A look at how Aaron Rodgers rose to the top of his game, and what his journey reveals about football’s most important position
The following is excerpted from The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks. Published by Crown Books, the book goes behind-the-scenes to examine the world of quarterbacks, from exactly how they’re evaluated to how they’re developed. Author Bruce Feldman shows how the position has undergone significant changes by chronicling a pivotal season and by telling the interlocking stories of the most fascinating characters involved in the business.
By Bruce Feldman
David Blough, like most of the high schoolers competing at the Elite 11, was starstruck by Aaron Rodgers. When he misfired on a route with a receiver, he figured he had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to pick the NFL star’s brain.
Rodgers and Blough, and about three dozen other gifted QBs at different stages of their football lives, gathered in July 2013 on the exquisitely manicured Nike campus in Beaverton, Oregon. The Elite 11, described as a “campetition” by ex-NFL QB-turned-ESPN analyst Trent Dilfer, tries to both identify and develop the top high school senior quarterback prospects in the country. Dilfer invited 18 quarterbacks to his version of quarterback heaven, where the top 11 will emerge from the week and be anointed as “Elite 11” on his ESPN documentary. In addition to watching hours and hours of the quarterbacks reading defenses and throwing footballs, Dilfer and his staff (consisting of mostly former NFL backup quarterbacks who now work under him) are probing to see which of the high schoolers have, as he puts it, “figure-it-outness.” Dilfer has even brought in groups of the Navy SEALs and Army Rangers to create challenges which he views as “soul-building.” Or, at the very least, soul-revealing.
Nike’s investment in Elite 11 stretched well beyond just giving a bunch of teenage football prodigies from around the country the run of its campus. It also meant bringing in active NFL stars to help with some on-field instruction—and motivation. The biggest celeb of the bunch was Rodgers. The former NFL MVP moved around through morning drills for a few hours, mostly observing and occasionally chatting with Dilfer. The Northern California–bred QBs are golf buddies who share the same mentor, Jeff Tedford, and the same agent, David Dunn.
“I feel I did something wrong there,” Blough, a 17-year-old from Texas, said to Rodgers.
“Yeah, you’re over-striding on your back step, and you didn’t get your full rotation through,” Rodgers told him.
“Well, what do you think I need to work on the most?”
“I got to sit and learn and be with the disappointment,” Rodgers says. “Those experiences can either strengthen your character or make you really bitter.”
“You’re staring down your target,” Rodgers replied. “You’re throwing one-on-ones, so, of course, you’re gonna stare down your receiver, but challenge yourself. You’ve got all the arm talent in the world. You know you’re throwing to this guy, but why not stare down the middle of the field and know what timing he’s going to be on, and then, on your last step, look over at him and deliver the ball. Find a way to challenge yourself even if it’s a little routine drill or routes on air [against no defenders].”
Blough later said it was some of the best advice he’d ever gotten. He was well-versed in Rodgers’ path to stardom. Months ago, when he was ranked as a two-star recruit and had no scholarship offers, his dad would tell him different stories about the meandering routes NFL quarterbacks often had to take. Such as Kurt Warner bagging groceries and playing in the Arena Football League, or Rodgers starting out in community college after being overlooked by every major college in the country in high school. To Blough, Rodgers was an inspiration. Dilfer, a guy who played with, among others, Ray Lewis and Hall of Famers Warren Sapp and Walter Jones, calls Rodgers the “most confident human being I’ve ever been around.”
Observing the Elite 11 quarterbacks, Rodgers said he couldn’t believe how good some of the quarterbacks were. It didn’t take much for him to recall being their age. Of course, when he was, nobody wanted him as a quarterback, which had actually turned out to be a very useful thing for him. Rodgers, now 30, said he still had the letter a Purdue assistant once sent him that said, “Good luck with your attempt at a college football career,” after he’d mailed the Boilermakers his high school tape.
“You really need to remember where you came from and have appreciation for the journey that you went on,” Rodgers said. “I think a lot of kids these days, especially with the outlets we have, the exposure that we have, where a lot of these young guys are ‘blue-chippers’ from the time they’re in high school to the time they get drafted, there’s not a ton of adversity that they go through. I dealt with adversity on every level, from not getting recruited out of high school to going to junior college, to being a backup in D1, to falling farther than I thought I would in the draft. For me, it was great, because I got to sit and learn and be with the disappointment. Those experiences can either strengthen your character or make you really bitter. Thankfully for me, it really strengthened my character and gave me a good resolve.”
Rodgers, like Dilfer, credited Tedford with enabling him to become a first-round pick: “Jeff’s a perfectionist in nature, and that rubbed off on me a lot,” he said. “He challenged me to be perfect in my footwork, in my preparation, in my reads, and in my execution. It’s that kind of mindset that allows you to never be complacent, even in your greatest games. I owe Jeff a lot. I often felt like I had to prove to him every single day that I was mentally tough, I was physically tough, and I was good enough to be his quarterback.”
The metamorphosis of Rodgers’ game early in his career in Green Bay that Dilfer spoke of was actually inspired by none other than Brett Favre. Not long after Rodgers arrived in Green Bay, there were numerous reports of friction between the two. Rodgers said the relationship was “mischaracterized. To be an older player like myself, ten years in now, it would have been difficult to have your successor picked before you’re ready to give it up. He played three more years when I was there, and then he played three more after that.” Still, fitting in on Favre’s team, in his town, was challenging, but Rodgers soon realized how fortunate he was to have a first-hand look at one of the most extraordinary talents to ever play the position.
“He did things so differently than what I was used to,” Rodgers said. “I had three years to really practice all those things and figure out what I liked. I’ve been reading Hank Haney’s book about Tiger Woods. What I found interesting was when Tiger’s talking about 90 percent of the things that he hears, he throws out. Five percent he works on and then throws out, and then the other five percent he incorporates into his game. For me, it was absorbing a lot of information from Brett, watching him, listening in the meetings, listening to him in the huddle, watching him in practice, and trying to figure out what I wanted to absorb into my game and what I wanted to change and do differently or do better.
“It also challenged me to play around with some things, and I had the luxury of not having been thrown in there right away to try to help the team win. I got the chance to hone my skills and incorporate some things and change some things that I wanted to in order to be successful. Those three years were crucial to me in becoming a better player. Here I was, looking at a guy who was unorthodox at times and trying to figure out why. Jeff Tedford taught us things, and when he did, he told us to ask the ‘Why.’ I think that is the most important question a quarterback can have, because once you figure out why you’re doing it, then you can really figure out how to make it work for you in a clutch situation. I watched Brett for years . . . [and] I would figure out the Why—why he would offset one way and throw back the other way; why he would load his leg one time and not another time; why he would use a certain footwork on a certain drop. And when I was able to figure out why he was doing it, it made sense to me. Then you can really take it and make it useful in your own game.”
Rodgers had three years to study up on Favre’s preternatural on-field geometric wizardry. He was able to distill some of the uncanny and unconventional off-script plays that had become Favre’s trademark. Even Favre’s own coaches had given up trying to explain how the three-time NFL MVP ended up doing some of the remarkable—and often ill-advised—things he could pull off on a football field. Rodgers, though, not only figured out Favre’s rationale, he found his own way to mimic the maneuvers.
“The one thing I really learned is, you have to have a real, innate sense about how each throw affects your body and really harness that instantaneous feeling/reaction about how each throw feels,” he said. “So when you’re making a throw on the run to the left, eventually you learn you have to aim a little bit inside, because your body is moving hard to the left, and then you compensate. Well, it’s the same thing in the pocket, when you throw a ball off your back foot or throw a ball moving hard to your left or up in the pocket—you really want to capture that feeling. I think that is what Brett did so well. He was really able to harness that feeling in his mind about how to put the ball in a spot he wanted based on what his body was doing and disconnecting often from his upper body and his lower body. He was able to harness those feelings and then could recall them in a split second to make the proper throw. As incredible as that might’ve looked sometimes, to Brett, I don’t think it was that difficult, because he knew what that felt like, and he had that muscle memory ingrained in his mind so he could repeat that on multiple occasions, and that’s what gave him his advantages.”
The depths Rodgers went to expand his game sometimes didn’t sit well with the Green Bay coaches. In his rookie season of 2005, Mike Sherman’s team would have “Feel Good Friday,” a no-pads practice with shorts and helmets, leading into the weekend.
“The defensive coaches wanted me to throw the ball to this certain guy every single time on the scout team,” Rodgers said. “What it really meant was, they wanted me to throw an interception every single time. As a competitor, I just couldn’t do that. I told our guys, ‘You just run to the proper spot, and I’m gonna no-look almost every throw.’ So, one, I was working on, can I no-look a throw and put it in the proper spot? Two, the competitor in me is saying, ‘I am not gonna throw a pick. I don’t care if coach [Mark] Duffner is coming over to tell me to, if [assistant] Jim Bates is coming over to tell me to throw it, or if [assistant] Speedy Washington is telling me to throw a pick. I’m too much of a competitor to throw a pick every single time, even if it is practice on a ‘Feel Good Friday.’ Finally, after five or six weeks of doing that and ticking off the defense, Sherman pulled my quarterback coach, Darrell Bevell, aside and said, ‘Tell the young kid to stop doing that.’ So they tried to put a stop to that, but it didn’t really work.”
Five seasons later, Rodgers earned Super Bowl MVP honors for leading the Packers to a victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. A big reason for Green Bay’s title and the subsequent NFL MVP trophy Rodgers won the following season stemmed from all those hours he’d spent deconstructing Brett Favre’s magic, experimenting at the Packers facility, reinventing himself—and the quarterback position.
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