The decision came four days after coach Matt Rhule said he had “bought in” on Darnold as his quarterback when asked about the possibilities of Carolina pursuing a trade for Houston’s Deshaun Watson.
“I believe Sam is going to be a great quarterback for the Carolina Panthers, and I haven’t done any work on anyone else,” Rhule said Thursday on a conference call with Giants beat writers. “He’s my focus, and I expect him to play his best football moving forward.
“I’m not looking anywhere else.”
Rhule turned to backup P.J. Walker with 12:41 remaining Sunday and Carolina trailing 15-3. Darnold had an intentional grounding penalty from the end zone in the first half that resulted in a safety. He also had an interception near the New York goal line on a poorly thrown ball.
It was his seventh interception in the past four games after throwing only three in Carolina’s 3-0 start. Sunday’s loss dropped the Panthers to 3-4.
Darnold was 9-of-18 for 52 yards and the interception against standard pressure, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. He entered the game completing 61% on those plays, second worst among qualifying quarterbacks.
Sunday’s game was Darnold’s first game at MetLife Stadium after he spent the first three seasons of his NFL career with the New York Jets, who traded him to the Panthers this offseason.
Walker finished 3-of-14 for 33 yards and also had ran for 13 yards during his time in the game.
The Panthers, according to league sources, were interested in Watson before the quarterback’s legal issues. He has 22 active lawsuits filed against him with allegations of sexual assault or sexually inappropriate behavior during massage sessions.
League sources said the Panthers aren’t currently pursuing Watson with the Texans asking for at least three first-round picks for the former Clemson star.
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.
How Buccaneers’ Tom Brady finds ways to connect come playoff time
TAMPA, Fla. – In 2020, on a rain-dampened field, a practice squad receiver named Cyril Grayson — who hadn’t played a down of college football and had one NFL catch for three yards to his name prior — now had arguably the greatest quarterback of all time running the show.
On the first route Grayson ran, he slipped.
“I was making excuses, and I was like, ‘Man, the ground.’ He was like, ‘It’s a perfectly laid ground.’ Just being hard on me,” Grayson said. “And then he throws me the ball that’s in the sun, and he goes, ‘Hey, I don’t need any excuses. You’re an NFL receiver.'”
For a moment, Grayson, who had been on five other practice squads prior to Tampa Bay, put his head down. He felt defeated.
He thought to himself, “Man, he’s being too hard on me,” Grayson said.
And then Tom Brady came over.
He told him, “The reason I’m so hard on you is because you have this talent — I just want to pull that out of you,” Grayson recalled. “I see that in you, and I just want you to see that in yourself.”
“From that moment, I knew he felt something in me,” Grayson said.
Neither knew a year later, after the unexpected departure of Antonio Brown, in the Bucs’ Week 17 game at the New York Jets, that Brady would hit Grayson with the winning 33-yard pass late in the fourth quarter.
Getting the most out of virtually every teammate is one of many reasons Brady has been so good down the stretch in nearly every one of his 22 seasons, with the exception of his first season as a starter (2000) and 2008, when he suffered a torn ACL in Week 1.
Brady owns a staggering 112-31 (.738) record after Thanksgiving, and 43-14 (.754) in January and February. When other teams fade, as rosters are whittled down because of injuries, Brady’s teams ascend. He finds a way to pull out the perfect play in the perfect situation. How does he do it?
‘I think it was him testing me – Is this guy gonna fold?’
What Grayson didn’t know was Brady was testing him because, somewhere down the road, he might need him. He wanted to gauge chemistry.
When teams are trying to make a final push late in the season, but are too hobbled by injuries, Brady needs to know who can be counted on.
“It’s important to put a lot of pressure on guys because you don’t know how they’re going to react, and if they’re not in there playing, you don’t get to see it very often,” Brady said. “When they get their chance, you don’t want it to be the first time they’re put in a pressurized situation. So, I am tough on those guys.
“Sometimes I do something where I kind of force the issue and create some arbitrary pressure, just to kind of see how they react. It’s not like Mike [Evans] needs that or Chris [Godwin] needs that, but young guys who haven’t played — they need that, and you want to see how they respond to the adversity.”
Former Patriots running back Danny Woodhead, who came over from the Jets, felt the wrath of Brady even before Kevin Faulk went down with a season-ending injury in 2010. Woodhead would run into the huddle, calling the personnel grouping and Brady would chide him for not saying it loud enough, despite the fact Woodhead had barely scratched the surface of his new playbook.
“Literally everything that he could yell at me for, he’d yell at me,” Woodhead said with a laugh. “I remember like, ‘What is this cat’s deal? Did he just have a bad day? Did he sleep terrible? This is the greatest of all time, and the only thing I’ve experienced is him berating me,” Woodhead said.
Woodhead wound up scoring the first touchdown of his career that week in the two-minute offense. From then on, the two had what Woodhead describes as a “good football relationship.”
“That was his way of testing me to see if he could trust me,” Woodhead said, adding that there were instances where players did not go into games or remain with the team because they couldn’t do what Brady asked consistently.
“There’s been many times in New England where guys would get injured, but we’d figure it out because obviously we had the talent — because if you’re in the NFL, you have the talent – but you have the accountability of the quarterback,” Woodhead said.
“Under pressure, is someone gonna cry under pressure like my 4-year-old when she has to clean up her toys? I don’t want that either, so let’s make sure that they can handle the pressure.”
‘This is the time we’ve gotta put the jets in full throttle’
In New England, there was always an emphasis on playing the best ball after Thanksgiving, and it was discussed all throughout the offseason and regular season by coach Bill Belichick.
It’s when teams start to position themselves for the postseason, when seeding can be clinched and wild cards won or lost. Other coaches on other teams do mention it, but it’s distinct with Belichick.
“Bill didn’t make any secret to how much more difficult it becomes to win in November, December, when teams are making the final push,” former Patriots guard Rich Ohrnberger said. “He explained to us that right around Thanksgiving, the week changes, and you’ve gotta be ready for that. You’ve gotta be up to the challenge. … And obviously you get to the postseason — it gets ramped up once more.”
Former Patriots wide receiver Donte Stallworth remembered those talks, too.
“We had to be playing our best ball. We had to be technically sound on everything — mental errors to an extreme low, minimal,” Stallworth said, adding he believed Brady learned to divide each season into two. “Like once Thanksgiving week happens, and after Thanksgiving, that is the beginning of the playoffs. For the average human … November, Thanksgiving, that’s like towards the end of the season. For this dude, this is the beginning of the second season for him, and you have to come out sprinting. … This is the time that we’ve gotta put the jets in full throttle.”
Brady’s numbers aren’t dramatically different from the regular season to the postseason — in fact, they’re remarkably consistent across the board — but he does tend to find more of a groove. The ball tends to come out quicker, and those around him improve.
For example, against disguised coverages, Brady’s average “time before play” — which calculates his release time — drops from 2.6 seconds in September through November to 2.48 seconds in December through February. Shaving those tenths of a second off can be the difference in a touchdown or an interception.
“You don’t do much different — you just do more of what got you here,” Brady said. “The things that work, you do more of. You try to eliminate the other distractions. … This isn’t the time for trips to the movie theaters, this is the time to lock in on football because this is all we have.
“You just look at it like that. Everything you can kind of put off until the end of the year, [you put off], and we just certainly hope the end of the year isn’t Sunday night. But we have to earn it. We’ve gotta go win to move on.”
To echo that sentiment statistically, his teams tend to cut down on mistakes. Over the last two seasons, the Bucs accepted 6.17 penalties per game from September through November. But after December, the Bucs accepted 3.933 penalties per game. Turnovers dropped from 1.35 per game to .857 per game.
“You constantly want to be able to learn and grow from your mistakes so that you’re playing your best ball in December and January because that’s when it really matters,” Godwin said. “I think we have a lot of guys on the team that realize that.”
“The accountability factor is unreal and then when you get to the playoffs — it’s even higher because it’s like, ‘This is do or die,'” Woodhead said. “And Tom’s thought process is, ‘We’re not dying.'”
‘He’s like a professor’
For Brady, nothing is left to chance. No detail is overlooked. In practices, he’s coaching everyone at every position. He studies the way his receivers run their routes. He’ll tell a wide receiver to pump his arms more on a route and how he prefers them to release.
“If you’re running a certain route, he may want you to give ‘eyes quick’ instead of maybe you gave him ‘eyes’ a little too late, trying to finish your route, but maybe he wants you to give him eyes as soon as you come out that break,” wide receiver Breshad Perriman said.
“If they’re not on the same page, you see Tom go over and talk to them,” tight end Rob Gronkowski said. “He does the same thing with me if I ran a route that he thought I was going to be [here], but I was really over there. He’s going to come over to you and talk to you like, ‘Hey, why were you there and what were you thinking?’ That’s how he gets on the same page as you so then you’re ready for the game.”
Brady also conducts his own meetings, something that’s not common in the NFL. In New England and now Tampa Bay, he runs one prior to the team meeting Saturday night, after he goes over every play on the call sheet with his offensive coordinator — and sometimes it’s 100 plays.
In Tampa, he’s also incorporated a Friday meeting that he leads each week.
“He would talk about a play that, in practice, he would never throw to me because it was kind of like a clear out route or a dead route essentially on paper, but he would let me know in that meeting, ‘Hey, Donte, stay alive on this if we get this coverage. I’m gonna be looking for you. You’re an alert, so stay alive on that play,” Stallworth said. “He’s like a professor up there.”
“I remember when [wide receiver] Wes Welker was in the room, he’d be like, ‘Hey Wessie, when you come out of that break, you’ve got to snap your head up right now, because the ball’s gonna be [there],” Ohrnberger said.
“It’s that sort of communication — on this play, on this route, you need to understand that the ball’s coming out. Because if they’re showing this coverage, or these guys – you’re hot, you’re the outlet pass on that blitz look, so you need to get to the spot and be ready to catch because it’s firing out.”
He would tell Julian Edelman, “‘Hey, Jules, don’t wait for your corner to bite. You just go,'” Ohrnberger said. “It’s these little pointers he’ll pepper in just like a coach would. It’s important for him to have that communication and be able to communicate those thoughts.”
The coaching happens in games, too. In Week 16, during the third quarter, when the Bucs were at the Carolina Panthers‘ 7-yard line, Brady noticed wide receiver Tyler Johnson, who’s been thrust into a larger role because of Godwin and Brown’s absences, was in motion, and because there were multiple players in motion, the Bucs would have gotten a penalty. Brady yelled “Freeze!” and put out his arm to stop Johnson dead in his tracks, followed by, “Go ahead!”
The Bucs avoided a penalty, and running back Ronald Jones came out of the backfield and raced to the edge for the touchdown. But Brady made sure to go over to Johnson right after the play to explain what happened rather than wait until watching film Monday.
“It’s important just because any time you do it in the moment there is awareness with it,” Brady said. “There are a million things that happen on every play, so you could wait to address things, but when I see things at practice, I try to tell him right away like, ‘Hey, this is the route. This is what we are thinking. This is the depth. This is the angle. This is the throw.’
“In football, you’ve got to be on the same page. All of us have to see things the same way. It’s all about constant communication. If you don’t communicate, you’re not going to get any better at it.”
‘He’s the greatest football mind we’ve ever seen’
The ideas Brady brings not only to teammates but members of the coaching staff are endless.
“All me and him do is talk football,” Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “We’re talking football every second we see each other, and we both love it in that way. It’s a blessing to have someone to love the game the way that he loves it, to approach the game the way that he approaches it. As a coach, it’s ball, ball, ball all the time. That’s a special thing that you just love being involved with — that love and going to work with him every week.”
Former Patriots backup quarterback Matt Cassel remembers Brady approaching offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels the morning of a game in 2007 about changing a play, after they’d gone over every single play the night before.
Brady said to McDaniels, “Hey, do you want to move Randy Moss inside?”
They had run a particular play in practice with Moss on the outside, but Brady thought they could get a better matchup inside, with the idea of creating a double team over the top and leaving a one-on-one matchup underneath.
Moss had lined up in the slot a few times, but at no point had they practiced this particular play with this particular personnel group with him inside.
“It was unbelievable,” Cassel said. “This is the morning of the game!”
But Brady said, “What do you think about putting Randy on the inside? Because if he gets one-on-one with the safety, I have a lot of trust that I could just throw it up,” Cassel said.
Brady’s teammates last year recall receiving text messages at all hours leading up to the Super Bowl of tendencies of the Kansas City Chiefs‘ defensive backs.
“He’s the greatest football mind we’ve ever seen,” Evans said. “We definitely saw it last year, from the start. We saw it Week 1, but in the postseason, obviously it heightens a little bit.”
Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said watching Brady crack the code on a defense and move the ball at will is “the most fun that there is for me in this game.”
“Watching him play, he’s a surgeon,” Arians said. “He’s going to figure you out if you’re going to play two-deep shell, if you’re rotating — he’ll figure that all out real quick. It’s hard on the defense, that’s for sure.”
‘He wants to be the greatest of all time’
After the Bucs’ wild-card round victory over the Washington Football Team last year, they had to wait to find out who they’d play in the divisional round. Brady posted a video on Twitter, which he does after every win, and at the end, he said, “I know who I want.”
Beyond a shadow of a doubt, he was referring to the New Orleans Saints, who defeated the Bucs twice already during the regular season. Many had pegged the Saints as a Super Bowl favorite. He wanted to take down whoever he thought was at the top of the mountain.
Cassel saw it when the Patriots played the Jets in the 2006 wild-card round, a team that defeated them 17-14 during the regular season as the Patriots struggled to defend the Jets’ amoeba front.
“When they called the Jets’ name to play us in the first game of that playoff season, I was like, ‘Oh boy, they’re in for a beating,'” Cassel said. “We were so dialed in going into that game because we had gone over it, Tom had an exact plan of how he was gonna attack it, what he was gonna signal outside and executed it to perfection that game. We just blew the doors off of ’em.”
Simply put, Cassel states that Brady’s preparation consists of leaving “no stone unturned.” The Patriots won 37-16, just like Brady and the Bucs defeated the Saints in the divisional round last year 30-20, in what would be future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees’ last game.
That’s why Brady wasn’t wincing when he found out that the Bucs would be hosting coach Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams this Sunday in the divisional round (3 p.m. ET, NBC). The Rams beat them 34-24 in Week 3 of the regular season and 27-24 last year.
Brady may be without his starting All-Pro right tackle Tristan Wirfs, who suffered a high ankle sprain last week, and center Ryan Jensen is dealing with an ankle sprain, which could be disastrous given the Rams’ pass rush led by Aaron Donald and Von Miller.
“There’s not an opponent he hasn’t faced or a challenge where he hasn’t risen to that occasion,” Cassel said. “And when you look at the Rams, he knows that, one way or the other, you’ve gotta win four games straight, and you’ve gotta beat the best teams in football when it comes to playoff time. And he knows that because he doesn’t play to just win divisions. He doesn’t play to get to the playoffs. He plays this game — for as long as he has — to win Super Bowls.
“He didn’t prepare, and he doesn’t work as hard as he does, he doesn’t put his body through what he does year-in and year-out to be great – it’s to be the greatest.”
Dallas Cowboys’ Randy Gregory to have knee surgery prior to free agency, sources say
Gregory did not miss a game in 2021 because of the knee issue but it was something that bothered him for a good portion of the season. He missed one game due to COVID-19 and four because of a calf strain that landed him on injured reserve.
He is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March but should be cleared in time for the offseason program.
For the first time since his rookie season (2015), Gregory did not have to deal with any NFL suspensions. He finished second on the defense with six sacks and third with 30 pressures. He also had 16 tackles, three forced fumbles and an interception.
The Cowboys would like to re-sign Gregory, especially after sticking by him over the years as he dealt with off-field troubles. He is among 21 unrestricted free agents set to hit the open market from the Cowboys.
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