I tell the other guys, "There are receivers in this league who don't have good quarterbacks, and they never get a chance to show their talents. We're blessed. We're playing with a guy who's going to Canton if he keeps this up."
—JAMES JONES, Packers wide receiver
The football connects them.
November 7, 2011
Aaron Rodgers throws, and his receivers catch. It's that simple, but not simple at all. It's the culmination of endless practice repetitions and film study, a symbiosis of movement built on schematic design (but also on talent, instinct, trust and nerve) that ends with a pass spiraling tightly through the air into a waiting pair of hands. The last time it happened was late in the Packers' 33--27 win over the Vikings in the venerable Metrodome on Oct. 23, when Rodgers hit 13-year veteran Donald Driver for a six-yard gain on second-and-12, the 711th catch of Driver's career. "Little stick route," says Driver. "Run down five yards, turn in or out, depending on where the defense is." (He shrugs as if to emphasize the routine nature of the play.)
"Base play in our offense," says Rodgers. "Trying to get half the [first-down yardage] back before third down." (He nods to affirm this simplicity.)
Immediately before that was a 15-yard completion to Jordy Nelson. And a little while before that, on the second snap of the third quarter, a 79-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings that Rodgers threw on a flat line while rolling to his right, and Jennings was so wide open that he jogged in from the 40. Before that, 13 consecutive completions to start the game, including a first-quarter two-yard bullet to fullback John Kuhn just beyond the goal line. All day it looked easy, the way it has all season, as the Packers have won seven straight games and are the closest thing to a safe bet in a wildly unpredictable league.
If 2010 was the year in which Rodgers ascended to the top echelon of NFL quarterbacks, alongside Brady, Brees, Manning and Rivers, 2011 is the year in which Rodgers has become—at least for now—the best of them all. He has completed 71.5% of his passes (the single-season record is 70.9%, shared by Drew Brees in 2009 and Ken Anderson in 1982) for 20 touchdowns (the league high) with just three interceptions (second lowest). He has averaged 9.9 yards per attempt, which if sustained through the end of the season would edge out Kurt Warner (2000) for the highest one-year average since 1956. Rodgers's passer rating of 125.7 is more than four points ahead of Peyton Manning's seven-year-old NFL one-season record, and his career rating of 101.9 is more than five points above Steve Young's alltime record of 96.8 (although Rodgers has played in only 61 games, to Young's 169).
Rodgers, 27, has been playing quarterback for 15 years, since he was a tiny eighth-grader with pontoon-sized feet in Chico, Calif. In that time he has completed approximately 2,000 passes to nearly 100 different receivers—and he says he remembers most of them. He can tell you that his first NFL connection went for no gain on a checkdown in garbage time of a 52--3 beatdown of the Saints in October 2005, his rookie year. It came on a play called H6 Flanker Pivot, and Rodgers was thinking before the call came in, Please don't call Flanker Pivot, because the fullback in the flat is always the only guy open on that play, and man, he just wanted to air one out. Vonta Leach caught that pass. Rodgers can tell you that one of the most important completions of his career came early in his first start at Cal, in the fifth game of the 2003 season, a Cover Two hole shot (between the corner and the safety) down the sideline against Illinois. "Gave me the confidence to make those throws," he says. The receiver was Jonathan Makonnen.
His receivers remember too. The guys from back home remember not just a little boy with a big wing but also a celebrity whose cellphone is stuffed with numbers for high school buddies. The ones from Cal remember a dorky kid who never got nervous, even in the tightest spots. The Packers remember a guy who showed uncommon grace while waiting for a legend to retire and turned scout-team work into his own private Super Bowl. All of them remember sore hands from fielding the Rodgers fastball. They're the ones who can draw the line from Green Bay back to Chico.
Before win number 7 this year in Minnesota, there was Super Bowl XLV in Dallas, a 31--25 win over the Steelers last Feb. 6 in which Rodgers threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns and was named the game's MVP. The first touchdown of the night came with 3:44 left in the first quarter, as the Packers faced third-and-one on the Pittsburgh 29-yard line. The play call into Rodgers's helmet was a screen pass. Nelson was to run a straight clear-out pattern to take the top off the Pittsburgh coverage and was categorically not to be thrown the ball.
Nelson arrived in Green Bay from Kansas State in 2008, the year Rodgers became the starter. "Missed all the drama," he says. "I've never even met Brett Favre." Nelson learned right away that a ball could come his way at any time, including when a screen pass was called in the Super Bowl. "We get up there, and Aaron signals me: tap to his helmet," says Nelson. "That means he's coming to me."
Rodgers recalls, "We needed a play to get us going. I liked the matchup, Jordy on [Steelers cornerback] William Gay. I do remember thinking at the top of my drop, I better make this one work." Besides the touchdown, Nelson caught eight other passes for a total of 140 yards, a performance that included four drops but otherwise defined him as a major player in the NFL.
In the lockout spring that followed, the Packers scattered as they often do. "We're not a carpool team," says Rodgers. "There are maybe two guys on the team who live here year-round." But as Brees got love for leading the Saints in voluntary workouts, Rodgers was ripped for not gathering the Pack. Jennings, the team's leading receiver in 2008 and '10, hosted a charity golf tournament on June 10 at Merrill Hills Country Club in Waukesha, Wis. "We hit this point on the course where all the holes kind of come together," says Jennings. "I'm there and Wood [Packers cornerback Charles Woodson] is there, and Aaron comes over and says, 'Do you guys think we need to get together?' The word comes out of my mouth and Wood's mouth simultaneously: 'No. Take this time to concentrate on individual workouts.'"
Jennings came to Green Bay in 2006, a year after Rodgers. He caught 93 professional passes, all from Favre, before catching one from Rodgers. He has since caught 271. "He throws with velocity," says Jennings. "You turn, and the ball is going to be there. His deep ball is better than Brett's. His accuracy running outside the pocket is second to none, almost better than when he's in the pocket, which is almost impossible."
Before he became a star,
Rodgers waited. He waited, famously, in the NFL draft day greenroom until the Packers took him with the 24th pick of the first round in 2005. He waited, quietly, for three seasons while Favre extended his Hall of Fame career before moving on to the Jets and the Vikings. (This is the first season that Rodgers has played without Favre in the league.) But he did not just wait. He also worked.
Every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Rodgers's job was to run the Packers' scout-team offense, mimicking the upcoming opponents' schemes to prepare the Packers' defense. It's thankless work. The defense knows what's coming, and the scout-team offense is populated by disgruntled players who think they should be starting or by starters just helping out and making sure they don't get hurt. "But Aaron took every scout-team possession like it was the last possession of his life," says Driver, who often jumped in to take scout-team reps.
"Those were my game reps," says Rodgers. "I tell [Packers backup] Matt [Flynn] now, 'Scout team is a chance to work on things. Throw it into tight spots. Work on your look-offs. Do things you're not comfortable doing.' For me it was an awesome experience."
Rodgers's leadership grew in other ways. Says Ruvell Martin, a scout team receiver for four seasons, "The first day I'm in the locker room [in 2005], Aaron walks over to me and says, 'Hey, I'm Aaron, what's your number?' He punches my number into his phone. Then on my birthday he sees me in the locker room and says, 'Happy birthday, man.' So how does that happen? Aaron gets everybody's number, looks up their birthday and then sets an alarm on his phone so that he wishes them happy birthday. Pretty cool that he cares about people like that."
Before one 2007 game at Kansas City, Martin was made inactive, and instead of going out early to throw with Rodgers, as he normally did, he sulked in the locker room. "Right before the game," Martin says, "Aaron came up to me and said, 'Why didn't you come and throw with me?' I told him I was inactive, and he got upset. He said, 'I throw with you every week, when we both know I'm not going to get into the game. And you're inactive for one game and you can't throw with me?' I thought, Wow, this is not all about me. This is about the team. And Aaron brought that to my attention."
Throughout Rodgers's apprenticeship and even through his rocky ascension in 2008 (the Packers went 6--10 in their first year post-Favre), he never complained. Every day that he remained on the high road, he earned more respect from his teammates. "He bottled everything up and then just performed at a high level when he got the chance," says Jennings. "It was impressive. I mean, he got booed in training camp just because he wasn't Brett. And he just took it. I don't know if I could have done that."
Talent helps smooth any transition. James Jones was a third-round draft choice in 2007 and caught balls from both Favre and Rodgers every day. "This kid was making throws in practice that Brett was not making," says Jones. "I know Brett was older then. And you could never say that Aaron was going to be as good as he's turned out to be. But he was throwing no-look passes, deep balls on a string. I had never seen throws like that."
And they were all hard. "He never turns it off," says Martin. "He just smokes it. If you just stand across from him and let him laser balls at you, it is not fun, O.K.? You've got to create some motion, moving side to side, anything to take your mind off the sting that's coming at you."
Before he waited in Green Bay, Rodgers grew up in Berkeley, Calif. After one year at Butte College, a two-year school near Chico, he was recruited by passing-game guru Jeff Tedford to play at Cal in the fall of 2002. He joined a team that was stocked with veteran wide receivers who had played with Kyle Boller—a very good college quarterback, his future NFL struggles notwithstanding. "I remember meeting Aaron," says Chase Lyman, a fourth-year junior wideout when Rodgers arrived. "He had a few whiskers on his face, kind of skinny. He looked like a nerdy kid from Chico. I'm thinking, This is the J.C. guy I've been hearing about? Then he starts throwing the ball and he's got zip on it, and he was able to pick up Coach Tedford's playbook faster than just about anybody."
Rodgers began his sophomore season backing up popular senior Reggie Robertson, but by game five he was starting. Three weeks later the Bears sat on UCLA's 35-yard line, trailing by eight points with 11 seconds to play. "We huddle on the sideline, and Coach Tedford calls the play," says Burl Toler, then a third-year wideout in the midst of a 48-catch season. "But then we get out on the field and Aaron says, 'Hey, check it out, guys. Burl and [fellow wideout] Geoff [McArthur], you guys switch places.' So we kept the play the same, but Aaron just moved us around on the fly to mess up the defense." Rodgers hit Toler for the touchdown and then threw for the tying two-point conversion, although Cal lost in overtime.
Lyman remembers crowding into a huddle during a tense 2004 loss to No. 1 USC at the L.A. Coliseum. There were 90,008 fans in full throat, and Rodgers was smiling as he called plays. "Whatever that it factor is for a great quarterback," says Lyman, "Aaron had it."
The Bears went 10--1 that season—and their top three receivers were walking wounded. McArthur had a badly damaged left knee. He took a series of six joint-lubricating injections during the spring and summer and then six more during the season. He had 57 receptions on one leg. "With Aaron Rodgers throwing against zone coverage," says McArthur, "my mom could catch balls." Lyman and Toler each played in just four games in '04. McArthur, once considered a possible first-round choice, never got an NFL paycheck. Lyman, taken in the fourth round of the 2005 draft by the Saints, reinjured his knee in rookie camp and never made an active roster. Their time with Rodgers was the apex of their careers.
"It makes us all feel good to see what he's done," says Toler. "He's the same as he's always been. Except with a better beard."
Before he grew up in Berkeley, Rodgers was desperate. Unrecruited by major colleges as a 5'10", 165-pound senior at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico, he turned down Ivy League options and took his 1310 SAT to Butte. In the summer of 2002, before his only season at Butte, Rodgers worked with personal trainer Steve Henderson. "He had natural quarterbacking skills, but he was small," says Garrett Cross, a tight end with Rodgers at Butte and Cal. "So in those workouts he was constantly trying to get better physically. He was never satisfied."
Early in summer practices, Rodgers was playing catch with fellow freshman Shaun Bodiford, who had been recruited to play at Portland State but failed to qualify academically. "I tell Aaron, 'Hey, you've got a pretty good arm,' " says Bodiford. "Then he says, 'Watch this.' And he starts throwing these 15-yard passes, with a tight spiral, underhanded. Then he does the same thing behind his back. Next time I saw the coach I said, 'Hey, I think this guy should be starting.'"
In one game Bodiford, who would later play parts of two seasons with five NFL teams, was supposed to run a shallow dig route. Instead he ran a deeper post, stole a pass intended for another receiver and ran in for a touchdown. He remembers Rodgers finding him on the sideline and saying, "Hey, Shaun, awesome catch. Next time run the right route."
Bobby Bernal-Wood was a year ahead of Rodgers at Butte. He had been discarded by major colleges because, in his words, "I was such a bad student." In Rodgers's only year at Butte, the Roadrunners went 10--1 and Rodgers threw 26 touchdown passes in a run-first offense. Bernal-Wood led the team with 35 receptions, four for touchdowns.
"One game, I ran this out-and-up from the slot," says Bernal-Wood, who is now an assistant at Butte. "Play was called 86 Y Shake, and Aaron just lasers the ball into my chest about 40 yards down the field. I didn't know what that meant. But I'm older now, and I'm coaching. When I look back at plays like that, I can see what all the excitement was about."
Before he landed at Butte, Rodgers was one of the smallest kids on the freshman team at Pleasant Valley High in the fall of 1998 and one of the smallest kids on the junior varsity a year later. "A little dude with big feet," says classmate David Jackson, who was the running back on Rodgers's freshman team and later a wide receiver on the varsity.
Rodgers was uncommonly committed to becoming a good player, to the exclusion of a more ordinary teenage life. The summer after his freshman year he and his closest friend, Ryan Gulbrandsen, began training and studying football film together. "We both just decided that we wouldn't be the kids who would party in high school," says Gulbrandsen, 28, who is a behavioral health education specialist in Chico. "On weekends we just hung out and played Ping-Pong or a friendly game of poker or went to the movies. The majority of people were going out and having a good time. We chose a different lifestyle."
With Rodgers at quarterback and Gulbrandsen at wide receiver, the Pleasant Valley jayvees went 10--0 in the fall of '99. The varsity went 1--10. Baxter, who played receiver and was a year ahead of Rodgers, says, "We had no option at quarterback other than Aaron. We needed him to be as good as he was on the jayvee. And he was. He threw the s--- out of the ball, and he was just so smart. He had it all between the ears. The last game I played, he threw me a touchdown pass, and it was the only touchdown I scored. He was happy for me. That's the thing: He was happy for me."
Pleasant Valley went 9--3 that year and reached the sectional semifinals. "He threw me two touchdowns in the Almond Bowl against Chico High," says Tim Haley, who still lives in Chico, where he is a partner in a seal-coating company. "They were straight go patterns, and the defender was really close to me, so the ball had to be thrown perfectly."
In Rodgers's senior season his wideouts were Jackson and Thomas Wilson, a soccer player who took up football for the first time as a senior. "Aaron basically taught me how to play," says Wilson, who went on to play at Butte and New Mexico and is an assistant coach at Butte. "How to hold my hands, how to stick the last step before I cut, so he could read me. I was totally naive." They hooked up on a slant for a long touchdown in the Almond Bowl. "Eighty-five yards," says Wilson.
"Maybe 70," says Rodgers. It will keep getting longer; that's what high school touchdowns do.
Jackson was fast and talented, but loath to learn the Pleasant Valley offense. "I didn't study the playbook, so Aaron didn't throw me the ball too often," says Jackson, who is now the co-owner of a supermarket chain. "That's not Aaron's fault. If I had learned the playbook, I would have gotten more passes." The team went 8--4 and again lost in the section semifinals.
Now Rodgers keeps the distance small between his ordinary past and his outsized present. Baxter asked him for tickets to a Packers game two years ago, and Rodgers not only provided the seats but also invited Baxter and a friend to stay at his Green Bay home. Rodgers and Gulbrandsen remain close, battling frequently on the golf course during off-seasons. They all watch him play on Sundays, silently connecting the dots from back then to right now.