Aaron Rodgers: Why he’s special

Watching the playoffs is a yearly pleasure for me. Almost regardless of who’s playing, I tend to enjoy the games in great part because you get to see the top players competing at their very best. The cerebral/physical chess matches of Dick LeBeau, the visceral,  physical matchup that is the Ravens/Steelers matchups, the bitter feud of the Jets and Patriots and the opportunity to see who gets hot late in the season and who goes home are all part of the essence of this year’s games. Last Saturday, Packers QB Aaron Rodgers put on a quarterbacking clinic against the Falcons, completing an otherworldly 31 of 36 passes for 366 yards, 3 TDs and zero INTs. On the Sunday pregame shows as well as the Saturday night sports shows, former players and coaches extolled the precision of his footwork, his remarkable mechanics and the speed of his release. I watched his mobility as well and at the end, realized that he was the first NFL QB in history to throw for 3 TDs in each of his first three playoff games. I enjoyed every minute of watching Rodgers play that game, and it took me back a couple of years to a story I had read about the young man. It explained a lot about how he got to this point, and within it there’s a lesson worth recalling for the Broncos' future prospects.

In 2008 the Packers had finally had their fill of Brett Favre’s on-again and off-again retirements, deciding instead to go with Rodgers at quarterback. Green Bay had chosen Rodgers with the 24th pick of the 2005 Draft (much as the Broncos took Tim Tebow at 25th overall in 2010) with the belief that he would mature into their next great leader. Having lived in the Midwest, Mountain West, and now both coasts, I have seen firsthand the intensity and fervor of Packers fans across the country, and part of me always watched the Favre soap opera with a far bigger interest in the player who sat behind Favre than on the star of the ongoing retirement teasers. From what I knew and then saw of Aaron Rodgers, it seemed likely that he would provide Green Bay with exactly what Denver has needed but not found until this year - a quarterback who isn’t compared with one who came before him, but who would quickly found a legacy in his own right. 

As former Packers exec Andrew Brandt recalled this week:

From the moment he arrived, he was popular with the players and staff.  He showed off-the-charts intelligence, a wry sense of humor and an aptitude to not take the all-consuming nature of football too seriously, a trait that would serve him well in 2008. The best way to describe him may be simply "northern California cool."

On the field, I am not a scout but it was easy to notice arm strength, easy progression reads, accuracy, mobility, calm, etc.  On the first practice of his first minicamp practice in 2005, Aaron easily moved away from pressure and hit Donald Driver in stride 45 yards downfield.  My eyes caught those of Ted Thompson, who gave as expressive a look as I've seen him give. Aaron was going to be the guy.

Aaron prepared to be the starter over the couple of off seasons where Brett was deciding whether to retire (Brett didn't decide to return until late April in 2006).  We all saw it and liked what we saw.

As I've often said, although I was not there during that ugly divorce with Brett, the decision to move on was less about Brett and more about Aaron.  He'd been in the bullpen for three years and everyone knew he was ready.

Rodgers came out of the gate quickly in 2008, although the team's record suffered (5-11 despite a plus-39 point differential and a remarkably unfortunate 0-7 record in games decided by four points or less). In his first year as a starter, Rodgers completed 341 of 536 attempts for a 63.6% completion rate with 28 TDs, 13 INTs, 4,038 yards and a sixth-best QB rating of 93.8. His average yards per attempt was a ninth-best 7.5 yards, and he added 207 yards rushing with 4 TDs, although he suffered 34 sacks. The kicker was that Rodgers amassed these numbers in his first full season behind center and with an offensive line that was, politely, less than stout in protecting him. A lot of younger QBs would be happy with those numbers - in fact, a lot of veterans would point to them with pride.

Aaron? All he really saw was a 6-10 record and the mistakes he had made in contributing to that record. The following offseason, he had the Packers' staff queue up the tape of his plays at team headquarters, and he worked extensively in the film room with the coaches to find his weaknesses. The final verdict was that he had a flaw in his footwork, a glitch that was difficult to see at first, and that shortcoming was interfering with his accuracy, his mechanics and the speed of his release. He spent the offseason working obsessively on that issue and returned for the 2009 season with a renewed passion, ready to show what his intensely focused work had helped him to establish. It didn’t take long to become evident.

The Packers' record in 2009 was 11-5, and Rodgers' part of that was 4,434 yards, 30 TDs to just 7 INTs (with a league-leading 1.3% INT rate) and a QB rating of 103.2 despite enduring 50 sacks. The Packers had moved to a 3-4 defense under the guidance of Dom Capers, which also helped. They developed the offensive line for the 2010 season, and brought in rookie Bryan Bulaga to back up aging LT Chad Clifton, developing Bulaga by starting him at RT. Center Scott Wells is a 7th-year player out of Tennessee, their guards are Daryn Colledge at LG and Josh Sitton at RG; both players are in their second year. They’ll need another tackle soon, but they have a young, strong line that should only get better. With Brandon Jackson, John Kuhn and James Starks (who shone in his first full playoff game) at RB, the team put out 5,730 total yards in the regular season.

Other second-year players included Clay Matthews and BJ Raji, both of whom turned out to be top defensive players in the 2009 Draft. DC Dom Capers has done a lot to improve the team, but at the heart of things was Rodgers, focused, pushing himself and his mates to better performances. They would finish the regular season 10-6 and begin the playoffs in the wild card round, where they beat the Philadelphia Eagles 21-17, leading to the firing of Sean McDermott (who interviewed for Denver's defensive coordinator position but chose the same job in Carolina). The Pack followed that with a 48-21 dismantling of the Falcons on the road in which Rodgers shone brightly, melting the glow of Matty Ice. Rodgers’ team will face Chicago today for the NFC Championship, and the powerful Bears' defense will get their chance to try and stop Rodgers again. In their last meeting, the Pack pulled out a typically physical, low-scoring NFC North win at 10-3. Rodgers himself ‘fell’ to 3,922 yards this year with 28 TDs, 11 INTs and a QB rating of 101 for the season. The Bears will have their hands full.

But this all has been defined for me by Aaron Rodgers and his refusal to believe that the kind of performance that many QBs live for was good enough; that he didn’t need to identify and change the minor errors that were holding him back from playing at a level that is remarkable, even among the level of QBs in the playoffs. His 129.4 rating in three playoff games over the past two seasons gives a you quick look at just what that work ethic means to the team and its chances in the playoff hunt.

I don’t predict much, and I don’t know claim to know how the Pack will fare on the road in Chicago today. After life in Lambeau Field, one thing that I’m pretty sure of is that the weather won’t really affect the Pack’s performance, and since Jay Cutler has tended to play well in terrible (i.e. Chicago) weather, it should be a truly great game between two storied franchises who were bitter enemies long before the AFL and NFL merged back in the 1960s.

But this much I am sure of - the kind of focused, almost obsessive work ethic that Rodgers has brought to his own game has affected both the Packers' offense and defense. It was accurately noted last weekend that one of the unusual aspects of Tim Tebow is that he even seems to get the defense worked up, and that’s true. Rodgers has a similar effect - less vehement, perhaps, but palpable, even so - on the entire Packers team. 

Tebow shares that kind of work ethic with Rodgers and that may end up being one of the most important aspects of his value to the Broncos. Tebow’s mobility is unquestionable, his intangibles excellent. If, however, he can and will also put in the time and effort as Rodgers has done to perfect his work in the pocket; develop his footwork, mechanics and release to the same point that he has developed his scrambling ability, think for a moment what that would mean to the Broncos over the next 10 years. Enticing, isn’t it?

We often read about mobility vs. pocket passing, as if they were disparate issues, where a QB will only have one or the other. In reality, both are potential parts of being an NFL QB, and the ability to merge the two is what makes some QBs truly stand out (I dislike his actions off field as much as you probably do, but Ben Roethlisberger is one QB much like that). Bill Walsh once said, regarding a QB for his WCO system,

Mobility and an ability to avoid a pass rush are crucial. Some quarterbacks use this mobility within the pocket just enough so they are able to move and pass when they "feel" a rush. But overall quickness and agility can make a remarkable difference. As an example, there were some very quick boxers in Sugar Ray Leonard's era, but he was quicker than they were and because of that he became a great champ.

Tebow’s potential in this area is already exceptional, and with the effects of proper coaching and his work ethic they may well be even better. He runs like a fleet fullback, has that kind of size and body, and he has the confidence to be a great QB. When he has the amount of time he needs to put these pieces together, to develop his footwork, mechanics and release to the point where they, like Rodgers, are constantly improving and come to be in the top half dozen in the league, imagine for a few moments what that might look like from the Broncos’ point of view. 

When you read that John Fox hasn’t settled on Tebow as the starting QB, it shouldn’t be taken as a knock on Tebow. Quite the opposite - one thing that I like about Fox is that he has earned a long-term reputation for bringing out the best in a player, and he’s willing to take the necessary time to achieve that. He tends to be calm and matter of fact in his approach, but his players have often commented on how well he prepares and develops them. If you watch the kind of skill that Aaron Rodgers has grown over the past 5 years, you get an idea of what you might be seeing from Tebow if he is developed properly.

I’ve heard folks say recently that Tim Tebow is already better than many QBs in the league. That is true - yet, there are some very borderline QBs in the NFL.  Tebow’s production in a three-game sample is too small to really know how he will do over the long run, but his work ethic, like Rodgers, is said to brook no failures, to refuse to accept anything less than the best player that he can be. If that’s true, I’d suggest that instead of looking from the viewpoint of mobility versus pocket passing, I imagine, much as I believe that John Fox does, that Tebow can learn to do both almost equally well. For Tebow to have that choice to make on any given play would create monster headaches for defensive coordinators - and a lot of wins for Denver. That would be very, very hard to stop. 

It’s what I look at when I watch Rodgers: one of the top QBs in the NFL, and a player who never accepts that he’s done well enough. With those same innate qualities and a new coach on the sidelines, Tebow has a chance to win the starting job in the next training camp, rather than just to take it through injury. The only thing that stands in his way professionally (other than simple repetition, as in getting comfortable reading NFL defenses) is his ability to develop the pocket skills that every NFL QB needs. It’s a requirement of the position, and while he’s getting a later start on many of those skills, there’s no reason that Tebow can’t develop them just as Rodgers has. 

It’s another reason that I’ll be rooting for Rodgers in the NFC Championship game next Sunday. I’ll be seeing a player who never settles for just being very good, and I’ll be seeing lot of what the Denver Broncos could be in the next few years. It looks from here like a whole lot of fun. 

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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