Thursday June 10th, 2010

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When you stop and consider what he has already endured in his first two seasons as the starting quarterback in Green Bay, it makes you wonder if anything about playing the game's glamour position in this football-crazed town will ever manage to shake the confidence of Aaron Rodgers.

In 2008, all he did was replace the iconic Brett Favre amidst a backdrop that included the messiest divorce of player and team in the history of professional sports, a full-blown media circus that afforded Rodgers no respite and no way to ease himself into the Packers lineup. His every move, word and pass attempt was a referendum of sorts on Green Bay's decision to bid farewell to No. 4, but at the end of that year, no one could say Rodgers was not ready for his close-up.

Then came 2009, when the Packers' dominant August gave way to the harsh reality of a 4-4 record at midseason, with Rodgers absorbing the beating of his life in the course of being sacked a staggering 36 times in those eight games, losing twice in highly charged head-to-head showdowns with Favre. But Green Bay and A-Rod answered their wake-up call, and a 7-1 record in the second half of the season delivered a playoff berth, where we last saw them in the Arizona desert, losing 51-45 in overtime to Kurt Warner's Cardinals in a postseason game for the ages.

If those two seasons didn't give Rodgers reason to doubt at times, what tests are still to come that he won't be able to deal with? Rodgers seemingly has more than two years of starting experience to his credit already, and when I caught up with him this week after a midday workout in Green Bay's offseason program, he seemed eager to get the 2010 season underway two months early. He's ready to take the next step with a team he believes (and I concur) is very much still on the rise.

"I think this team has definitely not reached its full potential,'' Rodgers said, relaxing Wednesday afternoon in the players lounge that's just off the Packers locker room at Lambeau Field. "And I like to think my best ball is in front of me.

"Last year taught us some things. We came out of training camp looking like no one could stop us. I didn't get sacked once all preseason and we were rolling. But I think maybe we got a little too confident, too prideful, and we took a beatdown in the first half of the season. We had to figure out how to get back to that feeling [of August], and we finally did.''

In case you've forgotten, only one team in the NFL had a better second-half record than the Packers' 7-1, and that was San Diego (13-3), which won 11 in a row to close the year after its 2-3 start. Green Bay averaged 30.8 points per game in the season's second half, then threw up another 45 points against Arizona in the playoffs, with a remarkable 35 of them coming in the second half as the Packers dug out of a first-quarter 17-0 hole to force overtime in the highest scoring NFL playoff game in history.

Somewhat fittingly, that game ended up being a microcosm of the Green Bay season -- a painfully slow start followed by a furious rally that wound up being too little, too late to reach the Packers' ultimate goal.

But how do you not like Green Bay's position as the 2010 season looms? The Packers defense under new coordinator Dom Capers had the lights go on in the second half of 2009 (15.6 ppg allowed in the second half, with a bevy of takeaways) and the offensive line solidified after its nightmarish first half last year (Rodgers was sacked just 14 times in the second half, but still finished with a league-high 50). Moreover, Green Bay this offseason suffered few defections (Aaron Kampman being the headliner) while re-signing or extending the likes of receiver Greg Jennings, safety Nick Collins, and veteran offensive tackles Chad Clifton and Mark Tauscher. The draft's first round unexpectedly brought a top-15 talent in Iowa offensive tackle Bryan Bulaga, who simply looks as if he was born to play in Green Bay.

And then there's Rodgers, the 26-year-old who has thrown for 8,472 yards, with 58 touchdowns and just 20 interceptions in his first 32 regular-season starts. Despite enduring those 50 sacks, Rodgers last year passed for 4,434 yards, with a 64.7 completion percentage, 30 touchdowns, only seven interceptions and a 103.2 passer rating. He was also the team's second-leading rusher behind Ryan Grant, running 58 times for 316 yards and five touchdowns. In the playoffs, Rodgers added a postseason team-record 423 yards passing, with four touchdowns.

Granted, I know he was a first-round pick in 2005, but Rodgers is way better than almost everyone thought he'd be this soon (and maybe ever), and when I look at him, I see an NFL MVP award in his future. The production level is close to MVP territory already.

Tony Kornheiser might disagree, but Rodgers and the Packers appear poised for even bigger things in 2010, and even the playoff loss to the Cardinals, which Rodgers opened with a first-play interception and closed with a game-deciding fumble in overtime, shouldn't temper the enthusiasm level for this team in Green Bay. I'm sure Favre still has plenty of fans in Packer-land, but it's pretty easy to see the potential that induced Green Bay to roll the dice and declare Rodgers ready for the No. 1 job two years ago.

"His perseverance really showed up in his first year [as a starter], with everything he had to go through, so I knew he had that,'' Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said of Rodgers. "And then with him just going through the sacks and all that last year, it was just confirmation to me that he's a big-timer. God willing, if he stays healthy, I think he's going to have a great career.''

I spoke with Rodgers just two days after he went on a Milwaukee radio station this week and created a little unwanted distraction for himself, which is fairly out of character for a guy who handled the whole Favre melodrama with a pitch-perfect performance before the media. Rodgers ripped Kornheiser, the former Monday Night Football analyst, as unprepared in his role, said current MNF analyst Ron Jaworski was dead wrong in critiquing his fundamentals when he came out of Cal in 2005, and most surprising of all was willing to rate the NFL's top five quarterbacks (not including himself), saying New England's Tom Brady was best "by far.'' (Sorry Peyton, Drew, Philip and Tony R.).

Rodgers on Wednesday made a point of saying his comments were "inappropriate'' for that setting, and apologized if anyone took offense for what he said about Kornheiser or Jaworski. But it's worth noting that he didn't back away from the substance of what he said, and he later told me he now realizes more than ever that his words and opinions carry ever-increasing impact, a lesson he learned to his chagrin. It is a clear-cut sign that his stature on the national stage is growing exponentially, and understandably so.

"I haven't really done much of that kind of talking in the past,'' Rodgers said. "There's a time and a place for it, and that venue wasn't it. I don't see any benefit to doing that.''

Up until this week, it has been Rodgers' play that has done most of the talking. Unless you count the pivotal players-only offensive team meeting that he initiated early last November, after Green Bay was upset 38-28 at winless Tampa Bay, dropping the Packers to 4-4 and representing the nadir of their rollercoaster-like 2009 season. The meeting was spawned by a soul-searching conversation between Rodgers and veteran receiver Donald Driver on the plane ride home from Tampa, but evolved into a full-throated airing of the grievances that had built up between members of the Packers' frustrated offense.

"It was the first time in my five years here that we had a players-only meeting that was actually productive,'' Rodgers told me. "It was all about conflict. It was guys getting on the linemen about blocking, linemen getting on the receivers about catching the ball, guys getting on me about getting the ball out of my hands quicker. Everything just got out on the table. It was all out there, and the great thing was we were able to talk through our issues and move forward. And from that day on, I felt a different air of confidence about our team. We believed in each other and it was a different group of guys, a different team after that.''

It's hard to dispute that. The Packers only loss in the second half came at Pittsburgh, when Ben Roethlisberger threw an improbable 19-yard, final-play touchdown pass as time expired to beat them 37-36. As is, Green Bay's 11-5 finish left them just a game behind first-place Minnesota (12-4) in the NFC North, a likelihood that seemed far-fetched after Favre and the Vikings had twice beaten the Packers and Rogers in the season's first half. As uncharacteristic as the early turnovers were in the playoff loss at Arizona, Green Bay's comeback from that 17-0 deficit showed to the rest of the NFL the capabilities of Rodgers and Co.

"It was one of those games where you get in the second half and you're on a roll and you know they can't stop you,'' Rodgers said. "That was the energy on the sideline that we had. We just kept telling Mike [McCarthy], 'Just be aggressive. Keep doing what we're doing.' We knew they could not stop us. It was a matter of us getting a stop, getting the onside kick, which we finally got, and going back at them. Once we went into overtime I thought we were going to win, but we turned the ball over.''

Now entering his sixth year in Green Bay, and third year as the Packers starter, Rodgers seems more comfortable than ever in his own skin and in his role as the team's focal point and most visible leader. Aware of how much and how quickly their quarterback has achieved, Green Bay fans have accepted and embraced him in a way that seemed unimaginable two years ago this summer. This is Rodgers' team, and this is his time. And if he wins big with the Packers, Green Bay, which once belonged to Favre, will definitely be his town. And he knows it.

"I agree with you that the fans [are behind me],'' Rodgers said. "I just wanted to do things the right way and I feel like for the most part I did that. Whether you like me or not, like the way I play or not, or my personality, it's hard in my opinion to not pull for somebody who does things the right way. For the most part, at least until a couple days ago, I've kept my mouth shut, and tried to play the game the right way, and show people that I love the game.''

It's so far, so good for Rodgers in Green Bay. Two years into the Packers' big gamble, their bet on No. 12 looks like a payoff that has just begun.

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