I've never really bought into the belief that sports are somehow analogous to life. At least not any more than I buy any number of other myopic individuals’ convictions that their careers correspond to humanity’s collective condition. I’m sure estheticians, with very valid reasons, see their waxing of unibrows as symbols of our lifetimes of suffering. And those estheticians aren’t additionally getting paid millions of dollars to speak at some conference with the hope that retelling how they were able to sign LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade will somehow make you a better manager at a Ft. Worth Staples. However one circumstance with which sports is an unquestioned canvas for chronicling the human condition is adversity, how one responds to said adversity, and the consequent outcomes of those responses. This, ultimately, was much of the reason the LeBron melodrama and its subsequent fallout were so intriguing, the solidification, fair or not, of a “when the going get tough, the tough go” attitude often exhibited by LeBron. And in no other situation presently are the varying consequences for how one reacts to adversity more clinically depicted than in the differing career paths of Aaron Rodgers and Matt Leinart.Rodgers has always been a bit of a tragic figure. If that assessment sounds mildly melodramatic one need do nothing more than recount his career leading up to the 2005 NFL Draft, a case study in howevers. He is all but ignored coming out of high school in Chico. He spends two years quarterbacking at a community college, where Jeff Tedford serendipitously discovers him while recruiting Garrett Cross. He plays a virtually flawless game against the best team in the country and their Heisman season quarterback; however he loses narrowly, and also consequently loses a shot at the BCS championship. A Rose Bowl bid, all but inevitable in any other situation, however, is given alternatively to Texas owed to their ability to draw a crowd, and Cal is sent to the Holiday Bowl as consolation, and playing like it’s a consolation, they are hammered by Mike Leach. Rodgers enters the draft, where the team he grew up with is in possession of the first pick and in need of a quarterback. Rodgers, however, is an afterthought to the inevitable entrance of another quarterback, the quarterback he outplayed but lost to in October, Matty Heisman. However Leinart decides to go back to USC, seemingly opening the door for Rodgers ascension. An ascension aborted by the arrival of Alex Smith. So Rodgers becomes the afterthought to an afterthought. Tedford’s tutelage of college quarterbacks with gaudy statistics and bad NFL careers comes under scrutiny (scrutiny similar, five years later, to the kind Alex Smith’s heretofore ineffective pro performance would inspire around Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow). And so, to the surprise of no one, come Saturday, Rodgers drops. And drops. And drops. And looks like he’s going to drop out of the first round entirely. Until, however, suddenly, to the surprise of at least one Brett Favre, the Packers pick Rodgers up. And it’s then that Rodgers’ career turns kind of tragic.
We know of the Green Bay melodrama. Know of its eventual outcome. Know Rodgers spent three years backing up Brett Favre’s messiah complex. Know Favre was alternately indifferent to, resentful of and resentfully indifferent to, Rodgers. Know the Packers were forced to decide between Favre and Rodgers, wisely chose Rodgers, and were castigated by chubby bearded men the world over. Know that in 2009 Rodgers played a season so flawless for a kid in his situation that, despite Brett Favre’s own messianic performance in Minnesota, none of the chubby bearded men could derisively ask “do you think the Packers wish they had that one back?” And we know now, hours before the season starts, that Rodgers is a dark horse MVP candidate on a probable playoff team and the 4th best quarterback in the league after guys named Brady, Brees and Manning.
Now we can’t say for sure that had Rodgers gone to San Francisco his career would have more closely resembled that of Alex Smith’s than that of Aaron Rodgers’. And we can’t say for sure that had Alex Smith gone to Green Bay his career would have more closely resembled that of Aaron Rodgers’ than that of Alex Smith’s. Alex Smith, after all, has had to overcome his own adversity. What we can say is that neither were handed anything and, at least in the case of Rodgers, his willingness to act without any sense of entitlement is what entitled him to his current success.
Which brings us to Matt Leinart.
If we’re going to look at where Matt Leinart was in 2005 we must first look at where Los Angeles was. Los Angeles has always, notoriously, been a sports town with little to no brand loyalty. Teams are liked notionally, when they’re relevant. And teams are only relevant when they’re winning. And in 2005 USC was the only one winning. And God were they winning. And, perhaps most importantly, they were doing so stylishly. Reggie Bush. LenDale White. Dwayne Jarrett. Pete Carroll emoting. The Will Ferrell celebrity-stacked sidelines. And calmly, efficiently, leading all of this was Leinart. Good looking, well bred, unflappable, nonplussed, adversity-free Leinart.
As an athlete Leinart personified the Los Angeles of the time; an era of conspicuous consumption, easy credit and easier celebrity, a moment when guys like Nick Lachey and Wilmer Valderrama were actually considered famous. Frankly, Leinart personified the America of the time. An era wherein success wasn’t something earned, but an entitlement; where people expected to gross the income usually associated with doctors, lawyers and investment banks, without having to expend any of the excess intellectual effort usually associated with those careers. The sort of excess efforts that tend to justify those incomes.
I mean to take nothing away from what Leinart accomplished at USC. He earned every bit of that Heisman trophy. Had he entered the draft after the Oklahoma game he would have been the first pick and should have been the first pick. And had he been the first pick perhaps there would be no need for the current conversation, because Leinart was always very good at winning. He also, however was always very bad at losing.
That’s an important distinction. It isn’t hard to win gracefully. Oh sure you can be humble and bashful and apologetic and deferential but you’ve still won. Losing is another matter entirely. Loss is a distinctly adult emotion. You don’t have to be an adult to understand it, to tolerate it, to transcend it, but fundamentally, contextualizing loss is a matter of maturation. Because by contextualizing loss you understand its inevitable role in success. Leinart, it seems, never could contextualize loss.
There he was in Pasadena in January telling any locker room reporter who’d listen that the better team lost because they hadn’t played the better game. There he was in New York in April unable to understand why he’d slipped all of eight spots after that loss. There he was in Tempe this August incensed that he’d somehow have to compete with Derek Anderson for the Arizona job, given that he’d spent the better part of three seasons waiting behind Kurt Warner. As if waiting, and not what one accomplishes during that waiting, were accomplishment enough. It was that entitlement, that inability to understand that life wasn’t going to perpetually be USC in the spring of 2006 that cost Leinart his starting job. It wasn’t his lack of ability. It was his inability to understand that it wasn’t exclusively about ability. Which is why, now, Leinart, nor Rodgers, is the tragic figure.
So what does this have to do with us? Well that tends to depend on what you think happens in a meadow at dusk. This is football, it’s not basketball. But when you have a roster with no shortage of one and done wonders; with kids whose ability has never been at issue; with kids whose maturity is questioned by sheer virtue of the fact that they’re kids, the careers of Rodgers and Leinart are nothing if not an intriguing disparity, a disparity in opportunity and approach that underscores the landscape of the Sacramento franchise for the next five to ten years.