This is why the Packers will be a load of trouble for Pittsburgh in the Super Bowl on Feb. 6: They won the NFC Championship Game on Sunday in Chicago mostly thanks to three men—one the star quarterback, whose biggest play of the day was a tackle; another the nosetackle who scored a touchdown on the first interception of his life; and the third a cornerback who had never played the position until 17 months ago.
That's the kind of talent, depth and versatility Green Bay has. The men of the moment: Aaron Rodgers, the unquestioned leader of the team and the man who has put Brett Favre permanently in Wisconsin's rearview mirror; athletic space-eater B.J. Raji, the 2009 first-round pick and centerpiece of a havoc-wreaking defensive front; and an undrafted free agent out of Miami, Sam Shields, the kind of spare part who is essential on a championship team in the salary-cap era. All three are in Green Bay because of general manager Ted Thompson, who has endured the slings and arrows of outraged fans but cares little if the folks in Oshkosh or Sheboygan are upset with him.
After the Packers advanced to their first Super Bowl in 14 years with a 21--14 victory over the Bears, former team president Bob Harlan was in the visiting locker room, extolling the virtues of the quiet man he brought in from the Seahawks' front office in 2005. "When I hired Ted," said Harlan, who retired three years ago, "I knew he was going to build us a team we could be proud of. Early on, one of our p.r. people came to me and said, 'Well, Ted's not very good with the press.' I said, 'I didn't hire him to be good with the press. I hired him to build a football team.' And look at this. Look at what he's done."
What the 58-year-old Thompson has done, most notably, is have the courage of his convictions, which helped him to survive a 32--34 record in his first four years. The low point came in the NFC Championship Game in January 2008, a crushing loss to the underdog Giants at Lambeau Field when Favre threw an interception on the first series of overtime. It turned out be his last pass as a Packer. When Favre announced his retirement in March '08, then tried to return the following summer, Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy stuck to their guns, weary of the will-he-or-won't-he-play merry-go-round. Having given the quiet and unproven Rodgers the starting job, they said the decision was irrevocable. Thompson angered Favre by refusing to release him so he could go play for one of the teams of his choice, the Vikings or the Bears. He ended up being traded to the Jets.
The move turned out to be a milestone. Green Bay players hate talking about Favre. Coaches too. And last week, two days before the game, Thompson was asked if he ever questioned himself about sticking with a green kid instead of welcoming back one of the great quarterbacks in history.
Pause. Shift in the chair.
"I never touch this anymore," he said. "But no, we never questioned ourselves."
The Favre angle will be beaten to death by the thousands of media members in Dallas next week. But what's remarkable about the post-Favre Packers is that Thompson doesn't need to say anything in his own defense. Nor do McCarthy or Rodgers, for that matter. Rare is it when a legend leaves and his successor is up to the task of replacing him. Perhaps only once in the last generation has it happened: When Sidney Crosby took over for Mario Lemieux with the Penguins in 2006. No one else of such gravitas—not Michael Jordan, not Cal Ripken, not John Elway—has been succeeded by anyone much better than a Jay Fiedler.
That's what makes Rodgers, 27, so amazing. His play as a starter has rivaled that of Favre in his most accomplished seasons. Favre won the MVP award three straight times, from 1995 to '97 (sharing it with Barry Sanders in '97). Compare those glory years with Rodgers's last three seasons. Favre threw 26 more touchdown passes and won 10 more regular-season games, but in every other category Rodgers is better: accuracy (64.6% to 60.8%), passing yards (12,394 to 12,179), yards per attempt (7.99 to 7.49) and passer rating (99.4 to 96.1).
It's far too early to place Rodgers in Favre's league. He hasn't done enough. And after an impressive first drive on Sunday, he struggled against the Bears' defense. But if he beats Pittsburgh, he will have matched Favre in Super Bowl victories. (Favre's only title came when the Pack beat the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI.) And he clearly has won over the locals. Rodgers is more Bart Starr than Brett Favre—reserved, polite and perfectly suited for the smallest market in major professional sports.