Why Brett Favre Was Better Than Aaron Rodgers

Aaron Rodgers made his 100th career start for the Green Bay Packers on Monday Night, as his team won a 43-37 shootout with the Atlanta Falcons. The comparison of Rodgers’ first 100 games to that of his predecessor, the presumptive Hall of Famer Brett Favre, began in the aftermath. About a week earlier I had a text-message debate with a friend about which quarterback was better in their prime. Frankly, I don’t see this as even being all that close—prime-for-prime, Favre is better than Rodgers. Here’s why…

*Let’s start with their won-loss records. Both players are 68-32, which favors Favre. Does anyone remember just how awful the Green Bay Packers consistently were when Brett Favre took over the job in the third week of the 1992 season? Observe my favorite team, the Washington Redskins today, and you have a grasp on what the Packers of the previous twenty years prior to Favre were.

Brett FavreYet when Favre became the starting quarterback, the winning began immediately. Green Bay went 9-7 in his first year and nearly made the playoffs. In 1993 they did make the postseason and a long era of franchise success began.

Rodgers took over a team in 2008 that had reached the NFC Championship Game in 2007. Admittedly, that ’07 team had a little bit of a magic ride quality to it, and some regression would have happened under Favre. But with Rodgers on the learning curve, the Packers slipped all the way to 6-10. Thus, Favre developed much quicker and in a much worse situation.

*Favre’s critics have pointed out that the arrival of Hall of Fame defensive tackle Reggie White on the free-agent market was at least as big a development in the emergence of the Packers in the 1990s. This is true, just as the drafting of Clay Matthews was necessary for Rodgers’ Packers to win the Super Bowl in 2010.

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In the case of Favre though, White explicitly said the presence of Favre was a key reason for his decision—the “Minister of Defense” believed Favre to be the kind of quarterback you could win a Super Bowl with. This, in spite of the fact that Favre had only played for a year at the time White made his decision and the defensive tackle was playing with a dynamic quarterback in Randall Cunningham with Philadelphia. Favre commanded the respect of his contemporaries as much as any quarterback I’ve seen

*Favre had a much tougher hill to climb to reach the Super Bowl. In the early 1990s, the Dallas Cowboys of Jimmy Johnson and the San Francisco 49ers were far and away the best two teams in the NFL. They combined to win four straight Super Bowls from 1992-95. No current NFL team is as good as either of these teams were then, as the era of free agency was just beginning and neither team had yet been broken up by salary cap considerations.

That was the roadblock the Favre-era Packers kept running into and when Favre led an upset win over the 49ers in the divisional round of 1995 and then had the Cowboys on the ropes for three quarters on the road in the NFC Championship Game, it was an achievement far more difficult than anything the Rodgers-era Packers have had to try.

If this year’s Green Bay team goes to Seattle and wins the NFC Championship Game that equation can change. But for the most part, the power of the NFL during the Rodgers era has been in the AFC (Brady/Belichick, Peyton Manning, etc).

*Brett Favre won the MVP three straight years. Not just three times, but three years in succession. You have to start crisscrossing sports to find points of comparison. The only ones you can come up with are all-time great basketball legends (Larry Bird, Michael Jordan), the greatest hockey player of all-time (Wayne Gretzky) and disgraced former baseball players (Barry Bonds). As far as I’m concerned, this fact alone is where the debate should cease. And that’s even allowing for the fact I assume Rodgers will win this year’s MVP and give him two in a four-year span. That’s incredibly impressive—the stuff of a Hall of Famer. What Brett Favre did from 1995-97 is on a level even higher.

*But we don’t have to stop to debate there, because the crown jewel of Favre’s career has yet to be mentioned—The Streak. The insane 297 consecutive starts he put out as the Iron Man of the NFL. The focal point of this article is just the first 100 starts, or more generically, each player’s prime, but Rodgers missed a key game in 2010, where his team lost at New England and nearly cost them a playoff berth (the wild-card spot they would eventually turn into a Super Bowl trophy).

More notably, Rodgers missed half the season last year with his broken collarbone and only the monumental incompetence of the Jim Schwartz-led Detroit Lions and the ever-inept Chicago Bears allowed Green Bay to stay close enough and eventually allowed Rodgers to come riding into Soldier Field on his white horse in Week 17 and steal a division title with an 8-7-1 record.

But as each week went by last season and the Packers’ hopes seemed to get more precarious, if any Packer fan says they didn’t at one point think Brett would be playing, I frankly wouldn’t believe them. Not because Rodgers is soft. But because Favre was insanely tough.

The Rodgers case is not without ammunition of its own, and it boils down to interceptions. Favre threw 104 in his first 100 starts, Rodgers threw 50, a huge, huge gap. While concededing the obvious—the Rodgers is clearly more careful with the football, here’s why I don’t find that argument persuasive…

*The first is everything that’s written above. The fact Rodgers has one point in his favor doesn’t overrule everything else that came before it. The interception issue only makes this discussion worth having, it isn’t an automatic win for Rodgers.

*The second is that statistical comparisons between eras are incredibly difficult in football. With each year, life gets easier and easier for quarterbacks. Let’s pick just one example—today, you can intentionally ground the ball. Just get outside the pocket, get the ball to the line of scrimmage and you can throw it in the ground. In Favre’s prime, you had to at least put in the direction of a receiver, no matter where you were.

Undoubtedly, the ever-stubborn Favre would have still forced some passes, but how many more times might he have just settled for avoiding the sack? How many times would Rodgers, forced to find a receiver in the area,  have thrown a pick?. This is an area Rodgers would still have an edge, but it would be nowhere near as pronounced.

When you review as many past football seasons as I do, when putting together NFL history articles for the website, the first thing that jumps out at you is how many interceptions quarterbacks threw in previous eras. To pick an example, John Elway threw 18 picks for the 1989 Denver Broncos, my most recently completed article. That’s a team that went 11-5 and went to the Super Bowl. A quarterback who throws 18 interceptions today is looking for work. And it gets worse the further you go back.

The bottom line—any statistical disparities among quarterbacks must always have a huge benefit of the doubt given to the player who came first. To the backers of Aaron Rodgers, remember this—someday we’ll be saying the same thing when people try and compare the careers of Rodgers and Andrew Luck or some other up-and-comer

Aaron Rodgers is a great quarterback and a good guy. He’s on a Hall of Fame trajectory. Maybe, when all is said and done, his career could still eclipse Favre. The body of work for #12 is still unfolding. Green Bay could win two straight Super Bowls, Rodgers could tack on back-to-back MVPs and change the dynamic.

But right now, to not acknowledge that Favre is better than Rodgers is more about either forgetting just how good the Brett of the 1990s was, or it’s a display of Packer fan bitterness.