Aaron Rodgers’ Most Important Year
GREEN BAY, Wis. — This week, in the Packers’ first practice of what they hope will be a redemptive season, there was this fan-pleasing moment: Rookie receiver Trevor Davis took off from the left flank toward the sideline, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers threw one high and hard. Davis leaped high and caught it one-handed, then sprawled near the sideline. The first day of training camp here is only slightly gigantic. The crowd exploded in cheers.
Davis got up, pretty happy with himself. You could see he was jacked about it, returning to the offensive side of the ball.
Rodgers met him there. He didn’t yell, or even raise his voice. But when the commotion died down, he had a message for the new kid. One teammate to another, in a quiet teaching tone, not to break the kid but to help him, in a moment that training camp is made for.
“If you run the route right and come back to me, you don’t have to catch it one-handed like that,” Rodgers said.
Later that afternoon, in his office at Lambeau Field, coach Mike McCarthy was asked to describe Rodgers’ approach this offseason, after the first season of his NFL life in which Rodgers was good rather than great.
“I can describe it in one word,” McCarthy said. “Meticulous.”
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For Aaron Rodgers, 2015 was the first time you watched him play for extended periods and thought: He really can’t lift a team himself. He really does need help. It’s the kind of year that made him go back to the physical and strategic drawing board. It’s strange to hear that in a cheesehead state, Rodgers is cutting way back on most dairy, including cheese and—no!—ice cream. “I love vanilla ice cream,” he said. “I will miss that. But like some people, I’m a little lactose intolerant. I just don’t process dairy well.”
A perfect storm hit the Green Bay offense in 2015. McCarthy gave up play-calling for the first time as a head coach, then took it back in December. Rodgers’ favorite receiver, Jordy Nelson, was lost to an ACL tear in August, and it threw off the entire receiving corps. “I tried to do way too much,” Randall Cobb admitted this week. The receivers had the NFL fourth-worst drop rate in 2015. Running back Eddie Lacy, after playing like a top-five NFL back in 2014, played like a top-five competitive eater in 2015; his season was a washout, and McCarthy is a running-game fanatic. Rodgers rushed passes. He lost faith in his receivers to get open, and to catch it when they did, and never could get in the kind of Montana-like groove that for so long had characterized his career.
On what planet would Brian Hoyer have a better passer rating and better yards-per-attempt than Aaron Rodgers? On planet NFL, 2015.
“There’s an urgency for us, and an urgency about where Aaron is in his career,” says McCarthy. “It’s time to win another championship.”
Yards-per-attempt is a Bible-like stat for quarterbacks and their coaches, indicative of accuracy and downfield efficiency and big production. Rodgers was first, fifth, second and second in the NFL from 2011 to 2014, respectively. Last year he was 30th. “The level of futility in some categories stretched back more than a generation to the coaching regimes of Forrest Gregg and Lindy Infante,” wrote respected veteran Packer beat man Bob McGinn in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “[Rodgers’] deep-ball accuracy went south, he too often bolted the pocket prematurely and, at times, he glared and gestured at teammates when the situation called out for him to inspire the troops.”
Locals are still trying to figure this one out: Green Bay went 0-3 in the division at home, and scored 16, 13 and 13 points, respectively, in losses to Detroit, Chicago and Minnesota. Even McCarthy taking back the play-calling down the stretch didn’t help much, as the numbers below show. This is what’s called a precipitous decline. The Packers’ passing stats over the last 12 games of 2014 (including playoffs) and the last 12 games of 2015:
|70% accuracy games||4||0|
“Well,” Rodgers said, sitting in his locker after practice on Wednesday, “it wasn’t the kind of season I’m used to.”
Rodgers turns 33 in December. Through we’ve gotten used to quarterbacks playing at mid-career levels into their late 30s, and there’s no reason to think Rodgers can’t play at a high level for five or six more years, the one thing you notice around the Packers this week is a heightened sense of urgency. Green Bay hasn’t been to a Super Bowl in six years.
“There’s a little bit of a ‘whoa’ about that,” McCarthy said. “There’s an urgency for us, and an urgency about where Aaron is in his career. It’s time to win another championship.
“I know everyone will hear this and say, ‘What a cliché.’ But what we’ve done this year is go back to the basics,” McCarthy said. “Everything is on the table for improvement. Last year I stepped out of the [offensive meeting] room, and the offense evolved, which is normal. Later in the season, when I stepped back in, I thought, ‘Why’d we change this?’ We weren’t running as much early in the season as I thought we should. I just believe strongly that you run the football, you stop the run, and your passing game will evolve. We’re a precision timing passing game, and I will always believe that will defeat the scheme of a defense. So all of that, that’s what we’re getting back to this year.”
Lacy looks about 20 pounds lighter than last season, but there’s no guarantee he’ll stay that way. He’s got to prove to the staff and his teammates that he’s going to keep the weight off and form one of the game’s best rushing combinations (with James Starks), which was big for Green Bay in 2013 and ’14. There’s the full expectation that, despite entering camp with a knee strain on the leg that didn’t require ACL surgery last year, Nelson (2013-14: 183 catches, 2,833 yards, 21 touchdowns) will return to form. Which should help Cobb (14.1 yards per catch two years ago, 10.5 last year) become Cobb again. “Mentally, I let the circumstances we were in get to me,” said Cobb. “As a receiver, fundamentals are so important: look the ball in, catch in, turn and run. Instead, I’d take my eye off the ball too early because I was trying so hard to make the big play. That’s what we needed. But it taught me that you just have to play the way you’ve been taught.”
Then there’s Rodgers. This week, from the top down—team president Mark Murphy, GM Ted Thompson, McCarthy, all the way to the players—there seemed to be zero concern that 2015 was anything more than a blip on Rodgers’ career radar. And why shouldn’t they feel that way?
“I mean, he’s Aaron Rodgers,” said Davis, the fifth-round rookie. “He’s the best quarterback in football.”
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So what has to be different this season, and what was so dominant for Green Bay in 2014, is the return of a strong run game and the deep ball, which often played so well off play-action. Last year Green Bay had neither, with a wildly inconsistent running game and no Nelson, and receivers dropping an alarming 12 percent of catchable balls, per Pro Football Focus.
Said Rodgers, matter-of-factly: “I was down in my passer rating, I was down in my completion percentage, I was down in my red zone stats. There were some external factors that contributed to that—the loss of a guy who had 98 catches and 1,500 yards the year before—and there were some injuries. But I can’t control those things. All I can control are the personal controllables that I have direct access to, and that is my preparation and my approach. It needs to be better. A lot of it comes down to an attention to detail on the fundamentals of every single play. And if any of that slips, you are going to see drops in accuracy and drops in production.”
Thus the picking at Trevor Davis on a July morning in training camp. Rodgers focused on three things in rebuilding his personal game, as he said, from the feet up in the offseason.
Footwork. He thought he got lackadaisical with it last year, rushing from the pocket too quick at times. In Wednesday’s practice, he and the other three quarterbacks in camp alternated throwing on the run while negotiating their way through long pads placed parallel to each other. When they threw, they threw into square target in a net hanging from the goal post. The goal: to throw accurately while your feet are, theoretically, moving quickly to escape a rush.
“The times when I am not perfect with my feet are the time when I am not going to be as accurate,” Rodgers said. “It’s trying to continue to strive for perfection with balance and rhythm and footwork. When I do that, I am at my best and I am very accurate and I can throw around 70 percent. When those things slide, when the rush affects me, when I don’t stand in some throws, occasionally there is going to be a lack of accuracy, and when you pair that with some drops and some missed assignments that we had last year. Then you’re going to have some of the poor plays that we had. I have always been a rep player and the more times I work on those fundamentals, the better I am going to be when the games roll around.”
The only thing noticeably different about Rodgers versus previous years is his desperation to win. That might be his football mortality staring him in the face.
Flexibility. Rodgers’ athleticism is such a key to his game. He knows that slipped last year, and he’s tried to get back to be the kind of Gumby quarterback who can slip through small gaps. “That’s my game, to have the ability to move outside the pocket and extend plays and make things happen,” he said. “But also to have that flexibility in my shoulder and not be locked up, to have the fluidity in my throwing motion.”
Food. Green Bay last year hired a director of performance nutrition from the U.S. Olympic team, Adam Korzun. “I hope we never lose him,” Rodgers said. “He’s amazing … Every little thing [about nutrition] is analyzed and scrutinized and streamlined for the best possible scenarios to be effective.” That’s led to the diminution of dairy in Rodgers’ diet, and what will be a new way of eating the night before and the morning of games. Rodgers has become educated by Korzun about how food can affect performance. “By the time we start playing games, I’ll have that dialed so I know exactly what’s best for me to eat.”
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If you come to Green Bay expecting to see a different Rodgers, physically or in his approach, you’ll be disappointed. He looks slightly more fit, but not radically. In fact, the only thing I notice versus previous years that’s slightly different is his desperation to win. Not that he’s ever been laissez faire about his devotion to winning, but he’s verbalizing it and feeling it more, it seems to me.
That might be his football mortality staring him in the face. It might be the disappointment of going five straight years falling short of getting to a Super Bowl, never mind winning it. But Rodgers puts it all on the table. He sounded very Super Bowl-or-bust this week.
“I think about that all the time,” Rodgers said. “Every time I’m in this locker room I think about [how] this is the most important year and an incredible opportunity. You don’t take it for granted. I hope that everybody in the organization is on the same page as I am, that we need to go all in every single year. We can’t think about down the line or next year or how many years I can play possibly. I’ve said it many times: I would love to play until I’m 40. But none of that is given.
“So what are we going to do to go all in this year? In leading by example, I have put a ton into the offseason, my workouts, my routine, because I am going all in for this year because next year is not a given. I’ve accomplished so many things statistically and personally, it’s about winning Super Bowls and winning games. Obviously you would love to play incredible and be an MVP every year, but last year it didn’t come together and I didn’t play as well as I wanted to. That’s been a driving motivator this offseason.”
Rodgers isn’t alone. And who knows where the drive to win emanates from—maybe the coach, maybe the quarterback, maybe a little from everyone. It’s not exactly wistful here, but the other day McCarthy gave defenders Sam Shields and Morgan Burnett a ride back to the locker room after practice on the fields across Oneida Street from Lambeau. McCarthy was surprised to learn this is the seventh year for both guys in Green Bay.
“Seven years!” he said later. “That’s a long time.”
It is. And at some point the coach and the quarterback get judged on championships. McCarthy has won one in 10 seasons, Rodgers one in eight. You’re a Packers’ fan, and you feel the urgency. What do you think they feel inside this team?
“This,” said Aaron Rodgers, “is the most important year. That’s how I’m approaching it.”
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