They were Super Bowl MVPs in back-to-back years after the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Then they followed up with two of the most epic statistical seasons in NFL history in 2011.
Brees ranks first all time in passing yards (77,888), passing touchdowns (550) and completion percentage (67.6), while Rodgers ranks first in passer rating (102.6). The point being, these two could choose to retire at halftime of Sunday night’s marquee matchup between the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC) in the Superdome — and someone in Canton, Ohio, would immediately get to work on sculpting their Hall of Fame busts.
Still, it has to rank as one of the decade’s biggest sports upsets that neither has made it back to appear in a second Super Bowl.
And the 41-year-old Brees has been especially candid about how driven he is to change that.
“That’s why I came back,” Brees said bluntly at the start of training camp after he strongly considered retiring before his 20th NFL season.
When asked if he thinks it’s fair that quarterbacks are judged so much by Super Bowls, Brees didn’t shy away from that, either. “Here’s the thing, whether it’s fair or not, I think we all agree that quarterbacks and head coaches in large part are evaluated on wins, losses, championships. And so we acknowledge that, and we take on that responsibility,” Brees said.
Rodgers, five years younger at 36, will probably get a few more cracks at it — especially since he is off to one of his best starts for the 2-0 Packers. But he too has grown weary of falling short after three NFC Championship Game losses in the past six years.
“The window’s open, and I think we’re going to be on the right side of one of these real soon,” Rodgers said after the Packers’ loss to the San Francisco 49ers in last season’s NFC title game.
Brees and the 1-1 Saints have more pressing concerns heading into this Week 3 showdown. New Orleans’ offense has been disturbingly out of sync — leading to the spin cycle of questions about whether we might be seeing the start of a steep decline in Brees’ performance.
“I feel good. Borderline great,” insisted Brees, who rejected the notion of a sudden physical drop-off — while acknowledging the results have been disappointing so far.
Assuming Brees and coach Sean Payton can manage their way through these early struggles, we should be looking at two of the NFC’s top contenders once again after both teams finished 13-3 last season.
Since their Super Bowl victories, Rodgers and the Packers are 6-7 in the postseason with the three NFC Championship Game appearances, while Brees and the Saints are 4-6 with one trip to the NFC title game.
But when asked if he is surprised by their Super Bowl droughts, NBC analyst and Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy said, “Not really. Because people think it’s easy. But so many things have to go right for you.”
Dungy and Peyton Manning reached only one Super Bowl in their seven years together with the Indianapolis Colts, winning it in the 2006 season. And Dungy said that team probably ranked “No. 4 or No. 5” when it came to talent among all their years together.
“Every year on the first show on NBC, ‘Who are you picking to win the Super Bowl and can the previous team repeat?’ And I always say no. I don’t care who it is,” Dungy said.
Should titles be the barometer for Rodgers’ success?
Shortly after Brett Favre and the Packers lost Super Bowl XXXII to the Denver Broncos — and their chance to repeat as champions — the architect of those teams offered a memorable line about their place in history.
“We’re a one-year wonder, just a fart in the wind,” then-Packers general manager Ron Wolf said.
It might have taken a couple of decades to come to grips with it, but he realizes now he was unfairly harsh — especially as it pertained to Favre and his legacy.
“Is that the barometer?” Wolf asked ESPN.com recently. “Is that the only barometer of success in the National Football League, whether you won a Super Bowl, two Super Bowls or not? Does that make you a great player, whether you won a Super Bowl or not? If you’re a really good player, that should not matter.”
Rodgers’ résumé includes four NFC title games — all on the road. He won his first, in 2010, at Chicago, on the way to Super Bowl XLV but lost the 2014, 2016 and 2019 conference championships.
Wolf said later in his career that he regretted not getting more weapons for Favre to make a stronger run, and the Packers of today could be criticized for doing the same. Ted Thompson, the GM who drafted Rodgers in 2005, mostly shied away from free agency, and his replacement, Brian Gutekunst, hasn’t drafted a wide receiver higher than the fifth round in any of his three years running the show.
Coaching deserves a share of the blame, too. Former coach Mike McCarthy might have stuck with defensive coordinator Dom Capers longer than he should have before firing him after the 2017 season.
If Rodgers never gets to a second Super Bowl, the loss at Seattle in the 2014 NFC Championship Game likely will hurt the most. While McCarthy took much of the blame for the defeat — blowing a 12-point lead in the fourth quarter — Rodgers got off mostly scot-free.
When Morgan Burnett intercepted Russell Wilson to give the ball back to the Packers with 5:04 left in a 19-7 game, the Packers ran the ball three consecutive times (the first two for losses), and McCarthy got crushed for taking his foot off the gas.
But the Packers had a rule going into that game — never run at Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett. On the first play after Burnett’s interception, Rodgers made a pre-snap adjustment to move fullback John Kuhn to his left, which meant running back Eddie Lacy was to follow Kuhn — right into Bennett’s gap. The play lost 4 yards. The next play was a run-pass option. The Seahawks stuffed the box, yet Lacy got the ball again and ran right into Bennett for a 2-yard loss. The Packers ran again on third down before punting. Just a little over a minute ran off the clock before the Seahawks got the ball back.
The Packers lost in overtime, when Rodgers never touched the ball.
Last year’s surprising 13-3 season and improbable run to the NFC title game in coach Matt LaFleur’s first year didn’t leave Rodgers bitter after another near miss. It was in the moments immediately after the blowout loss to the 49ers that Rodgers proclaimed that the Packers’ Super Bowl window remains open.
“It’s on my mind every day,” Rodgers said during the playoffs last season when asked about winning another Super Bowl. “That’s why we play the game. That’s why you put in the time in the offseason, that’s why you do the little things. It’s to put yourself in this position, where we’re two games away from being able to compete for that. I’m 36, I know what this is all about. This is an important opportunity for us. I feel like I’ve got a lot of really good years left, but you never know.”
And if he doesn’t and he has to settle for one Super Bowl (including being MVP) and four appearances in the NFC championship?
“That’s still damn good,” Wolf said. “To me, that has always been the one huge factor. Wins and losses. That’s the only thing that matters, is if you win. You guys are going to have a real interesting thing here because there’s going to become a time here when Eli Manning and [Philip] Rivers come up for the Hall of Fame, and they’re going to say, ‘Well, Manning won two Super Bowls, but he’s a .500 quarterback.’ Now is that a Hall of Famer? I think there’s too much emphasis on that Super Bowl. I don’t think that’s a barometer. It shouldn’t be. But some people have certainly determined that is.”
Gut-wrenching playoff exits the norm for Brees
Despite the growing predictions this week of Brees’ demise, he has actually done an outstanding job of keeping the Saints in contention beyond his 40th birthday.
Although the deep ball has become a decreasing part of Brees’ arsenal, he has adjusted by becoming even more efficient over the past two seasons. He posted the two best passer ratings of his career (116.3 in 2019 and 115.7 in 2018) and the two best completion percentages in NFL history (74.4 in 2019 and 74.3 in 2018).
Unfortunately, the Saints might actually have the Packers beaten when it comes to gut-wrenching playoff exits. Last season it was an overtime playoff loss at home to the Minnesota Vikings in the wild-card round. The season before that it was the missed pass interference call against the Los Angeles Rams when the Saints were minutes away from winning the NFC Championship Game in the Superdome. And the season before that it was the “Minneapolis Miracle” in the divisional round at Minnesota.
And yet many Saints players and fans will still tell you that 2011 season was the “one that got away.” That team led by Brees, tight end Jimmy Graham, receiver Marques Colston and running back Darren Sproles still holds the record for most yards gained in a season. But New Orleans was stuck as the No. 3 seed despite its 13-3 record and lost in the final seconds at San Francisco in the divisional round.
There were also two playoff losses at Seattle, after the 2010 and 2013 seasons — including Marshawn Lynch’s “Beast Quake” run. New Orleans can obviously also point to the severe “Bountygate” penalties that led to Payton being suspended for the entire 2012 season and stripped the franchise of two second-round draft picks.
Damien Woody and Louis Riddick break down the possibility of Jameis Winston replacing Drew Brees, should Brees continue to struggle.
The Saints can blame some poor free-agent spending decisions that flopped (such as safety Jairus Byrd in 2014, cornerback Brandon Browner in 2015 and tight end Coby Fleener in 2016). And they can blame a lot of bad defensive performances while burning through four different coordinators in the decade.
In 2012, the Saints set the NFL record for most yards allowed in a season (7,042). In 2015, they set NFL records for most TD passes allowed in a season (45) and highest opponents’ passer rating (116.1).
When asked if he and Rodgers are two prime examples of how hard it is to reach a Super Bowl, Brees said, “Maybe so.”
“We’ve each been to one and we’ve each won one. And we’ve had probably some heartbreaking moments in the playoffs — both teams,” Brees said. “But regardless, each season is a new season and each team is a new team. And you’re gonna face your fair share of challenges that we’ve all faced in order to try to get to the ultimate prize.”
What Super Bowl rings mean to legacy
While Brees and Rodgers have secured their place in history, it is also completely fair to wonder how much differently they would be viewed with just one more ring.
For example, both were left off of the recent “NFL 100 All-Time Team” made up of 100 players and 10 quarterbacks, as chosen by an all-star panel of the game’s coaches, players, executives and media members.
“When you’re on a committee like that, the people you’re leaving off are great players,” said Ernie Accorsi, a longtime general manager of the Giants, Browns and Colts. “But there is no question [how Brees and Rodgers are viewed]. I’ve heard people talk about both of them in independent conversations as the greatest of all time.”
Dungy, who was also on that panel and who was recently added to the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee, said he isn’t swayed by Super Bowl appearances when it comes to such decisions.
“Maybe in some people’s mind. But in my mind, Dan Marino and Dan Fouts are two of the toughest guys I ever had to play against, and I’m putting them in that ‘great’ category, and I don’t care that they didn’t win Super Bowls,” Dungy said.
Dungy readily admitted winning Super Bowls is every competitor’s mission.
“Whether it’s Tom Brady and you want seven or anybody trying to get their first one, that’s the goal every year,” Dungy said. “Now, I’ll tell you that first one, there’s a lot of pressure to win one. You think, ‘Gosh, boy, I’m Aaron Rodgers, I’m Drew Brees, I don’t want to play 15, 16, 17 years and not win one.’ So then you win one, that takes some pressure off.
“But then you also realize, ‘Now, how many guys have won two?'”
The answer is 12: Brady with six; Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana with four each; Troy Aikman with three; John Elway, Bob Griese, Eli Manning, Peyton Manning, Jim Plunkett, Ben Roethlisberger, Bart Starr and Roger Staubach with two each.
“It’s not fair [QBs are judged by Super Bowls]. But we don’t live in a fair world, and playing quarterback in the NFL is not for people who want that,” said ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky. “Listen, this a very black and white and easy statement for me: Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers are two of the greatest players and quarterbacks that have ever played the position.
“Do you wish that they won more Super Bowls? As fans, as course. But that will never change the way I look at them.”