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Dougherty: Tom Brady saga a sobering sign of what could await Aaron Rodgers

Pete Dougherty   | Packers News

GREEN BAY - Hard not to think Aaron Rodgers paid close attention to Tom Brady’s departure from the New England Patriots last week.

Rodgers has seen this before, of course, though he was in the thick of it when the Packers pushed Brett Favre out of Green Bay. This time, quite a bit older, he watched from afar.

Even with legends, it often ends badly in the NFL. Brady joined a list that includes not only Favre but Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Joe Montana and Peyton Manning as all-time great quarterbacks who finished their careers with new teams after the clubs they’d led to glory were done with them.

The Brady saga was a reminder of what could be in store for Rodgers in a few years. There’s a pretty good chance the same dynamics that sent Brady and Favre on their way will circle around and end Rodgers’ Hall of Fame career with the Packers, too.

This is the way it works in the NFL, and pro sports in general, right? Teams usually are finished with a great player before he’s finished with them.

Still, even if it shouldn’t have been, watching the Patriots push Brady out the door last week was jarring.

And make no mistake, the Patriots pushed Brady out the door. As former Packers executive Andrew Brandt said in Ross Tucker’s podcast last week, the Brady and Favre departures were similar. In each case, the team signaled it was ready to move on — the Packers in 2008 with their indifference after begging Favre to come back the previous couple years, the Patriots with their unwillingness to guarantee Brady’s contract beyond this season.

Inaction in one case, and action in the other, told the player everything he needed to know. It might have looked like Favre and Brady chose to leave, but really it was what the team preferred.

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On the one hand, it’s hard not to admire Bill Belichick’s heartlessness when it comes to his roster. He is consistent and egalitarian. Sentiment counts for nothing. All that matters is what he thinks you can do today. In the end, everyone, even Tom Brady, is treated the same.

That’s who Belichick is and a trait he shares with Vince Lombardi. It’s a must for sustained success in this league.

On the other hand, it still felt wrong watching Brady get the treatment. He’s not just any great player. In 18 seasons as starting quarterback he carried that franchise to a .774 winning percentage, six Super Bowl wins and nine Super Bowl appearances, and to 13 conference championship games. In an era when quarterbacks are everything, no one else comes close. Is there really even an argument about whether he’s the best ever at his position?

Yet, Belichick offered no special dispensation for the person most responsible for his team’s staggering success, and for a player who, while clearly near the end of his career, still appears capable of playing good football. The coach’s public statement dressed up Brady’s departure more than he’d done for anyone else, but the effect was the same. Brady is gone.

In the end, feelings be damned, this is the way it should be. No sacred cows. Though it’s only right that the same standard applies to coaches as well.

In any event, there’s a decent chance a similar fate awaits Rodgers. Sure, it can go the other way. Terry Bradshaw, Dan Marino, John Elway, Roger Staubach and Bart Starr finished their careers where they began. Just as likely, though, Rodgers — like Unitas, Namath, Montana, Favre and Manning before him — will want to keep playing when his team is ready to move on. If this can happen to Brady, obviously no one is immune.

Rodgers will turn 37 late this season. He has said he’d like to play until at least 40, which is four more years. But sometime between now and then, the Packers are going to use a high draft pick on a possible successor. If that player shows any promise, they’re eventually going to want him on the field. Remember, the reason Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy no longer felt compelled to cajole Favre to return was they deemed Rodgers ready to play. Unless an injury ends Rodgers’ career abruptly, the same easily could happen before he’s ready to hang it up.

Then we’ll have another bad parting, no matter how amicable the sides will try to make it look. Despite the public proclamations of love and respect last week, don’t think for a second Brady isn’t feeling underappreciated by his former boss. You know he’s burning to prove he, not Belichick, was more responsible for the Patriots’ achievements, and that Belichick was wrong for moving on.

If the Packers ever signal to Rodgers they’re ready to live without him, he’ll feel the same way.

It ain’t always pretty, but it’s the circle of life in the NFL.

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