Dougherty: Rodgers takes aim at playing past 40

Pete Dougherty
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Brett Favre (4) started 16 games at age 40 in 2009, including a 38-26 victory at Lambeau Field over Aaron Rodgers (12) and the Green Bay Packers.

Aaron Rodgers has been the Green Bay Packers’ starting quarterback for eight years. If he makes it to his goal of playing until at least age 40, that would be eight more.

With a Pro Football Hall of Fame induction basically a given, his next eight seasons should be about adding the multiple Super Bowl titles that looked so likely after the Packers won it all in 2010 with a core of key players that included only one over the age of 28.

Safe to say, the last five years, though successful by league-wide standards, have not yielded the bonanza that looked like a possibility at the time.

Eight more years still are enough to accomplish something extraordinary if Rodgers can maintain a high level of play. For all the talk of teamwork in football, it of all the major sports in the United States is the most reliant on one player, the quarterback.

That puts much of the responsibility for the next eight (or however many) years on Rodgers, for better or worse. He didn’t blanch when asked in a recent, extended interview if winning two or three more titles is unrealistic.

“I don’t think so,” Rodgers said. “We think we can win this year, and that’s our approach every single year. Now, you kind of know by midseason whether you’ve got a team that can compete or a team that it’s going to be tough. I’d say we had four teams during my eight years starting where we felt really good about our chances of ... (where) we felt like we were the best team.”

Those four years were 2009, ’10, ’11 and ’14.

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To improve his chances of making it through eight more seasons, Rodgers has honed his diet and offseason training program. He’s famously (at least as far as Wisconsin farmers are concerned) cut most dairy from his diet after an offseason test showed he was lactose intolerant. And he went to a vegan diet early in the offseason to reduce weight, before he added meat back into it for muscle mass. This season he’s playing at just under 220 pounds — he was at least in the 225-pound range earlier in his career — and he plans to stay at or under 220 the rest of his career.

But can Rodgers really make it that long playing at a winning level? History says that anything beyond 38 is especially challenging.

Since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970, 16 quarterbacks have started at least 10 games the year they turned 38. That number drops to three (Brett Favre, Warren Moon and Doug Flutie) at 39, and stays at three (Favre, Moon and Vinny Testaverde) at 40 and beyond.

In fact, since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, only Favre has started 16 games at 40 or older, when he led Minnesota to the NFC championship game in 2009. The next year he started 13 games before even his seemingly indestructible body finally broke down.

Moon twice had double-digit starts beyond 40 (14 games at age 41, 10 at 42) and Testaverde once (15 at age 41).

So it’s a long way from here to there for Rodgers. Recently retired Peyton Manning, for instance, played at a high level until the second half of 2014, the year he turned 38; his decline was complete by last season at age 39. He also had a neck injury that required surgery in 2011 and hastened his loss of arm strength, which is what did him in.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady exchange words after a Nov. 2014 at Lambeau Field.

But watching Tom Brady could be instructive. The New England Patriots quarterback entered the NFL with a surprisingly bad physique — if you haven’t seen it, Google his scouting combine photo — and never has been an athletic or mobile player.

But over the past few years, Brady has expressed a strong desire to play into his 40s and has become obsessive about diet and training. That includes having his own year-round “body” coach who reportedly works with him every day during the season.

So Brady has remade his body in recent years and is playing as well as ever. He carried the Patriots, as usual, last year (12-4 record, 102.2 rating) at age 38 and will be back at it again this season after serving a four-game suspension for Deflategate.

Rodgers is far more athletic than Brady, but he didn’t have a particularly impressive physique for much of his career. This year, though, he looks noticeably leaner than even in 2015.

“I think it’s more realistic now than it was when I first started playing,” Rodgers said of playing until 40. “The way the (practice) schedule is now, training camp, the research on nutrition. I think it is possible to play and play well into your 40s.

“Tom (Brady) is 39 I believe. He’d love to play probably, what, two, three, four more years? Drew (Brees) has talked about playing into his 40s, he takes great care of himself.”

Rodgers also has looked for cues about aging from athletes in other sports.

He has talked with NBA greats Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade about their longevity in a game that requires extraordinary athleticism, as well as baseball great Derek Jeter, who played 20 years with the New York Yankees. Bryant just retired after averaging 28 minutes a game at age 37, and Wade is about to begin his 14th NBA season at 34. Jeter retired at 40.

The takeaway is that Rodgers over the past couple years has set up his own team of fitness coaches and therapists.

“Your trainer, the people who work on you during the week and during the offseason, that’s important to keep yourself in the shape you need to keep on playing at a high level,” he said.

Will that be enough to allow Rodgers to play good football until he’s 40? History is against him, but medical science and the NFL’s recent rules changes are in his favor.

Injury history also matters, and there are some red flags. He, like Brady, has had a torn ACL — Rodgers’ was in college, Brady’s in 2008. A bigger concern for longevity is his two concussions, one of which caused him to miss a game in 2010. However, he hasn’t had one since switching to a new helmet design in 2011.

Rodgers also had a pulled hamstring and broken foot while he was Favre’s backup; a broken collarbone that sidelined him for seven games in ’13; a calf injury that cost him mobility but didn’t sideline him late in the 2014 season; and a knee injury that required an unspecified “clean-up,” as he calls it, after last season.

My guess? I’d say the odds are more with than against.

There’s always the X factor of another injury. Just one big hit can change a career — it might not end it, but it can help shorten it.

But Rodgers has an exceptional and healthy throwing arm, so he has a head start there. He has a quick throwing release, which can help avoid hits as he ages and loses mobility. And his commitment to diet and training, plus on- and off-field changes in NFL rules, promote the fight against the ravages of age.

“I’m going to stave it off as long as possible,” he said.

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