized. They should have said, ‘What does immunized mean? Are you vaccinated or are you not?’ I think the press is mad because they think he’s saying he’s smarter than them. Well, guess what? He is smarter than them. He told the truth. They didn’t ask the right questions. I was proud of him.”
There is a lot of skepticism of the COVID-19 vaccine in Butte County, where only 51% of residents are considered fully vaccinated, one of the lower rates in the state. Oroville, a city of 20,000 just south of Chico, made national headlines this past November when its city council and mayor declared it a “constitutional republic” that would not enforce Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statewide vaccine mandates. Rodgers’ father, Ed, a chiropractor in Chico, has been highly critical of vaccine mandates on Twitter, frequently calling out “brainwashed liberal idiots” who are “destroying their organs” by taking the vaccine. (Ed Rodgers did not respond to an interview request from ESPN.)
Rigsbee, though, didn’t hesitate to get vaccinated. He believed it was the right decision for him considering his age and overall health, but it was a decision that put him in the minority among his friends.
“My best friend in the whole world was a big anti-vax guy,” Rigsbee said. “He was a small-business owner, had a really successful roofing company. He would come over every day and work out with me, and we’d walk our dogs together. He kept saying, ‘Riggs, I’m not getting vaxxed, it’s just the government trying to track you.’ I teased him: ‘I hate to break it to you, buddy, but no one gives a s— about tracking you.’
One day at breakfast, Rigsbee says his friend started coughing but insisted it was just a cold. The next day, he and his wife were admitted to the hospital with COVID-19. Three days later, his friend died of a heart attack after a blood clot formed in his lung.
“My buddy Greg, he ended up giving it to three of our friends,” Rigsbee said. “All three of them almost died. Only one guy in our group didn’t get it. Guess who that was? Me. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.”
What happened was crushing, Rigsbee said, but it didn’t change how he felt about Rodgers’ own vaccination decision.
“Who am I to condemn someone for what they believe?” Rigsbee said. “If you don’t want to have a vaccination, [who] am I to tell you that’s wrong? Obviously he’s a healthy athlete in his prime. He actually has a very high level of doctors, physicians, physiologists working for him. He’s not the average guy. When he says he did his own research, it’s actually true. He has access to a level of medicine most people don’t. He’s not like one of my buddies who is going on the internet and thinking they found something no one had ever discovered before.”
IF YOU VIEW football as human chess played at bone-rattling speeds, and the personal lives or political views of players are meaningless to you, it’s possible none of what Rodgers has said this season matters. Does anyone care, now, that Picasso was a narcissist? Or that J.D. Salinger cut people out of his life with little explanation? In the end, their talents gave them an easy path to absolution in the eyes of history. Hubris, as Michael Jordan taught us, is often just the backbone of ambition.
Aaron Rodgers did not have his best game of the season against the Chicago Bears when the teams met at Soldier Field in mid-October. He threw for just 195 yards and two touchdowns. But he might have given us the season’s signature moment with 4:38 left in the fourth quarter, the Packers leading 17-14.
From the Bears’ 6-yard line, Rodgers dropped back to pass, pump-faked to his left, then began dancing in the pocket. Everything was covered. He started to look flustered, his eyes darting in every direction. Rodgers scrambled to his right, desperate to find someone freelancing a route in the other half of the end zone, but all he could see was a wall of white jerseys suffocating the green ones. He pump-faked again, then decided to make a feverish dash toward the corner of the end zone. At the pylon, Bears safety Eddie Jackson reached him a step late but lowered his shoulder and knocked Rodgers off his feet anyway, sending the quarterback half-stumbling, half-sliding to the turf. Touchdown. Ballgame.
“I own you! All my f—ing life, I own you!” Rodgers roared, staring down a sea of rowdy Bears fans. “I still own you! All my life!”
He said he could not remember, after the game, what he had shouted.
“Sometimes you black out on the field in a good way,” Rodgers said, unable to suppress a smirk. “I looked up in the stands, and all I saw was a woman giving me the double bird. I’m not exactly sure what came out of my mouth next.”
The Rodgers Tour of Audaciousness was just getting warmed up.
“That’s A-Rod,” Packers running back Aaron Jones said. “I love it. What can you say? He’s right.”
ONE OF RODGERS’ favorite self-help books, “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz, urges readers to not make assumptions and not take anything personally. It is an aspirational life philosophy, but those two tenets have sometimes been difficult for Rodgers. He takes many things personally. He has friends who alert him to slights big and small. He is unafraid to clap back at those who he feels have wronged him.
He likes discussion but does not particularly care for scrutiny, which is part of what made appearing on “The Pat McAfee Show” every Tuesday for the past two seasons such a comfortable fit. It is a safe space where Rodgers can opine on the existence of UFOs or recommend books that have been important to him, such as “The Four Agreements,” Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist” or Mark Manson’s “The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F—” as a part of the Aaron Rodgers Book Club.
“We need more people reading books instead of sitting on their asses watching TV,” Rodgers said, kicking off the book club.
McAfee — a former punter with the Colts who became friends with Rodgers after he retired and started a podcasting career — likes to crack jokes, likes to tell stories, likes to talk about gambling, and he hosts nearly every show bouncing on the balls of his feet, in a tank top, with the manic energy of a stand-up comedian or auctioneer. No topic is off-limits, or seen as a waste of time, no matter how trivial. The conversations are typically not meant to be serious, even though Rodgers, at times, likes to address serious topics. It’s part of a new media paradigm that has given the world access to Rodgers that, in previous years, would have been unfathomable.
“This really does take the guessing out of it because you can now watch the interview, you can see my expressions, you can understand when there’s sarcasm — for most publications,” Rodgers said Thursday. “It’s harder to take what I’m saying out of context because most people that see it will probably look at a clip or watch the show instead of reading the transcript. So I do enjoy that. I enjoy Pat and A.J. [Hawk] and the boys, I enjoy talking football with him and then talking not football with them as well.”
Some episodes, Rodgers doesn’t grant interviews on the show as much as he uses them to deliver sermons about life. Regular listeners will quickly grasp that McAfee and Rodgers are playful pranksters, and that trolling the casual listener is sometimes part of the fun. Media that choose to aggregate pieces of the show and repurpose it for their own content (a regular occurrence) may do so at their own potential peril, because in McAfee’s universe, context is everything. Strip it away, either by accident or on purpose, and you might end up with Rodgers and McAfee calling you out the following show. That’s roughly how The Wall Street Journal ended up writing a 900-word story based off a throwaway joke McAfee and Rodgers made about the quarterback having a painful case of “COVID toe.” (He actually had a broken pinkie toe but declined to explain how the injury occurred.)
The story, which The Wall Street Journal’s Twitter account shared to its 19.3 million followers at 7:30 a.m. on Nov. 24, rippled across social media and was retweeted or shared by thousands of people over the next several hours.
One of those who shared it was Molly Knight, a journalist and author who has written about baseball for The Athletic and ESPN, and now has her own Substack. Knight was getting ready to participate in an outdoor SoulCycle class in Los Angeles when she opened her phone and saw that “COVID toe” had been trending for hours. Curious, she clicked a link and read the Journal piece. It seemed credible. It quoted doctors. It was from a reputable news organization. She shared it to her own feed, adding what she knew was likely a well-worn joke: This is what happens when you get medical advice from Joe Rogan.
“I think I was the 1 millionth person to make that joke,” Knight said. “I was definitely late to the party.”
She followed it up with a tweet encouraging people to take the pandemic seriously and please get vaccinated. She thought little of it from there. It wasn’t until hours later when she noticed Packers fans bombarding her mentions, telling her they hoped she would die.
“At first, I thought it was just another day of being a woman online in sports,” Knight said. “I even argued a little with a few of them, not knowing that Aaron Rodgers had publicly called me out in a press conference and said I owed him an apology.”
Rodgers, based on some texts from friends, was convinced Knight had written the piece. Noticeably agitated, he went after her during his weekly Zoom with the media, at one point thrusting his bare foot in front of the camera to prove it didn’t have the lesions mentioned in the story.
“That’s actually called disinformation when you perpetuate false information about an individual,” Rodgers said. “I have a fractured toe. So, I expect a full apology from Molly Knight and whoever her editor was.”
Knight, after she finally unpacked what had happened, was baffled. Her mentions and direct messages were being overwhelmed with venom. She even got a few death threats. The New York Post emailed to ask if she had any comment. Knight deleted the tweet and typed up a message in her Notes app trying to explain that she wasn’t the author of the piece, but it only slowed the harassment.
“It honestly felt like the walls were closing in and I couldn’t breathe,” Knight said. “I felt like I had to explain myself to all these people, but there would be people who would only ever hear his press conference. They’re never going to figure out that it wasn’t me. They’re just going to hate me forever.”
Rodgers showed no remorse when he learned, in the coming days, that Knight wasn’t the author of the story. He said he had a “respectful conversation” with Andrew Beaton, the Journal staffer who wrote the erroneous piece, and appreciated him reaching out to the Packers to clear things up. “I still don’t believe there wasn’t an ulterior motive, but we had a nice conversation,” Rodgers said. But he felt Knight was “definitely not without blame.” He offered no apology, called her “opportunistic” and implied she tried to use the situation to her advantage.
Knight, meanwhile, was having panic attacks. Not only were Packers fans harassing her, so was the anti-vaccination crowd. She left her apartment for five days to stay with her mom, terrified someone might be inspired to track down her address and harass her in person. To Knight, it was the perfect example of one of the most popular plays that men run on the internet: If facing a sea of criticism, find one woman among your critics, single her out, then let your followers take it from there.
“Does he think that’s what I deserve for making a joke about him and Joe Rogan?” Knight said. “He had to know what would happen, that people would come after me. It horribly impacted my mental health. I think it would have horribly impacted anyone’s mental health.”
I ask Rodgers, months after the incident, if there was any part he wished he would have handled differently, given time to reflect.
“In retrospect, I should have read it first, and maybe it would have been different,” Rodgers said. “I wouldn’t maybe have mentioned her name. But she was piling on. It was a perfect storm for her to jump on this anti-vaxxer, flat-earther who ended up getting COVID toe and he’s got lesions on the bottom of his feet. So, she chose her platform to run with an absolutely ridiculous story.”
HE BECAME BOLDER with his throws as the season went on.
In a 36-28 win over the Los Angeles Rams at Lambeau, he hit Adams in stride on a throw down the left sideline late in the second quarter that, if you studied it closely, seemed to defy the laws of physics. He’d let it fly without even planting his foot. The ball went 45 yards in the air, landing where only Adams (despite being double-covered) could catch it.
“Both his feet were in the air,” said Dan Orlovsky, an ESPN analyst who has been friendly with Rodgers for 20 years. He called the pass to Adams his favorite Rodgers throw this season. “He just has this ability to throw with very little windup. I think most of us were taught as kids to think of throwing a football like throwing a hammer, but with Aaron, it’s like he’s throwing a dart. His ability to control the football is outrageous.”
To cope with the pain of his broken toe, he needed occasional pregame painkilling injections. But getting jabbed by team trainers seemed, to Rodgers, like an acceptable trade-off to stay on the field.
“Getting shot up before a game does a pretty good job of minimizing the pain,” Rodgers said.
He grew bolder with his opinions as well.
“I don’t want to apologize for being myself. I just want to be myself.”
Rodgers wore a sweatshirt on McAfee’s show with the words “Cancel Culture” on the front, but with every letter crossed out, a gift from his friend Dave Portnoy, the founder of Barstool Sports. In December, he was not happy when President Joe Biden, while taking a tour of tornado-ravaged towns in Kentucky, joked with a woman wearing a Packers jacket that she should tell Rodgers to get the vaccine.
“When the president of the United States says, ‘This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated,’ it’s because him and his constituents, which, I don’t know how there are any if you watch any of his attempts at public speaking, but I guess he got 81 million votes,” Rodgers said Thursday. “But when you say stuff like that, and then you have the CDC, which, how do you even trust them, but then they come out and talk about 75% of the COVID deaths have at least four comorbidities. And you still have this fake White House set saying that this is the pandemic of the unvaccinated, that’s not helping the conversation.”
(Editor’s note: The CDC study found that in a group of 1.2 million people who were fully vaccinated between December 2020 and October 2021, 36 of them had a death associated with COVID-19 — and that of those 36 people, 28, or about 78%, had at least four of eight risk factors.)
On New Year’s Day, Rodgers went on Instagram to recommend a three-hour interview Rogan did with Dr. Robert Malone, a virologist who had been recently banned from Twitter and YouTube for repeatedly violating policies on spreading what was labeled as “vaccine misinformation.”
“3 hours you won’t regret,” Rodgers wrote, sharing a link to “The Joe Rogan Experience.”
Malone — who was involved in the early development of mRNA vaccines and DNA vaccines but says his role was “written out of history” by the hundreds of scientists collectively credited for their invention — believes that vaccine side effects are being withheld or suppressed by the U.S. government, likely at the request of pharmaceutical companies. He also believes what’s going on in America is a term called “mass formation psychosis,” akin to German citizens being manipulated by the Nazi Party in the 1920s and 1930s.
At Rodgers’ suggestion, I listened to the podcast, trying to weigh its assertions with an open mind. But I was more interested in what Rodgers wanted people like me to take away from it. He gave an answer so impassioned, I could hear his voice in my head hours later, the steady drumbeat of his speech.
“When in the course of human history has the side that’s doing the censoring and trying to shut people up and make them show papers and marginalize a part of the community ever been [the correct side]?” Rodgers said Thursday. “We’re censoring dissenting opinions? What are we trying to do? Save people from being able to determine the validity on their own or to listen and to think about things and come to their own conclusion? Freedom of speech is dangerous now if it doesn’t align with the mainstream narrative? That’s, I think first and foremost, what I wanted people to understand, and what people should understand is that there’s censorship in this country going on right now.
“Are they censoring terrorists or pedophiles? Criminals who have Twitter profiles? No, they’re censoring people, and they’re shadow-banning people who have dissenting opinions about vaccines. Why is that? Is that because Pfizer cleared $33 billion last year and Big Pharma has more lobbyists in Washington than senators and representatives combined? Why is the reason? Either way, if you want to be an open-minded person, you should hear both sides, which is why I listen to people like Dr. Robert Malone, Dr. Peter McCullough. I have people on the other side as well. I read stuff on the vaccine-hesitancy side, and I read stuff on the vaccines-are-the-greatest-thing-in-the-world side.
“When you censor and make pariahs out of anybody who questions what you believe in or what the mainstream narrative is, that doesn’t make any sense.”
It sounded like what he was saying mattered to him as much as any football game he’d ever played in, if not more.
IN EARLY JANUARY, the NFL announced that unvaccinated players, even with new guidelines released recently by the CDC, would still be tested daily by the NFL leading up to the Super Bowl. Rodgers, who is currently exempt from that testing because he contracted COVID-19 in the past 90 days, will see that exemption expire soon, before the championship. A scenario in which Rodgers tests positive in the days leading up to a postseason game would be a nightmare scenario for the Packers and the NFL, but with the omicron variant spreading rapidly through the American population, it’s certainly conceivable. In a season with so much madness surrounding Rodgers, the biggest twist may be yet to come. If that does occur, scientists like Dr. Angie Rasmussen, a renowned virologist and research scientist at the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization, shudder to think about how the debate will be framed.
“It will be, ‘Was Aaron Rodgers so selfish that he cost his team in the playoffs?'” Rasmussen said. “But it’s not about the playoffs, it’s about the playoffs of ending this pandemic.”
The influence of public figures who are staunchly anti-vaccination — despite no background in science or medicine — has played a role in prolonging the pandemic, Rasmussen believes.
“It’s profoundly selfish for Joe Rogan and Aaron Rodgers and their followers to say this is just a decision about you,” Rasmussen said. “Vaccines do provide individual benefits, but the bigger benefits of vaccines and masks and all the measures we’ve been taking is reducing the prevalence of COVID overall so we can end the f—ing pandemic. That’s what gets missed. This becomes all about Aaron Rodgers and what the risk is to him, and whether he’s being selfish or not, rather than something that affects all of us as a community.”
As eager as Rodgers has been this season to speak his mind and launch counterattacks against his critics, he insists he is closer to zen than he is a state of permanent resentment. He has been dropping little hints, all throughout the year, that he has been savoring certain moments, just in case they are his last in a Packers uniform. He’s vowed to make a decision about his future not long after the season ends.
In Green Bay’s 31-30 win over the Ravens in Week 15, Rodgers gathered the offense together before the final kneel-down and delivered a short speech. He wagged his finger for emphasis as he spoke. He later explained to reporters that he wanted them to savor the moment, to remember this emotion. True, they might have bigger goals, but the future could wait. Try to enjoy this, he urged them, at least for a few minutes. A career can rush past in the blink of an eye.
As I watched the scene play out, it reminded me, oddly, of a line from Rodgers’ favorite show, “The Office,” where Ed Helms’ character laments in the final episode: I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you’ve actually left them.
I asked Rodgers whether that quote had been bouncing around in his head lately, and he admitted it had been. He’d rewatched the series in its entirety (his third time through) early on during the pandemic, and a lot of it had been lingering ever since.
“Definitely that quote was on my mind,” Rodgers said. “That moment has always stuck with me, when Ed turns to the camera. Because just talking to some guys who moved on and retired that I was close with, that’s a common thread. … I think it’s just good perspective to have that we are in the midst of moments that we’re going to be talking about in 10 or 15 years. So let’s treasure these conversations, these lessons, these times of adversity, times of joy. So that it means a little bit more when we’re sitting on that bench in 20 years talking about the good old days.”
After 28 minutes of talking, our conversation had come to an end. He told me he appreciated the chance to answer my questions. Now it was time for Rodgers — controversial social commentator, former “Jeopardy” host, media critic, free speech advocate, occasional troll and book club founder — to return to his day job: trying to win an important football game.
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