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Rodgers embraces role as team leader
GREEN BAY, Wis.
This is a very special place in the world of the NFL. The smallest city in the league has the most championships, a gorgeous renovated stadium, some of the finest football facilities around, knowledgeable fans everywhere and enough sports bars to host their arguments.
Down in the loading dock area in the bowels of Lambeau Field, head coach Mike McCarthy parks his oversized black truck with the winch on the back, a truck powerful enough to plow snow-covered driveways. Right next to McCarthy’s truck is a Cadillac Escalade, in Brett Favre’s old parking spot. Those are the only two vehicles in the place, immune from the hundreds of tailgaters outside on a typical practice day.
“Is that Rodgers’ Cadillac?” I asked the loading dock manager.
“No, Aaron Rodgers is a regular guy,” was the reply. “He parks with the rest of his teammates outside.”
After 16 seasons of having a living legend in their midst, the Green Bay faithful, from general manager Ted Thompson on down to Joe Fan, has come to adore Rodgers because he really seems to be a regular guy.
He’s also a very good quarterback.
“It’s not that I don’t appreciate what Brett did for this franchise, but we all got tired of the drama,” said fan Mike Wainwright, who brought his wife to watch practice. "Rodgers isn’t bigger than the whole team.”
By now, we all know the Rodgers story -- how he was bypassed by his favorite team, the San Francisco 49ers, and slid from the top of the 2005 draft all the way down to where Thompson felt obligated to pick him at No. 24 overall because he ranked so high on his draft board. Not too surprisingly, Favre and Rodgers didn’t get along that first season.
“The week before the draft I really thought I was going to be a 49er and be the first pick,” Rodgers said. “They were my childhood team, but I would say this is the perfect place now, and I’m not saying that because I’ve had some success the last couple of years. I like to think I would have had success anywhere else I went. Plus, the organization here has been good to me. They’ve built a pretty good team on both sides of the ball.”
But this is Green Bay! The microscope is huge on the quarterback! Don’t you ever feel harassed by the fans?
“That’s not the right word,” Rodgers said.
OK, are you ever bothered by them?
“That’s not a good word, either,” Rodgers said. "This is a special place to play football. The Packer fans, especially those that live here in Brown County, have a special stake in this team. They basically own it. I enjoy the interaction with the fans. I come from a small town in California and there are a lot of similarities. They are blue-collar people who simply love their football
“There is a special bond between us players and the fans. Yes, it is different than anywhere else, but I really do like it here.”
You have probably read the stories where Rodgers invited his teammates over to his home after Favre retired in early 2008. He hosted barbecues and even Bible study meetings. He was an everyman, but he was showing his teammates he was willing to do anything to be their leader and new quarterback. He didn’t simply want to be Favre’s replacement.
“I know how cynical you can be, but Rodgers is real; he’s totally genuine,” a Packers executive told me. “There is no one in our building who thinks he’s a phony. Besides, the players would have seen through that by now if he wasn’t the real deal.”
Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who was involved in choosing Alex Smith over Rodgers when he coached in San Francisco, said he knew Rodgers was ready to assume Favre’s role in 2008. “More importantly, I knew our team was ready,” McCarthy said.
“One of the worst things you can do to a young quarterback is to start him when the rest of the team is really struggling or simply doesn’t have enough talented players around him.”
For 2 1/2 seasons, Rodgers stood and watched Favre quarterback the Packers.
Then his chance came in Dallas against the Cowboys when Favre got injured in the second quarter. “I played pretty well and knew I was ready to play in this league,” Rodgers said.
There are some in the Favre conspiracy faction who believe that’s when Thompson and McCarthy knew they could move on without No. 4; that they no longer had to wait all offseason for Favre to make up his mind to play or retire.
And the Green Bay braintrust isn’t alone. A top executive of a team who recently drafted a QB in the first round said that when making his decision on a quarterback, he compared him against these top five quarterbacks: Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Rodgers. He mentioned the last two even though they haven’t won a Super Bowl. Heck, Rodgers still hasn’t won a playoff game.
Statistically, only Favre had a better overall season than Rodgers last year. Rodgers had a 30-to-7 touchdown to interception ratio while Favre's was 33-to-7. Rodgers was fourth in the league in both passing yards (4,434) and quarterback rating (103.2).
I asked Rodgers if he thought he was better off sitting and watching Favre, much like Rivers did in San Diego for two seasons behind Brees.
“I think learning is the best way to put that,” he said. “I’d like to think physically I might have been able to play as a rookie, but mentally I would have been swimming. Maybe I would have been impacted negatively by those experiences. I will say that I am 10 times better right now mentally than my first couple of years. By the third season, I think I had figured it out.”
Donald Driver, the Packers’ veteran receiver, favorably compares Rodgers’ arm strength to Favre’s and John Elway’s. “He has one of the strongest arms in the league,” Driver said of his quarterback. “But I believe he worked hard in the weight room to develop that strength. His velocity is so much better now than when he first came here. He also throws one of the prettiest deep balls I’ve ever seen.”
But in Green Bay’s biggest game last season, an overtime playoff loss to Kurt Warner and the Arizona Cardinals, Rodgers misfired on two deep throws to a wide open Greg Jennings. A completion on either one would have won the game.
“Even though I have played well statistically,” Rodgers said, “I’m driven to get better and better. I want to win championships here. That’s the only success that matters to me.”