Moments after Mason Crosby’s last-second field goal gave the Packers a 34-31 win over the Cowboys and a trip to the NFC championship game, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was asked about his season-saving completion to tight end Jared Cook. “It’s just kind of schoolyard at times, late in the game like that,” he said.
It was a quintessential Aaron Rodgers throw, from the guy who always seems to be most dangerous after the play has broken down and he has been forced to flee the pocket. He broke the play himself this time, rolling out to his left almost as soon as he received the snap, finding the space he needed to dance and feint as his receivers scrambled all over the field. The sight of Rodgers out on an island, scanning the field and holding the ball until the last possible moment, often spells doom for opposing defenses, and this was no different.
It wasn’t until after the game that we found out that Rodgers was being literal when he invoked the schoolyard to Fox sideline reporter Erin Andrews. As it turns out, that miracle of a throw and catch wasn’t the result of a designed a play at all, but of Rodgers drawing up routes on the fly:
Rodgers dismissed the idea that his completion to Cook constituted the best throw of his career, and he was probably right to do so. The context of the moment will make this throw one everybody remembers, but Rodgers has been slinging footballs through keyholes his entire career, and did so multiple times last night. The first play of the third quarter was a carbon copy of the pass to Cook, this time with Rodgers rolling out to his right and hitting Randall Cobb on the sideline right before getting crushed by a closing lineman. And then there was his first touchdown pass of the game, which somehow found a few inches of space between Sean Lee’s earhole and arm:
Just a little over two months ago, the Packers were an objectively bad football team. Now they’ve won eight games in a row, and there are plenty of ways to go about explaining the turnaround. Ty Montgomery providing an actual running attack has helped, as has the emergence of Cook as a big receiving target and the continued stellar play of the offensive line. But all you really need to do in order to explain how the Packers turned things around is point at Rodgers.
It’s nearly impossible for one football player, even one as vital as the quarterback, to singlehandedly alter his team’s fortunes. There’s just too much going on during each play for one guy to exert complete control over a game. But what Rodgers has done in the final six weeks of the regular season and the first two games of the playoffs is as close as football gets to one player deciding that his bad team is going to be good now. These last eight games for the Packers have been the NFL’s version of erasing a 3-1 series deficit, and that sideline pass to Cook was Rodgers’s version of pinning Andre Iguodala’s layup to the backboard. The Packers’ season wasn’t saved by ingenious play design, a smartly exploited matchup, or time spent in the film room. It was saved by Aaron Rodgers, out in space with ball in his hands, playing like the baddest motherfucker in the schoolyard.