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Opinion: Aaron Rodgers' COVID-19 saga might rekindle QB's long-term future with Packers

Nate Davis
USA TODAY

Aaron Rodgers and Jordan Love have had remarkably similar entrées into the NFL.

However their paths may have diverged Sunday, perhaps profoundly so.

Both were notable first-round draft picks of the Green Bay Packers, the 15-year gulf between them bridged by the fact each immediately became the apprentice of a legendary superstar. They became quasi-curiosities, leaders of the Pack in waiting – presumably talented passers based on their college résumés, but unproven commodities as young pros whiling away their time on the pine.

And maybe most notably, both were thrust into the starting role amid circumstances created by the aforementioned legendary superstars – Rodgers moving atop the depth chart because Brett Favre wanted no part of the NFL's offseason demands and (temporarily) retired to skirt them, and Love thrown into the lineup because Rodgers wanted no part of a scientifically vetted COVID-19 vaccine before contracting the virus himself ... despite an alternative remedy he believes enhanced his immunity.

But once each of them got onto the field in a meaningful spot? That's where their narratives might fork.

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Packers QBs Aaron Rodgers and Jordan Love (10) have been teammates for two seasons.

I've always taken extra interest in Rodgers. I was at the 2005 NFL draft, when the Cal star got a Bronx cheer in Manhattan's Javits Center once the Packers rescued him with the 24th pick – after he'd festered backstage for hours when the San Francisco 49ers bypassed him with the No. 1 selection before nearly two dozen other teams followed suit. Seasons later, I dispatched a USA TODAY reporter to Green Bay's training camp to check in on Rodgers, knowing he was destined to sit behind Favre for another year, and was told what a delightful, intelligent and insightful young man he was.

And then came Nov. 29, 2007, when Ironman Favre – in the midst of a career resurrection in his 17th season – sprained his throwing elbow and separated his left shoulder in the second quarter of a rare must-see TV Thursday night game, his 10-1 Packers visiting the 10-1 Dallas Cowboys in a battle for NFC supremacy. Enter Rodgers, who had thrown 33 forgettable NFL passes in two-plus seasons of mop-up duty to that point. 

But against Dallas, which finished 2007 with the ninth-ranked defense and the top seed in the NFC playoff bracket, Rodgers was a revelation. Assuming a game plan (one devised by current Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy) designed for Favre, Rodgers was resplendent – and despite first-drive jitters when he missed on three of four throws. 

But after that?

You could see what would become so familiar over the following 14 seasons – the pinpoint accuracy, the off-platform throws, a Favre-esque fastball when Rodgers needed it, plus a level of mobility and ability to create on the move that surpassed even Favre's improvisational abilities and underrated athleticism. Rodgers even flashed that signature swagger – a brand all his own, separate from No. 4 – and his occasionally shaggy hair had already crept below the back of his helmet. In little more than a half of work, Rodgers completed 18 of 26 throws for 201 yards and a TD, scrambling for 30 additional yards.

The Packers lost 37-27 that night – two early Favre INTs led to 14 Dallas points – but it was apparent even then that Rodgers had the goods to sufficiently supplant the three-time MVP, even if few imagined it would happen permanently within a year.

You just kinda knew you'd witnessed something special.

Fast forward to Sunday, when Love made his first regular-season start – with a game plan fashioned specifically for him – against a Kansas City Chiefs defense that entered Week 9 ranked 28th in the NFL while allowing at least 27 points in six of its eight previous outings. Despite such seemingly favorable conditions, the din of Arrowhead Stadium notwithstanding, it wasn't all Love.

Only a fourth-quarter touchdown averted a shutout. Love completed 19 of 34 throws (55.9%) for a modest 190 yards, with one touchdown and a red-zone interception. His eyes and arm didn't appear calibrated. The Packers didn't convert on third down. He completed 35% of his passes against the blitz. There was a mishandled snap. The lack of chemistry with No. 1 receiver Davante Adams was apparent.

You just kinda knew you'd witnessed something ... not so special.

Could Green Bay coach Matt LaFleur have implemented a better approach for Love? Sure, and he admitted as much.

"This one falls on me, squarely," LaFleur said.

"Certainly, for us to be 2-for-12 on third down, obviously didn't have a good enough plan for some of the zero pressures that they brought on us."

Is it fair to overemphasize a loss against the two-time defending (if struggling) AFC champions? Probably not. But was Love much better in two preseason starts this year – even with the benefit of most of the first-team reps in the Rodgers-free offseason? Nope. Have the Packers (7-2) been to the past two NFC championship games, and do they appear Super Bowl-caliber – with Rodgers – once again in 2021? Yup.

And is the NFL, hardly the meritocracy so many coaches want players to believe it is, inherently fair? Not a chance. Just ask recent first-round quarterbacks Paxton Lynch, Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen or Dwayne Haskins, who went from faces of the franchise to retreads in almost no time, only Darnold afforded even three seasons or more than 13 starts with the team that drafted him.

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And then there's this from longtime NFL executive and current ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum. Monday, he vocalized what he'd be thinking as a member of the Packers front office when evaluating Love.

"He's not good enough. I mean we've watched (Love) at practice, pregame. We've seen him in preseason, we saw yesterday," Tannenbaum said.

"We're going to do everything within reason to make sure that Aaron Rodgers stays with us as long as possible. He gives us the best chance to win today, tomorrow, in three years, in five years.

"Jordan Love's just not good enough. He's maybe gonna be a 'B' at best if things go well. I'm going to give Aaron Rodgers, literally and figuratively, a blank check to make sure he stays."

Wouldn't it be ironic if that's where this is heading?

Rodgers gave the Packers organization a black eye in the offseason and ended months spent away from the team, mostly filled with public silence, by revealing his grievances once he reported to training camp. Then came Rodgers' self-inflicted virtual shiner last week, as he tried to explain his COVID-19 contraction and philosophy, generally digging a deeper hole for himself after he claimed to be "immunized" months beforehand.

So now what? 

Love, who wasn't even active for a game in 2020 – relegated to third-string status behind the incomparable Tim Boyle, at a time when NFL teams are typically eager to get a look at their rookie prospects – has provided scant evidence he's capable of taking the baton. Meanwhile, aside from a Week 1 dud befittingly capping a drama-filled offseason, Rodgers, 37, reverted over the next seven games (68.7% completion rate, 1,761 passing yards, 17 TDs, 1 INT, 114.1 QB rating) to the form that's made him the NFL's MVP three times, including in 2020. With designs on playing well into his forties, it doesn't appear he's lost a scintilla of ability ... similar to a certain peer in Tampa he continues to chase.

The Packers, who effectively voided the final year (2023) of Rodgers' contract in the offseason, seem to need him more than ever and might need to mull anew how they might give AR12 some of the influence he believes he's earned as it pertains to the club's inner workings. Club president and CEO Mark Murphy repeatedly expressed a desire to patch things up with Rodgers prior to training camp, and LaFleur likely can't imagine life without him. And given the Packers' historically conservative approach to personnel procurement despite being a contender for the better part of three decades under Favre and Rodgers, difficult to see how they'd reboot if Rodgers bolts and Love flops.

Yet maybe Rodgers appreciates his longtime employer, which apparently let him slide on some of the league's COVID-19 protocols and has stood by him despite his diagnosis, just a bit more. Rodgers was certainly enjoying being a Packer after recent wins at Chicago and Arizona and didn't sound like a guy – at least for now – champing at the bit to become a Denver Bronco or Las Vegas Raider.

Many marriages are flawed, yet that doesn't mean the parties involved aren't right for each other. And who would have thought an insidious virus might ultimately bring football immunity to such an apparently fractured relationship?

Sometimes a little outside controversy is just the, shall we say, booster two aggrieved parties need to reconcile. And given past and present circumstances for this veteran-laden team?

It sure seems preferable if love is in the air again for the Packers and Rodgers ... because nothing to this point suggests Love should be the heir.

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Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.