Aaron Rodgers sees the future. His teammates are convinced because they have noticed it time and time again. The Green Bay Packers quarterback knows what the opposing safety is thinking and where the linebacker is going. He knows what his own teammates are doing often before they do. When his team dropped five of six games last season, Rodgers is the one who memorably said the Packers would run the table. And they did.
"He knows what's going to happen before it happens," said tackle Bryan Bulaga, who is in his eighth season protecting Rodgers. "He's already played everything out in his head."
So when Rodgers talks about the future, when he says he wants to play for several more years — beyond age 40, even — no one doubts him.
"I think about 40, 41, 42, 43, 44," Rodgers said last month.
If he says it, there's a good chance of it happening, even if not that long ago quarterbacks were peaking in their early 30s and pursuing second careers well before age 40 rolled around. But the league has changed, and the quarterback position is trending older. Rodgers, 33, is at the crest of that wave, in position to extend his prime and continue producing at an age few passers ever see during their playing careers.
"I do think it's realistic," he says of playing football at age 40.
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The current benchmark, of course, is 40-year-old Tom Brady. But entering Week 1 this season, the average starting quarterback was a full year older than just a decade ago. That list of passers still competing at a high level includes Drew Brees (38), Carson Palmer (37), Eli Manning (36), Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger (both 35).
Rodgers, who leads the 1-0 Packers this week into a matchup against the Atlanta Falcons, the team that beat Green Bay in last season's NFC title game, is as consistent and productive as perhaps any quarterback who has ever suited up. And he happens to be playing in an era that will ensure he might be able to keep at it as long as he wants to.
"It's a different game. It's a different time," said Phil Simms, the New York Giants quarterback from 1979 to 1993.
Simms points out that today's quarterback takes care of his body much differently. Before he even turned 30, Rodgers already was prepping his body to play into his late 30s. Stretching, workouts and training are an important part of each offseason, and recovery is an emphasis in-season.
"I feel like every year he comes back and he's in better shape than he was the year before," Bulaga said.
That wasn't the case for Simms' generation.
"I didn't get one massage," said Simms, now an analyst on CBS and Showtime. "I got in a hot tub: 'Oh, go to the hot tub, that'll fix everything.' Or: 'Just go put ice on it.'"
While Brady has been very public with his highly specialized diet and has even produced a cookbook, Rodgers won't divulge his training regimen or detail his weekly meals. "I think that's some competitive advantage stuff," he said. "But I'm always looking for that edge."
Needless to say, he is not eating any food, vitamin or supplement by accident.
"If you know Rodgers and Brady, they know every drop they put in their body," said Jon Gruden, the former coach turned "Monday Night Football" analyst. "They're highly conditioned. They're not your typical 36-, 37-, 40-year-old men."
The game has also changed significantly, which makes comparisons with previous generations difficult. Of the 26 modern-era quarterbacks in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the average retirement age is 37. Quarterbacks in that group averaged only 32 starts beyond their 35th birthday. Players like Troy Aikman and Joe Namath hung up their cleats and pads before even turning 35.
By comparison, the rules and style of play should allow Rodgers and his generation to be productive performers for far longer.
"It's easier for quarterbacks to complete passes now," said Boomer Esiason, who played quarterback from 1984 to 1997. "They got the shackles on the defensive players. They can't grab anymore. They can't bump anymore. It's easier than when we played."
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Rodgers acknowledges that quarterbacks suffer less as more teams implement aspects of the West Coast passing game, including quick passes and screens that cut down on a quarterback's time sitting in the pocket in the path of an oncoming pass rusher.
But even then, there are never any guarantees. Former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo thought his career was safely pointed toward playing into his late 30s. But then he got injured, lost his starting job to rookie Dak Prescott and retired in April at 36.
"[Rodgers] will go away when one of two things happen," said Romo, who is transitioning this season into the broadcast booth for CBS. "One, there's a big injury and the team moves on. Or two, when they're not as good and when that offensive line isn't quite the same. You don't want to take those same hits at 40 that you did at 30."
One key is minimizing risk, and Packers coaches are doing their part taking care of their franchise player, now more than ever. Rodgers attempted only 13 passes during the 2017 preseason. By comparison, just five years ago, Rodgers appeared in all four preseason games and attempted 43 passes total.
"From the physical standpoint, it's just much easier to play quarterback," Simms said. "There's no question. All the good ones, if they want, will definitely be able to play until they're 40. It's really a matter of do they want to."
For many, it will be hard to pass up the opportunity. Matthew Stafford signed the biggest contract in NFL history in August, a five-year deal with the Lions worth $135 million. Rodgers is currently signed through 2019, which means at age 36, he'll be in position to sign a deal that could dwarf Stafford's. "When it comes to how that affects my own status, nothing's changed," Rodgers told reporters in Green Bay after Stafford signed his deal. "I have this year and two more years to play, and that stuff takes care of itself."
But for most quarterbacks, it will be difficult to walk away from the game when there's so much money to be made.
"I think [Dan] Marino and some of those guys made $5 or $7 million — now they're making $25 million," Esiason said. "So the amount of money they can make, I think, is a huge incentive to stay in the league."
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While few quarterbacks have been as consistent for as long as Rodgers has, he has already looked ahead and plotted ways he can remain effective, even as his body ages. To last long in the league, his priority is taking care of his legs and staying as mobile as possible, tailoring his game around whatever the lower half of his body allows him to do.
"The arm, I don't think, ever really goes," Rodgers said. "I would guess John Elway and Dan Marino can still sling it around pretty good. But the legs are what goes first, so I got to keep those in good shape and make sure I can still move around the way I like to move around."
Inevitably, that won't be the case. Rodgers at 38 won't move like Rodgers at 33. But those who have thrived at the position before him say he'll find other ways and harness other weapons. For a cerebral player like Rodgers, someone who already anticipates defensive movements as well as anyone else in the game, that might not be a difficult adjustment.
"When you do lose that physical ability," Simms said, "you can still play at a high level because of all the knowledge you've acquired. You overcome losing physical ability as you gain knowledge on how to play the position."
Rodgers has no end date in mind, at least not one that he is revealing publicly. He has already won a Super Bowl and a pair of MVP awards. He is as competitive as anyone in the game, and this year's Packers squad might be the best Green Bay has seen in several seasons.
"Let's wait and see how long Tom can make it," he said this offseason about Brady, smiling. "Let Tom set the bar and then hopefully I can go and match it."
For Rodgers, though, that bar might seem like it's moving, something that only he can set and reset. And whether he is a 22-year-old fresh into the league or someday a grizzled 40-something quarterback, the goal hasn't really changed in terms of the quarterback position. Before his first season at Cal, in fact, Rodgers talked to his hometown paper, the Chico Enterprise-Record. He was 19 years old, assured of nothing in the sport.
"I want to be the best at everything I do," he said, showing even then that he had a knack for predicting the future.