Kirk Cousins dived into two defenders, risking his expensive neck, and survived. Aaron Rodgers crumpled, then led a one-man team to a one-legged victory. As the Vikings and Packers resume Minnesota’s defining rivalry, their quarterbacks prove that football’s toughest players are often those who receive, rather than deliver, punishment.
What would you rather be: Hammer, or nail? Fist, or face? Baseball, or bat?
For quarterbacks, the answers are easy. Nail, face, bat.
“I think it’s the toughest position,’’ Brad Johnson said. “It’s for sure the most fragile position. And there’s nothing else like it.’’
Johnson won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay, and might have won another had he remained healthy with the Vikings in 1998.
He turned 50 on Thursday. He walks with a limp, can’t straighten his right arm, has a sore back, iffy knees and, some days, finds life’s greatest challenge to be getting out of bed.
He traded a lifetime of ailments for “two seconds.’’
“Why do you play?’’ Johnson said. “Because I loved calling the play in the huddle. I loved making a great play fake, loved looking the linebacker off and throwing a screen pass behind his head, getting a first down and giving a high-five, scoring a touchdown and hugging someone in the end zone.
“All those things last two seconds. It’s that feeling you get, for two seconds, that makes everything worthwhile.’’
This is why NFL quarterbacks formed an unofficial support group, why they seek each other out after games to congratulate and commiserate.
“Sunday night after the game you try to eat a meal and recall every play in your mind and don’t sleep until 4 a.m. because you’re reliving every play,’’ he said. “Monday you work out and watch film and relive it again, then all of a sudden you’re designing plays for the next game.
“Tuesday, you’re officially off, but you’re working on the next game. Wednesday you watch more film and lift weights and practice and game-plan. Thursday and Friday you keep working and start feeling a little better. Sunday comes, you’re ready to go.
“It’s not about showing up on Sundays. It’s seven days of recovery and preparation, of questioning why your coach wants to use this play and going to meetings and making sure your teammates know what to do on every play.
“It doesn’t stop. It’s not just about Sunday. Otherwise you might as well go throw pretty spirals at milk cartons at the carnival and win a stuffed puppet.’’
The two seconds he talked about can produce reward or rebuke. “You have these moments, like we saw when Aaron Rodgers had his legendary moment on Sunday,’’ Johnson said. “You also have the moments when you lose and you’re getting booed or you throw a pick-six because the ball got tipped. I always say the difference between a pat on the back and a slap to the face can be 6 inches.
“The position is fun, and stressful, and hard, and it hurts. And we’re not even talking about getting hit. We’re talking about the mental part of the game, and all of the responsibilities. But it’s so rewarding when you walk out of that building with a win. Nothing tastes better than that Domino’s pizza you order on the way home after a win.’’
Johnson lives near Athens, Ga., and his son is a high school quarterback. “Playing the position has to be in the marrow of your bones or you won’t succeed,’’ he said. “It’s too hard. But the successes, and the challenges, bring you back every time. If you have to take a hit on third-and-10 to make a play, it’s worth it.
“Watch quarterbacks who get hit as they release the ball. They don’t lay there and look to the sky. They look through all of the ankles to see if the ball got completed.
“I have these conversations with my son all the time. It’s seven days to the next game, and it’s so hard, and there’s nothing else like it.’’
Jim Souhan’s podcasts can be found at TalkNorth.com.
On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org