Green Bay - As the finished product, Aaron Rodgers has played quarterback better than anyone else in the National Football League for the last year and a half.
Those who have watched Rodgers on a regular basis simply have grown accustomed to a standard of excellence that is at the forefront of the Green Bay Packers' drive to a second straight championship.
For Rodgers to be in this place, on the cusp of becoming the NFL's most valuable player, when it is remembered where he was earlier in his career is almost unfathomable.
If someone had asked after his first season whether Rodgers had a better chance to be a star or a bust, I might have answered bust. Many personnel people probably would have, too.
As a rookie, Rodgers' six substantial outings included a scrimmage against Buffalo, four exhibition games and the fourth quarter of a December night game in Baltimore.
He was brutal every time out.
In each of the exhibition games, Brett Favre started before turning it over to Rodgers. Until his 20th and final series, when the Packers scored a touchdown in Tennessee with the aid of a 33-yard penalty for pass interference, Rodgers had not generated a point. Sixteen possessions ended with punts, two on interceptions and one on a fumble.
If the No. 2 quarterback job had been awarded based on performance in training camp and games, it would have gone to Craig Nall hands-down.
Against the Ravens, Rodgers threw an interception, fumbled twice and was sacked three times.
As the 2006 draft drew near, Rodgers told NFL Network that he had heard the rumors of the Packers possibly selecting a quarterback with the No. 5 selection in a move that would likely end his career in Green Bay. Ted Thompson, the general manager who had drafted Rodgers with the No. 24 pick the year before, didn't rule it out.
A month before the draft, a panel of 18 personnel men were asked to compare Rodgers against that year's quarterback pool led by Matt Leinart, Vince Young and Jay Cutler. Not only didn't Rodgers draw any first-place votes, he had only one second and three thirds. Eleven scouts put him fourth, and three others even had him behind Brodie Croyle and Charlie Whitehurst.
This was serious business. Favre was talking retirement yet again, and Thompson's No. 1 charge was to find a suitable replacement. Thompson even said Young could become the NFL's version of Michael Jordan.
Young went No. 3 to the Titans before the Packers passed on Leinart and Cutler to take A.J. Hawk. Working against drafting a quarterback was the grim reality that the Packers probably would have been looking at a fourth- or fifth-round pick for Rodgers.
The coaching change from Mike Sherman to Mike McCarthy could have been the kiss of death for Rodgers. McCarthy preferred Alex Smith to Rodgers before the 2005 draft.
Rodgers participated fully in the quarterback school led by position coach Tom Clements. Still, he was inconsistent in the off-season and only slightly improved in his second training camp.
There was considerable optimism after Rodgers turned in his best performance up to then in the exhibition opener against San Diego. But he was very average in the second game, not very good in the third and awful in the fourth.
In his only meaningful regular-season appearance, Rodgers played the entire second half against New England. Once again, he played poorly, holding the ball for three sacks and missing several open receivers.
Making matters even worse, Rodgers suffered a broken fifth metatarsal bone in his left foot at some point in the Patriots game, underwent surgery and missed the last six weeks.
"You don't want to be critical of the kid because he's in a new system," an AFC personnel director said at the time. "But it looks like it will be awhile, if ever, if he develops."
Last week, that same scout said, "After his second preseason, if they had released him, I don't know that anybody would have been shocked. I mean, he wasn't a very good player. He couldn't make a play."
Once again, Thompson said he wouldn't rule out drafting a quarterback. In April 2007, 12 of 18 scouts said Brady Quinn was a better prospect than Rodgers.
On the eve of Rodgers' third training camp, three months after passing on a quarterback, Thompson renewed his public support of Rodgers by saying, "We think whenever it does become his time, Aaron will be a good player."
In those first two seasons, Rodgers had been much more of a by-the-book quarterback.
He had been taught at California by coach Jeff Tedford to carry the ball high near his ear, on the so-called "shelf." Rodgers insisted that it quickened his release and sharpened his accuracy, but it also limited his ability to vary his release point against pressure and probably prevented him from really driving the ball downfield.
McCarthy has said the Packers worked with Rodgers to carry the ball lower to enhance his natural throwing motion, and by about his third year his ball positioning no longer was an issue.
But don't blame Tedford for those first two seasons. It was Rodgers doing the playing.
According to many personnel people, Rodgers didn't have much feel in the pocket. Either he would bolt prematurely or he would hold the ball too long. His timing was off, his running was rather ineffective and his accuracy was disappointing, too.
He also kept fumbling the ball, seven times (four lost) in his first three exhibition seasons.
Rodgers was just 21, three years removed from his high school graduation, when his pro career began. He came across as overly self-assured and a little too slick. Even though Favre had been excused by Sherman, Rodgers tried to be funny by calling the three-time MVP "lazy" for not attending a minicamp in May 2005.
Far worse were the numerous cases in which Rodgers seemed to show up teammates by gesturing toward them after bad plays as if he were never the one at fault.
The Cal media guide in 2004 listed Rodgers at 6 feet 2 inches and 200 pounds. He measured exactly 6-2 at the combine six months later, but although he scaled 223 pounds some teams didn't consider it good weight.
Rodgers ran a fast 40-yard dash at the combine (4.73 seconds), but few teams thought him to be a top athlete and many expected his durability issues would only intensify in the NFL.
Hall of Fame coach Bill Walsh, in an October 2005 interview, said Rodgers might have maxed out physically.
"That's right," said Walsh. "What you see is what you get. He doesn't have great more potential that he doesn't show. He's part of a system and a real outstanding coach in college and all that. But I don't know where it's going to take him."
During his recovery from foot surgery, Rodgers went home to California not only an injured man but also a humbled man. In August, he told NBC's Phil Simms that "I think I had doubts whether I had what it took to be a successful starter."
At the same time, Rodgers decided that he would just try to play more naturally when he returned for his third season.
"I have been humbled through not playing and through my poor play my first year," Rodgers told me in August 2007. "I came out as a 21-year-old kid still wet behind the ears thinking I had all the answers. I feel like my body language in general, practice included, has really improved."
He cut weight and body fat while adding bulk strength to better absorb hits. He threw tighter spirals. He made fewer impulsive mistakes. He stayed in the pocket longer. He stopped blaming others, quit being so defensive and let teammates see the positive side of him.
The results were remarkable. At Pittsburgh in the exhibition opener, Rodgers led drives of 75, 71 and 57 yards. His confidence grew. Across the league, evaluators saw a major difference.
When Favre was horrible in a November 2007 showdown in Dallas, Rodgers entered with a 27-10 deficit and rallied the Packers in a career-altering performance. Cowboys linebacker Bradie James said: "To me, Aaron Rodgers played way better than Brett Favre."
By year's end, Thompson and McCarthy were sold on Rodgers. When Favre retired in the spring of 2008, Rodgers ran with the mantle of leadership. When Favre tried to get the job back, the team's brass told him no.
Today, Rodgers' arm strength is superior to what it was. That didn't just happen. He worked with experts on the biomechanics of throwing while working to strengthen the small muscles of the shoulder.
Tutored wonderfully by Clements and McCarthy, he drilled and drilled until his out-of-pocket game became extraordinary and his progressions perhaps beyond compare.
Ever mindful of turnovers, he trimmed his interception and fumble totals to the barest of minimums.
One of his few remaining flaws - holding the ball too long - at last went into remission a year ago, disappointing opponents to no end. "That used to be our thing. . . we knew we could sack him," a personnel man for an NFC North team said. "Now he doesn't get sacked much anymore."
Through it all, he never lost the drive to succeed or the chip on his shoulder.
It also took time for Rich Gannon and Kurt Warner, who are similar to Rodgers in terms of stature and intelligence, to blossom into NFL MVPs.
The changing complexion of high school and college football makes quarterbacks in general more NFL-ready, but there will always be a place for someone with the mental and physical toughness to overcome failure and flourish later.
Aaron Rodgers certainly fits that profile.