He waited 13 long years for this moment, a chance to play for a Super Bowl at Lambeau Field, as opposed to standing there helplessly in the Titletown chill. And when it finally came on Sunday in Green Bay -- and passed, in a manner so heartbreaking and dumbfounding that it seemed to knock the life out of him -- Aaron Rodgers trudged across the frozen tundra and into the great unknown.
After a brief, melancholy hug with his victorious rival, Tom Brady, Rodgers knew what came next, and it would not be pleasant: A trip to the subdued Packers locker room, a shower, and then a virtual press conference to break down the 31-26 NFC Championship Game defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. This was a moment of reckoning, and more than anyone -- even Green Bay's second-year coach, Matt LaFleur -- the star quarterback and face of the franchise would be asked to process it and put it into context.
In that charged moment, his wounds still fresh, Rodgers, a highly intelligent and hyper-aware 37-year-old, chose his words carefully. And when he spoke, I believe he delivered a message to his bosses, one I'd roughly translate thusly: Your way of doing business has to change, or maybe I should be on my way.
"[There are] a lot of guys' futures that are uncertain," Rodgers told reporters, "myself included. That's what's sad about it most ... getting this far. Obviously there's going to be an end to it at some point, whether we make it past this one or not. Just the uncertainties, (it) is tough, and the finality of it."
In the immediate aftermath of the fifth-seeded Bucs' upset of the top-seeded Packers -- the second consecutive year Green Bay has been bounced at this late stage -- there were a lot of sizzling storylines to address.
For starters, the Packers made a multitude of mistakes, most glaringly allowing Scott Miller to get behind the secondary to catch Brady's 39-yard touchdown pass a second before halftime -- yet another epic endeavor by the most ruthless quarterback ever to spin it -- and fell behind 28-10 early in the third quarter.
Then, fueled by a dominant second-half performance that included intercepting Brady on three consecutive possessions, the Packers were 8 yards and a two-point conversion away from tying the game in the final minutes. Yet after three incompletions, with the Pack facing fourth-and-goal from the 8 and trailing 31-23, LaFleur made the surprising decision to have Mason Crosby kick a 26-yard field goal with 2:05 remaining, believing that Green Bay (which had all three timeouts) could get a stop and give Rodgers another chance to score a touchdown.
And then, on a day when the officials had ignored most contact in the secondary and largely kept their flags in their pockets, a late and semi-nitpicky third-down pass interference call on cornerback Kevin King sealed the deal for Brady -- sending him to his 10th Super Bowl -- and the Bucs, who'll face the AFC champion (and defending Super Bowl champion) Kansas City Chiefs on Feb. 7 as the first team to play for a Lombardi Trophy in its home stadium.
All of that is captivating and compelling and worthy of our further examination, but Rodgers' postgame message -- well, that resonated most of all. And really, if we're intellectually honest with ourselves, an eventual first-ballot Hall of Famer's uncertain future has been looming over the entirety of the 2020 NFL season, and really goes back even further than that.
A year ago, the San Francisco 49ers ran all over the Packers en route to a 37-20 NFC Championship Game victory. Afterward, Rodgers did his best to put a positive spin on the outcome, saying his first year with LaFleur would "always be special because it became fun again."
Yet the Packers' front office, which had been uncharacteristically proactive in free agency the previous spring (with great results), went back to its passive ways this past March, and Rodgers undoubtedly noticed.
In late April, when general manager Brian Gutekunst traded up in the first round to draft ... Utah State quarterback Jordan Love -- well, Rodgers did more than notice. No, he wasn't thrilled. Not only had Green Bay aggressively coveted his successor, but there was also the matter of opportunity cost. Gutekunst left some potential impact players on the board when he made the move for Love, and in a draft considered receiver-rich, he elected not to select a single wideout.
That storyline faded as we watched Rodgers put together a monster season that will almost certainly earn him a third Most Valuable Player award -- with the distinct promise of a second chance to hoist the trophy he really covets, the one named after a Packers coaching legend.
It resurfaced Sunday, in a glaring way. As the Bucs celebrated their victory over the Packers at Lambeau, how could Rodgers not have pondered the disparity between the two organizations' respective approaches?
In March, when Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht landed Brady, a living legend who'd turn 43 before the start of the season, he reacted by putting the pedal to the metal and running through stop signs and speed bumps. From Rob Gronkowski to LeSean McCoy to Leonard Fournette to Antonio Brown, Licht took huge swings on talented veterans he hoped might make a difference in a furious push to maximize the relatively small window created by Brady's presence.
In the draft, rather than going after Brady's successor, Licht used the 13th overall pick on Iowa's Tristan Wirfs, who instantly became an impact player at right tackle and consistently made his quarterback's life better.
Licht's approach wasn't guaranteed to work. But it made intuitive sense, jibing perfectly with head coach Bruce Arians' No risk it, no biscuit mantra. And it certainly helped convince Brady that his bosses were all in, and possibly took some of the burden off of the legendary quarterback, psychic or otherwise.
The Packers, by contrast, appeared to be telling Rodgers something much different in April: We do things our way, and we're already looking past this era -- but hey, if you want to up your game to an even more ethereal level and carry the guys we've already got as far as they can possibly go, have at it!
So yeah, now that Rodgers (33-for-48, 346 yards, three touchdowns, one interception) -- besieged by a relentless Bucs pass rush and beset by teammates' uncharacteristic mistakes (like the fumble by running back Aaron Jones that essentially handed the Bucs a third-quarter touchdown and the dropped two-point conversion by Equanimeous St. Brown) -- tried and failed, he's got a lot to unpack. The fact that he fell short against one of the greatest competitors the sports world has ever known -- on a day in which Brady made more mistakes than usual -- makes that unpacking process even messier.
We all want clarity, but what happens next isn't as clear-cut as some might portray it. Sure, Rodgers -- who is under contract through the 2023 season -- could tell his bosses he wants out and try to force a trade. To me, that seems like an extreme scenario, given how close this team came to playing for a championship and how integral Rodgers is to its fortunes. It should also be noted that while LaFleur does not technically have final say over such matters, he has won an inordinately high percentage of games during his first two seasons and has a zero-percent desire to go into 2021 without Rodgers as his starter -- and will certainly make his thoughts known.
More likely, in the aftermath of a defeat he called "gutting," Rodgers was flexing his power and sending a message. It's one that Gutekunst and his bosses should listen to closely, and assess carefully.
If the Packers want to keep Rodgers in 2021, and perhaps beyond, they're going to need to change their organizational mentality. It's time to pursue talent aggressively and relentlessly and try to load up for another title run while this generational quarterback is still willing and able to fuel that effort.
Either that, or they can stay passive, sit on their hands and watch it all burn.