With dominant Super Bowl performance, Aaron Donald cements place as all-time NFL great | Opinion

Mike Jones
USA TODAY

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – Aaron Donald had a promise to keep, and he couldn’t blow a second opportunity.

Three years ago when the Los Angeles Rams traveled to Atlanta, where they would face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl 53, the All-Pro defensive lineman told his daughter that he and his teammates were going to win the championship game, and she would join him on the field afterward and play in the confetti. 

The Rams wound up losing that game, and there was no confetti celebration, which 5-year-old Jaeda didn’t understand. 

“She was like, “Daddy, when are we playing in the confetti?’” Donald said Sunday. “So, this was something that I had to keep a promise to my daughter and make sure that we were able to complete the mission this time.”

Donald told the story while sitting behind a mic at one of the makeshift stages, adorned in a Super Bowl ballcap and champion’s T-shirt stretched over his shoulder pads and jersey. To his left stood his daughter, now 8, clutching two handfuls of blue and yellow confetti, grinning from ear to ear.

Her daddy’s Rams had dispatched the Cincinnati Bengals 23-20 to claim the franchise’s first Lombardi Trophy since moving back to Los Angeles in 2016 and the second in team history. And the Rams captured that trophy because Donald had turned in a signature performance with two sacks and four tackles (two for a loss) to ignite a defense that largely had carried Los Angeles to victory. 

Wide receiver Cooper Kupp earned MVP honors after recording eight catches for 92 yards and two touchdowns. But in truth, Donald’s performance proved just as legendary and crucial, and just as worthy of MVP honors. Without it, the Rams would not have won.

“He has elevated everybody,” Rams coach Sean McVay said. “I think the epitome of greatness is making everybody you're around and every situation you’re a part of better. It’s exactly what Aaron does. And that still doesn’t do justice to the impact he's made.'' 

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Los Angeles Rams outside linebacker Von Miller (left) and defensive end Aaron Donald celebrate after defeating the Cincinnati Bengals in Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium.

Donald entered Sunday’s game with as dazzling an individual resume chock full of accolades: Three Defensive Payer of the Year awards, seven All-Pro selections, eight Pro Bowl nods and an inclusion on the NFL’s 2010s All-Decade team.

But one thing was missing: a Super Bowl ring. 

He came painfully close before his team lost 13-3 to New England – a crushing blow to a campaign in which Donald racked up an astounding 20 ½ sacks.

The three seasons since have represented a quest for a Super Bowl return. A sense of urgency has fueled Donald ever since that loss. So, as the Rams saw their chances of victory take a dramatic hit when wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. suffered a potentially serious knee injury that prevented him from returning, followed by a 75-yard touchdown pass from Joe Burrow to Tee Higgins and an ensuing Matthew Stafford interception, Donald dug even deeper and delivered.

The Rams defense had mustered only one first-half sack, and Burrow and Co. had stolen the momentum. 

So Donald set the tone for his unit with two sacks six plays apart from each other and ignited his unit, which in turn racked up four more sacks and enabled Stafford and the offense to tread water until finally achieving a breakthrough with 6:13 left to play.

Stafford delivered yet another fourth-quarter comeback after completing a 1-yard touchdown pass to Kupp to put L.A. up 23-20 with 1:25 left.

And that’s when Donald went right back to work and delivered the heroics that everyone on the Rams sideline believed that he could.

Safety Eric Weddle told Donald he expected the game-winning play to come from him. McVay made the same prediction. 

But Donald didn’t just make one more play. He made two.

Burrow looked to direct a comeback of his own, and only 62 yards separated his Bengals from victory. But on third-and 1, Donald stuffed running back Samaje Perine for no gain. On the next play, Big No. 99 erupted once more, bursting through the line and flinging Burrow, forcing him to throw an incompletion that sealed the game.

“I promise you guys, and I was mic'd up, so you can hear it,” McVay said. “When it was fourth down and you could see they got into the shotgun, and they were probably not going to run the football, I said, ‘Aaron’s going to close the game out right here.’ "

Within minutes of his game-clinching play, Donald was sitting on the turf with his kids climbing on top of him and confetti raining down on them. 

“Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games,” Donald said. “It’s truly a blessing, the opportunity to play this game, but not just play this game, play with great teammates, great coaches, great organization. Been here eight years, lot of ups-and-downs, so to see it come full circle and be a world champion, all that hard work you put into this game, that’s what it’s for. Finally, mission complete, so it feels great.”

Even prior to Sunday, Donald had established himself as one of the best in this era. But by checking that Super Bowl ring off of his to-do list, he cemented his legacy as one of the all-time greats, right up there with Lawrence Taylor and Reggie White.  

Not since the days of those two has the league seen a defender who boasts the same level of consistent dominance, versatility and ability to deliver at his best in the biggest moments. And it'll be a while before another such player comes along.

The only question hanging over Donald now involves his future. Leading up to Sunday, he revealed to multiple associates that he was considering retiring if successful in winning a Super Bowl. 

Asked about those rumors, Donald declined to share his thoughts. 

“I’m just in the moment right now," he said. "I’m enjoying this with my family."

But Donald did reveal that he feels a great sense of accomplishment when reflecting on his resume. 

“To be real with you, I always set myself on high goals and standards, but I’ve surpassed anything I ever thought that I wanted to do,” he said. “I thought coming in I wanted to be an All-Pro and a Pro Bowler, but to sit here and say I had a lot of individual success, I would have never thought in a million years full circle that I would be sitting here right now with the success I’ve had in the short amount of time in this league. To be a world champion in my eighth year – you put the body of work in, a lot of good things can come out of that. And I always work hard. I’m a guy that trains all year-round and really work my ass off to be at this point. To be here right now, to be able to look back at things I was able to accomplish, it’s truly a blessing.”

Donald’s pass-rushing teammate Von Miller can’t envision the 30-year-old walking away from the game just yet, though. 

“He’s done everything you can possibly do,” said Miller, who also recorded two sacks on Sunday en route to winning his second Super Bowl. “But this feeling right here is nothing like it. It’s addictive. Coming to the Super Bowl is one thing, but winning it is addictive. It makes you want it more and more and more. He’s had a great career, but I can’t see him walking away from this.”

Going out on top could give Donald a sense of peace, but he did note that he told McVay “as long as he’s here, I want to continue to be a part of this organization and help build on the legacy."

“We’re building a legacy,” he declared. “Legacies are built not from individual stats, but from team success. The ultimate goal is to be a world champion. I’ve been saying that for the past few years. To finally get the opportunity to feel this, be living in it right now, this time, this moment – it’s hard to put it in words right now.”

Follow USA TODAY Sports' Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.