Former Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers faces a daunting task this season, replacing Brett Favre. A Sports Illustrated article last week detailed the careers of quarterbacks who have largely failed when they replaced legends, but the best lesson for Rodgers is the one who succeeded: Steve Young.
Young faced tremendous fan opposition when he first replaced Joe Montana as the 49ers starter in 1991 when Montana was injured and permanently in 1993, when Montana was traded to Kansas City — which was, not incidentally, a deal Joe had asked Carmen Policy to make.
By 1993, Young had already won a league MVP award, but that meant nothing to the legion of Montana fans, who believed Joe walked on water.
One wrote to me later that if the 49ers had kept Montana as their starter, they would have won three more Super Bowls. Of course, Joe only played two years after leaving the Niners, and the 49ers won another Super Bowl in one of those years. My reader must have been using the new math.
Young persevered and had a fine career — not quite equal to Montana’s, but good enough to get into the Pro Football Hallof Fame. In the Super Bowl triumph mentioned above, he set a game record for touchdown passes.
In so doing, he played through fan abuse and eventually won many of them over.
That’s the path Rodgers has to take. He’ll never measure up to Favre in the opinion of most of the "cheeseheads." But he has to ignore that and just do his best on the field.
The Rodgers I knew at Cal has the confidence to do that. He told SI, "I don’t feel I have to sell myself to the fans. They need to get on board now or keep their mouths shut."
That’s the kind of remark that got him the reputation for being cocky when he declared for the draft in 2005, but it’s also the kind of winning attitude that successful quarterbacks have. I’ve talked to many, many quarterbacks over the years and the good ones always had that confidence. Sometimes, it was a quiet thing, like Montana’s. Sometimes, it was more forward, as with Ken Stabler. But they all had it.
Rodgers is also very smart, which has helped him pick up the offensive systems at Cal and with the Packers. It was his intelligence that allowed him to enter Cal as a sophomore, as a transfer from Butte JC. NCAA rules usually prohibit players from transferring from junior college before two years, but an exception was made for Rodgers because his SAT score would have qualified him for admission to a four-year college out of high school.
Once at Cal, he established himself as one of the best in the school’s history. I’d rank him with Joe Roth, just below Craig Morton and Steve Bartkowski, as the best I’ve seen in 50-plus years of watching Cal football.
He’s the complete package, able to throw accurately, long and short, and to make the right decisions.
Now, he faces the biggest challenge of his career, replacing a legend.
The Green Bay fans won’t make it easy for him, just as the 49ers fans didn’t make it easy for Young.
But I have confidence that he can do the job. More importantly, so does he.