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Dunking on Aaron Rodgers: Why Colin Cowherd's Apolitical Criticisms Land Hardest
Note: Discussing this article tonight, 1/26, at 8 pm PST on Callin. Resident Packer fan Ryan Glasspiegel of the NY Post will also be there to take your questions.
Well, it’s nice to be back from Covid quarantine, digitally and otherwise. Personally, my experience was about a day and a half of fever, followed by a longer wind-down of sniffles. Pretty benign go of it overall, though when the fever hits, it’s easy to panic given the disease’s cachet. Like a bad drug trip, the worst part is that you can briefly believe in its permanence. But then the sniffles start and you welcome the normally uncomfortable, like happily sitting middle seat on an important flight you just almost missed. Anyway, onward.
One benefit of convalescing is that I got to check in on a few epic NFL playoff games, including the Niners’ upset of the Green Bay Packers. If you’re outside of the American sports sphere, I’ll explain that this game was a massive loss for star quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose reputation took a beating over yet another unexpected postseason defeat. And not only did Rodgers lose, but he lost to a chorus of vindictive jeers from sports media types, perhaps on scale not seen since LeBron James flamed out of the NBA Finals in 2011.
Rodgers was once popular with sports writers, but now not so much. His rejection of the Covid vaccine, embrace of podcaster Joe Rogan, and criticism of “cancel culture” have made him persona non grata to the median blue check sports journalist, if not broader media. So, his loss unleashed a tsunami of happy Twitter scorn, conveyed with the same three or four joke variations (not taking a shot when he should, getting silenced by the opponent, disbelieving the game result ‘cuz he needs to do his own research, etc.).
It was all pretty rote. I get that a lot of it was for the lolz and whatnot. Not every joke came from some deep well of righteousness. Often, it was probably about beating stiff competition for best joke within the night’s given joke prompt.
Still, there’s something off-putting about the Borg-like consistency of sports media on that platform and how it coalesces with prestige media convention. Again, boring.
Radio host Colin Cowherd’s instant reaction on Aaron Rodgers’ loss, however, was not boring. It was also more damning, more thought out and more detailed. Words like “vax” and “shot” and “cancel culture” did not come up.
In a clip recorded the night of the loss, Cowherd accuses Rodgers of playing too carefully out of a conceited protection of his passer rating. The idea is that avoiding interceptions at all costs works well enough in the regular season, when you’re as talented as Aaron Rodgers, but risks are required in the playoff crucible. Trust of teammates is also required, and Rodgers isn’t a trusting sort, according to Cowherd. As Cowherd notes, after tight end Marcedes Lewis fumbled, Rodgers not only stopped throwing his way, but locked in on receiver Davante Adams and running back Aaron Jones to the exclusion of everyone else.
Cowherd would expound on his radio show, in quite an excoriation:
He starts playing safe. It always comes down to relationships and this has always been my theory on Aaron, who has fought with his own family. Guys like Brady are all about relationships, they make stuff work. Tom gets along with EVERYBODY. Relationships are about trusting and elevating others. Tom is optimistic and he’ll make it work. Aaron is cynical by nature and not trusting. Good god, after Marcedes Lewis fumbled, Aaron changed. ‘UGH, I’M A VICTIM AGAIN! TEAMMATES AREN’T THERE FOR ME!’ The next two drives were 3-and-out, 3-and-out, played it safe, no yards. The Niners defense is good, it ain’t THAT good ... You’re at home, be DARING. Joe Burrow is getting the you-know-what kicked out of him for three-and-a-half hours and doesn’t care, DOWNFIELD. Stafford’s team is melting around him, doesn’t care, DOWNFIELD. All these quarterbacks – down the field, stopped playing safe, protecting a legacy – because they have relationships. Aaron doesn’t have any, and the minute something goes sideways, I’ve said for years, he is a BAILER, not a BALLER, the last guy you would want in a foxhole.
Maybe you believe in this take and maybe you don’t. Perhaps you’d cite randomness or zero degree weather as the cause of Rodgers’ disappointing performance. I’m just saying, Cowherd’s spiel is a) infinitely more compelling than the bog standard YAY SCIENCE HATER LOST take that overwhelmed the sports media hivemind and b) more damning in its precision. Cowherd’s been ripping Rodgers for years. Whatever high handedness and grandiosity the media now so clearly sees in Number 12, Cowherd’s spoken of long before they took notice.
Funny enough, unlike the media hivemind, Cowherd isn’t overtly angered by the content of Rodgers’ specific political stances on vaccination and other issues. Didactically lecturing you on politics isn’t something Colin does. He just sees Rodgers’ frequent public pontification as resultant from narcissism, a self absorption that has management consequences within the Packer organization. He places no demands on the listener to believe or disbelieve anything Rodgers is saying; He just thinks that Rodgers is kind of a dick, whose focus isn’t fully on football.
The media collective has unleashed a fairly unhinged contempt for Rodgers over the past few months, culminating in Saturday night, but nothing quite left a mark like Cowherd’s monologues. So, what allowed Cowherd to be more incisive on the same target everyone else in sports media was aiming for?
I’m partial to Cowherd and there are probably a few reasons, including his entertaining appearance on my podcast. I used to think it was because I enjoyed his analogies, and I do. But, the more I mull it, the more I think it’s about his intense interest in how personality informs success or lack thereof. I appreciate that kind of commentary because it was nearly purged from the sports media landscape after a mid-aughts blogger insurgency successfully made such character exploration unfashionable. It seemed like one day, the cool kids at Deadspin and other sites announced that athletic success was no reflection of anyone’s character. That was that and hell, I might have even been persuaded. “Chemistry,” was a lie, decided retroactively whenever a team wins, obviously. You’d be a sap to believe anything else.
They were half-right, of course. Terrible people often succeed in sports. For decades, a lot of treacly prose was dedicated to extolling the virtues of winners who later revealed themselves as total dirtbags, if not selfish teammates. It’s not crazy to think that sports outcomes are more reflections of physical prowess meeting randomness than any life lesson worth knowing.
What the cool kids of that era missed, though, is that personality still matters immensely in team sports. This is a human endeavor, after all. In a game we see talent on display, sure. But there’s more to it. We’re watching these massively ambitious characters (players, coaches, ownership) attempting to mesh for the cause. In that struggle, we see a human drama that’s familiar to almost anybody.
This is where Cowherd thrives. He’s fascinated by these characters and their quest to overcome themselves. He’s into the eternal tension between ego and collective accomplishment. Many listeners are as well. We don’t watch sports just to see some random acrobatics, or “root for laundry,” as Jerry Seinfeld once quipped. Nearly all of life is understood through narrative. Sports is just another story, epic tales of empires rising and falling. Cowherd is telling his listeners that story.
And what’s the rest of sports media doing, to generalize? Okay, maybe not all of it, but a lot of it. They’re exchanging story for moral instruction. They’re too secular to believe that Rodgers’ loss is some divine punishment, but they’ll celebrate the defeat like it is, just so you really know that he’s BAD BAD BAD. They’re inordinately concerned that Rodgers believes the wrong things, thus undermining their effort to get people believing in the right things. In their view, Aaron Rodgers isn’t just a flawed guy with questionable beliefs, but a problem to be attacked with a defensive end’s tenacity.
The sports media’s loudest Rodgers critique is that he’s getting in the way of their message; Cowherd’s main Rodgers critique is that he’s getting in the way of himself. The latter is a story about the human condition. The former is an angry public service announcement. I know which one I’d rather listen to.