Commentary

Rodgers dodges Favre's shadow with successful debut

Updated: September 9, 2008, 3:18 PM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- About an hour before he made his first-ever regular-season NFL start, Aaron Rodgers sat quietly in the Green Bay Packers' locker room. That's when wide receiver Ruvell Martin, who was signed by the Packers the same year Rodgers lasted until the 24th pick of the 2005 draft, leaned over and said, "It's finally here."

Rodgers knew what he meant. Everybody did. Rodgers was about to make Packers history. He was about to become the first Green Bay starting quarterback in 16 seasons not named Brett Favre.

By the time his "Monday Night Football" debut was done, Rodgers had led the Packers to a penalty-soaked 24-19 win against the Minnesota Vikings. In fact, it was an evening of firsts: first start ... first rushing touchdown ... first Lambeau Leap.

"I've been dreaming about that for four years, to be honest," Rodgers said of his helmet-first jump toward the end zone bleachers.

"I heard he didn't make it all the way up," Packers linebacker Nick Barnett said, smiling.

If true, it was one of the few mistakes Rodgers made the entire game. In his first start, played against the mouthy Vikings, and in front of a national television audience and the largest regular-season crowd in Lambeau Field history, Rodgers delivered a victory and more.

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswirePackers quarterback Aaron Rodgers had plenty of chances to celebrate in his debut as a starter.

First of all, he completed 18 of 22 passes for a modest 178 yards, but one of those passes was absolutely Favre-ian -- a 1-yard TD throw to fullback Korey Hall that zoomed past the outstretched hands of three different defenders and was made while Rodgers was falling backward as someone grabbed his leg. There was also a perfectly thrown 56-yard jump ball to wide receiver Greg Jennings, who outfought defensive back Charles Gordon for the reception. Again, Favre-like.

But the 24-year-old Rodgers also scrambled, something the 38-year-old Favre can't do anymore. Rodgers' 36 rushing yards, including a 1-yard quarterback sneak for a score and a 21-yard dash, tripled Favre's total of a season ago.

Afterward, Rodgers spoke in measured, almost Bill Belichick-like tones. He took his place behind the podium in the Lambeau auditorium, glanced at the assembled media, and said, "Good evening." You didn't know if he was going to talk about the game, or conduct a White House briefing session.

Yes, he was quite happy with his decision making, his check downs, his scrambling, his TD pass to Hall and the zero sacks. No, he couldn't believe he overthrew a wide-open Donald Lee in the end zone.

But every so often, Rodgers would lighten up and let his emotions seep through the window shades. That's fine. He's new at this Post-Favre Era thing.

"It was a little bit different feeling, obviously," Rodgers said, nervously clearing his throat. "Before, you'd take the field and you realized the only way you're getting on the field is if something happens to Brett -- which obviously you don't root for it -- or if you're way ahead or way behind. So tonight, knowing I was going to get the first snap was pretty special. And running out of the tunnel to the electric atmosphere that we had ... it was a pretty special night."

Rodgers didn't make a franchise or a Packers-obsessed city and state forget about Favre. But that was never the point. Trying to erase 16 years of Favre in green and gold would be like trying to sell Brian Urlacher jerseys in the Lambeau Field gift shops.

Anyway, this was never about forcing the "Roll Out The Barrel" Packers crowd to suffer memory loss when it came to No. 4. Instead, it was about making Green Bay fans remember what happened here during Rodgers' regular-season debut.

"It's a hard situation," Barnett said. "Favre's been here for so many years, and I know fans are devoted to him. It's hard to kind of move over to the next era, but hopefully, for the fans who were doubting [Rodgers], this will move them over."

[+] EnlargeAaron Rodgers
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswirePat Williams (94) took some verbal jabs at Aaron Rodgers but gave the quarterback his due after Green Bay's MNF victory.

It will help, but as Rodgers said himself, "You got to remind yourself it's one win, but it's a big one."

There's no reason to detail the ugly divorce proceedings between Favre and Packers management. But even though he's a New York Jet now, Favre's presence is everywhere in this town, especially on game day.

As I parked my car in the stadium lot, a fan wearing a Packers cap and a Favre/Jets T-shirt walked by. I saw fans wearing Favre Jets jerseys. I saw fans waving Favre signs. In the stadium shops you could still buy Favre jerseys, Favre commemorative five-piece pin sets, Favre bobbleheads, Favre books, Favre DVDs and, my personal favorite, a Favre collectors edition figurine entitled, "Winter Favre On Bench," which is exactly where Packers management wanted the guy if he insisted on returning to the team.

Instead, Favre was traded, and so far everybody is living happily ever after. Favre helped beat the Miami Dolphins a day earlier. Rodgers got the opening-game win against the Vikings. Better yet, he stuffed a sock in the mouth of Minnesota defensive tackle Pat Williams.

Last month, Williams jokingly (he says) taunted Rodgers in print. "I don't even want to say his name, because he ain't Favre," Williams said at the time. "Know what I'm saying? He ain't Favre, so I'm not going to say his name."

He knew Rodgers' name after the Packers' win.

"He showed a lot of poise," said a gracious Williams, who congratulated Rodgers after the game. "So I take my hat off to him."

The Vikings had more first downs, more total net yards, more rushing yards and only 10 fewer passing yards. But they also gave up a punt return for a touchdown and committed nine penalties, and their secondary continues to be a work in progress.

Meanwhile, the Packers were called for 12 penalties (including one that negated a would-be 68-yard TD pass to Donald Driver), had a field goal blocked and fumbled twice. It was typical first-game stuff.

Rodgers, though, rose above most of the mistakes. He wasn't perfect, but he didn't have to be.

"The kid's a young, talented quarterback who has a lot of good football in front of him," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.

Rodgers was one of the last players to leave the Packers' locker room late Monday night. It's easy. All you do is go out the double steel doors, take a left, and a few feet later there it is: a huge, mounted photo of Favre from his regular-season debut on Sept. 20, 1992.

A New Beginning, says the headline on the life-sized photo.

True then. True now.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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