How Aaron Rodgers Saved the Packers

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterDecember 10, 2015

Dec 3, 2015; Detroit, MI, USA; Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) celebrates after defeating the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Green Bay won 27-23. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

GREEN BAY, Wis. — There was no pivotal meeting or grand moment. There was no lecture or screaming. There was Aaron Rodgers doing what he has always done. A one-on-one chat here. A conversation in a position-group setting there. 

No nastiness. No condescension. No hysterics. Just Rodgers showing the most under-discussed of his talents: his ability to lead.

Rodgers never stops fighting, and we didn't need the Miracle in Motown to know that. It's the brain, athleticism and passing accuracy that have made him what he is—a Super Bowl winner and future Hall of Famer. But in what has been his hardest season, away from the cameras and the glare and the fandom, very quietly, his personal determination to improve this team has been the difference for the Packers. That's not an opinion. It's what multiple teammates told me.

One story they tell is from a few weeks ago. Rodgers had been upset for weeks about the study habits of some of the team's younger offensive players. Cris Collinsworth mentioned this during NBC's Thanksgiving telecast of the Bears-Packers game, saying that there had been a players-only meeting in which Rodgers made this clear. What Collinsworth said wasn't accurate in the details, I was told, but the gist was right.

Rodgers' message was indeed there needs to be better preparation. It was an important message. But the methodology of delivery is what's vital. He didn't make a big speech for the sake of making a big speech. He addressed it on a personal level.

"Aaron did what he needed to do," one offensive player said. "There were guys that needed to study more. The preparation of some guys had slipped since the start of the year. A lot of us were glad he did it."

Even when Rodgers was asked about how preparation needed to be better after Collinsworth's comments, he handled it in a way that didn't bother his teammates. As one told me, "We needed a kick in the ass. He gave us one."

Teammates say that Rodgers has played the role of motivator, psychologist, supporter and constructive critic more this season than ever before in his Packers career. The team has needed him to. For the first time since Rodgers became a star, the team is struggling. They seemed like a Super Bowl lock at 6-0 but then lost three straight. The study habits, players told me, changed for the better after Rodgers' intervention, and they played one of their best games of the season, winning 30-13 at Minnesota. But they followed that with an unthinkable home loss to the Bears.

Rodgers lost one of the best receivers in football in Jordy Nelson to a torn ACL. He's been injured, too, the latest coming on Thanksgiving when the helmet of a Bears player banged into his arm in the third quarter, causing numbness in his hand that he said lasted even into the minutes after the game.

Morry Gash/Associated Press

He's being tested as he never has before, and we're learning about Aaron Rodgers. Learning who he is. Learning how he leads. Learning what's beyond the image we see before the cameras and in the commercials. Learning who he turns into when he's in crisis.

I spent the week of Thanksgiving with the Packers and sat down with Rodgers and many of his teammates, and in that week a portrait of the man became clear to me.

There is no screaming Rodgers. Or Rodgers morphing into something he's not. What's clear, what's crystal clear, is that Rodgers has used all of his efforts—body and mind—to get the most out of a talent-drained team that lacks star power on both sides of the football.

Rodgers in crisis, it turns out, is more cerebral—more Professor X than Wolverine. More of a leader. We don't see any of this. It's not a statistic that can be charted. But it's there, and from what many players describe, Rodgers' pushing and prodding has kept the Packers' ship from totally capsizing.

Rodgers and I sit at his locker. He is relaxed, the locker room quiet, and we go on to have what feels like one of the best conversations about football I've ever had. Then again, it is always like this. I've interviewed him for books, long-form stories, short stories, and it is always the same: a fascinating talk.

He is calm, yes, but at one point, for the first time since I've known him, Rodgers gets understandably angry. Visibly so. More on that in a moment.

"It's been a different season, sure," he says. "It's definitely been a grind to over-communicate. To get everyone on the same page.

"The one good thing is, we've changed some things around here preparation-wise. Because we've had to go back to square one in terms of preparation. We've had more conversations about route running, splits, alignments, checks. So that's been a challenge but also a fun thing."

My belief is what Rodgers said above is central to the Packers' and Rodgers' challenge. Losing Nelson meant the younger players had to study and prepare harder. But some of the players weren't.

"We're running plays and checks that would be easy for a Jordy Nelson," Rodgers says. "They're something we've done for years. When you're running those checks with a Jeff Janis and a Jared Abbrederis and a Ty Montgomery, you kind of have to go back and teach them from Day 1."

And this next from Rodgers was key to knowing how he approaches leadership.

"But there are limitations to what a leader can do," he says. "You can inspire people, but you have to be motivated from inside."

Mike Roemer/Associated Press

This is one of the key cogs in identifying who Rodgers is at this moment in time. It's very Tom Brady-like. In many ways, he is Tom Brady, and Tom Brady is him. Let me explain.

I believe Rodgers sees some of these young players as highly talented, and highly supported by their organization, but lacking the motivation to prepare like their careers depend on it. And it frustrates him.

This is how Rodgers and Brady play football. They play with a sort of desperation. Rodgers and Brady were both initially snubbed by the NFL—in different ways (Rodgers fell in the first round, and Brady went in the sixth) but both snubbed nonetheless. They continue to use that as motivation. Being the best drives them, in part, because the league said: You're not that good.

Again, this is my interpretation, but I believe it to be correct.

The only time Rodgers gets upset, visibly upset, during our conversation is when I ask him about a written implication that his struggles were because of off-field distractions, which so irritated Rodgers' girlfriend, Olivia Munn, that she responded with a series of tweets.

"It was a ridiculous insinuation. A ridiculous article. And unfair," Rodgers says. "Just because I'm dating someone famous does not mean she should be a target or I should be a target. All players have relationships. We all balance a lot and we still come to practice and meetings and the games with clear heads.

"You want to speculate about me being injured? Go ahead. That's fine. ... But I'm not going to let someone say something ridiculous about me without me fighting back. I have a voice and I'm going to set the record straight."

Everyone around Rodgers seems to have a Rodgers moment. A story, a tale. It is a moment that sticks with them. They are moments of respect. Those moments are building blocks. Rodgers draws upon them to build trust. To lead.

He uses these moments as connective tissue. They build trust for times like these, when the Packers erase the good feelings of a 6-0 start by losing four of their next six.

Sometimes Rodgers leads with a laugh or a shout or screaming at his line. Or he leads with his study habits. Or the use of his photographic memory. It can be his actual play in a game. Or his playing of pranks. Or having pranks played on him. Or a conversation in a meeting room. Rodgers is one of the great examples in football of trickle-down leadership.

"One of the first times I went against him in practice, it was OTAs," defensive back Micah Hyde said. "He threw a no-look corner route about 20-something yards."

To be clear, what Rodgers did was what you see point guards do—throw a no-look pass. But instead of a basketball being thrown a few feet, Rodgers threw a football over 20 yards, on target, while not looking at the receiver.

"I went back and watched it over and over on film. College quarterbacks can't do that," Hyde said.

"One thing I've seen in playing with him is that he has a photographic memory," Nelson said. "We'll study a play and he'll remember that we ran it back in 2008. He'll remember the team, the circumstance, everything."

Ben Margot/Associated Press

"He pulled me aside once and told me about a good block I made," said offensive lineman J.C. Tretter. "I didn't remember the block. But he did."

Eddie Lacy remembers a story from his rookie year. Lacy was at practice once and went into the backfield, ready to take the handoff from Rodgers. But Rodgers audibled to a play Lacy hadn't yet learned. After the play was called, Lacy turned to look at the position coach, wondering what to do.

"C'mon rook," Rodgers said, smiling.

"He didn't do a lot of that rookies are idiots stuff," Lacy said. "He's built a lot of loyalty from the young players for not treating us the way a lot of teams treat rookies."

"I heard a lot about his competitiveness on and off the field before I got to know him," fullback John Kuhn said. "Then I saw it firsthand. We were playing golf, and I kept hitting it a little off. The whole time, Aaron was killing me. Nice shot. You're terrible. Want to hit another one into the woods?

"Then he hit a bad shot. It wasn't even a bad shot. It was for him. I said, 'Good shot.' He went off on me. Very competitive guy that hates to lose at anything. I think that's a quality a lot of the great ones have."

"Aaron is not one of those quarterbacks who basically stays off to the side and leaves you on your own," Nelson said. "I asked him about a play one time, and we spent 20 minutes talking about it."

"The main thing I've seen with Aaron is that he tries to get the best out of everybody," wide receiver James Jones said, "and he's able to do it without players resenting him. That's not easy."

I asked Peppers, who has been in the NFL since 2002 and played for three different NFL teams, how Rodgers was different from other quarterbacks he's played with. His answer was fascinating.

"They're all different guys," he said. "I'm talking about different personalities. Aaron's a different guy. He's a unique character. He carries himself like...Aaron Rodgers. He carries himself with a certain aura that he has. Confidence. A great self-confidence is the best way I can explain it. He's one of those guys that guys in the locker room will rally around.

"I actually got a pretty good hit on him in a game once. Not when I was in Chicago, but when I was in Carolina. Got a 15-yard flag. Unnecessary roughness. It was right on the Packers sideline. It was his first year starting, I think. It was the first time I ever got a hit on him. It was a late hit out of bounds.

"He got up, beating his chest, doing all this. I thought it was funny. But I think that hit got to him a little bit because he didn't play well the rest of the game."

Peppers then paused.

"But the Packers still ended up winning, so I guess he did all right.

"What has always stuck with me is his toughness. He kept playing through that hit. I always thought, 'That is one tough guy.' Beneath that exterior is a very tough guy.

"I don't think anything rattles him. I think that's why he's so good. I think I could hit him a thousand times like I did, and he'd still get up, looking at me like he wants to fight. Yeah, he's fearless. He's been the glue of this team and kept us all together despite these hard times."

Rodgers' game has shifted. It's changed in the way that Joe Montana's did or Dan Marino's or almost any other legendary player's did. Rodgers has always been mentally sturdy, but his pinpoint accuracy and athleticism were his rocket fuel in the past. Now, it's leadership skills and ability to withstand adversity that define him.

Many people are thinking about the Packers' problems the wrong way. They are looking at Rodgers as if he is part of the problem. The truth is, if it wasn't for him, this franchise would be the Cleveland Browns right now. None of this is an excuse for Rodgers. It is a simple fact.

The dilemma Rodgers also faces is that not only are some of the younger players lacking in abilities, they are lacking in professionalism. ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky reported that Lacy, the night before the miraculous win against the Lions, missed curfew.

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

This is what Rodgers has had to deal with. Some of the talent around him has been unreliable, inconsistent and lacking the understanding of what it means to be a pro. Other than that, it's been wonderful.

The biggest question is how long can Rodgers keep this up. There is only so much even his Jessica Jones-like abilities can usurp. In the recent history of the sport, and when looking at Super Bowl-caliber teams, only Brady's early Super Bowl squads compare to the lack of star power that Rodgers is playing with now.

Brady has Gronk. Cam Newton has Greg Olsen. Russell Wilson had Marshawn Lynch and now Thomas Rawls. On and on it goes. Rodgers has had, basically, Rodgers.

One NFL defensive assistant said that "when you watch the Green Bay offense on tape, most teams now play a lot of man-to-man against them. That used to be unheard of. No one dared try that against Aaron Rodgers. But we did it because his receivers are slow. Then when they get open, they drop the ball."

"The greatest form of disrespect to a receiving corps," said ESPN analyst Brian Dawkins on NFL Live this month, "is for a team to play Cover 0. That means they put no safety in the middle of the football field. ... That's what the Detroit Lions did [in the first game against the Packers]."

The most fascinating part of this tale actually begins years ago. While many quarterbacks build walls between themselves and the team, feeling that the quarterback must be above everyone, one of the best parts of Rodgers' locker-room game is that he's done the opposite.

Rodgers is trusted by everyone on the team, and this isn't by accident. It's happened due to Rodgers' building relationships with teammates from the moment they joined the Packers. Those efforts are paying dividends now as they trust him when he delivers those honest (and sometimes unflattering) messages, like the one he did to some players about studying more.

"The thing about Aaron is no matter the situation, he stays the same," said defensive lineman Mike Daniels. "He's a rock.

"We had a guy on our team who was a practice-squad guy. He me told how on his other team, his quarterback never once spoke to him. His first day here, Aaron came up to him and said, 'Hey man, I'm glad you're here, looking forward to you being a teammate.' If you're a rookie, you don't feel like a rookie. He welcomes you in.

"To be honest, Aaron is why we don't have a lot of hazing on our team, as compared to other teams. He works so hard, and shows everyone so much respect, that he sets the standard that high, and you don't want to let him down."

I asked Rodgers about the way he's treated teammates, especially during this year's pseudo-crisis.

"I like to think that I'm the same guy every day," he said. "I'm a fiery competitor and I bring it in practice and I bring it on the field. But off the field, especially when times are good, you have to be very even-keeled. Because through adversity, as I've learned over years, learned through watching Brett [Favre], and learned through being the guy here eight years now, when adversity strikes, the players, especially the young players, look to the quarterback and the head coach for how they handle things.

"So you need to show them that you're always under control. You're always confident that things are going to work out in your favor.

"A lot about the locker room and an NFL team is about relationships. As you get older in the league you realize how important those are. ... I remember when I was a younger player and an older player told me how he didn't get close to players in training camp, because he didn't know if they were going to get cut. He said he liked to stick to himself. I remember that and I remember thinking, 'I want to do the opposite.' I always want to get to know guys, get to know what makes them tick. Because I think as a leader, you have to understand how to inspire guys."

On that Thanksgiving night, as Favre's number was retired, Rodgers threw his 250th touchdown pass. He did it in 121 games. That is faster than Brady. Faster than Marino. Faster than Peyton Manning. And yes, faster than Favre.

Then came the miraculous, season-saving Hail Mary touchdown against Detroit. All of Rodgers' efforts—the hustle behind the scenes, the hustle on the field—seemed to be summed up on that one play.

"He's the same great leader no matter what happens," Nelson said. "I think the fact that he doesn't change has been a calming effect on the locker room."

"Aaron never panics, so we don't panic," wide receiver Randall Cobb said.

DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 3: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers celebrates after throwing the game winning touchdown pass with time expired to defeat the Detroit Lions 27-23 at Ford Field on December 3, 2015 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo b
Andrew Weber/Getty Images

"He has high expectations for everybody, and he has those same high expectations for himself," Tretter said. "That's why whenever you see him yelling or getting upset, we listen to him. We know that he works as hard as anyone and just wants to get things right.

Nelson: "When it comes to preparation, he goes to this high level, and you don't want to be the one who doesn't go to that level."

"When I watch him play, I see a guy leading with his play and his mind," Hall of Fame quarterback Roger Staubach, who has followed Rodgers' career, said. "He's already as good as any of the greats. You name them, he's already as good."

Here's the big one:

"He's better than I ever was," Favre said. "I think he's quietly one of the best leaders in this game. I don't know if people understand that."

Yes, many have gotten it wrong with Rodgers. He is an anchor. He's just anchoring in a different way, and it all begins with a series of moments.

What's wrong with the Packers?

"People that try to blame Aaron are fools," Fox analyst Troy Aikman, who has seen a number of Packers games this year, told me recently. "I already had so much respect for Aaron but even more after that Denver game. I saw after the game where Aaron said he had to make better throws. Then I went and watched the tape and none of their receivers were open. They were blanketed. He had no one to throw to.

"One thing I will say is the hits he's taking are having an effect on his throwing, and that's something that has happened to all of us [NFL quarterbacks]. I saw him miss throws in the Carolina game that he would otherwise never miss. In that game, he was hit a lot, and some of what is happening is that when you get hit, you tend to start throwing the ball a little earlier.

"What I mainly see with Aaron is a guy with a lot of courage and talent who is putting the Packers on his back and carrying them. Aaron is all the Packers have right now."

Why was Rodgers able to go 6-0 with basically the same personnel? The answer, say defensive assistants who have gone against the Packers, is that early on the season, teams strategized with Rodgers the way they always do. They played soft defenses designed not to give up the big play.

But eventually defenses started taking more chances in man-to-man coverage, noticing that Rodgers' receivers were being given coverages they didn't deserve. Defenses started playing tighter man-to-man, and game film of this started to circulate. Teams started taking chances, successfully, and a trend was born.

"Their receivers," one AFC scout said, "are probably bottom five in the league."

"You could cover Davante Adams," another AFC scout said.

Duane Burleson/Associated Press

"Eddie Lacy is probably one of the biggest disappointments this season," an NFC assistant coach said.

"I look at a guy like Davante Adams," NFL Network analyst Michael Robinson said on Gameday. "They really needed him to step up. Ty Montgomery. They really needed these guys to step up. ... The lack of explosive players. Where are the explosive plays going to come from? They don't have a No. 1 receiver on this team right now or a No. 1 tight end."

"Right now when I look at Aaron Rodgers," ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski said on the network recently, "he's gotta work through this. Every quarterback has a time—no matter how great you are, and Aaron Rodgers is still one of the greatest in this game—where you have to work through some challenges."

"Look, he's one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Some consider him the best," ESPN analyst Louis Riddick said on the network recently. "But the way this team is constructed now, his margin for error isn't very big."

And this remains the core point. Brady has made average receivers good his entire career. But he's also had Rob Gronkowski recently. Last year, he had Gronkowski and Julian Edelman. Before that, he's had Randy Moss and Wes Welker. Rodgers has no such player.

One front-office executive elaborated on this point, and his synopsis is probably the most accurate of any analysis of the Packers' offensive troubles.

"I think what's happened in Green Bay is the Tom Brady effect," the executive said. "Brady is so good that, for a while, they asked him to always be the savior. For years, he could do it, and in some ways he still can. But they lost some big games and Super Bowls because they didn't do a good job of putting a lot of talent around Brady, and then they would ask Brady to save the day with marginal talent around him. That will catch up to even the best of quarterbacks.

"Then the Patriots started adding top talent around him, like Gronk and Edelman. They added some defensive talent. They took the pressure off of Brady. Look what happened. They won another Super Bowl.

"Guys like Tom and Aaron are so talented, an entire organization can become over-reliant on them. The front office, the coaches, the entire organization. You take chances in the draft because you say, 'We have Aaron.' You don't invest as much in free agency because you say, 'We have Aaron.' I'm not saying that accounts for all of it, but that mentality is definitely in play."

Rodgers turned 32 on Dec. 2. One day later, he was playing the Lions. Again.

Detroit beat the Packers in the first meeting at Lambeau. The Packers went into the second game with five offensive linemen injured, four of them starters, including the starting and backup centers. Once the game started, the entire right side of the Packers' offensive line was inactive due to injury. Then, the starting center re-aggravated a right ankle injury in the second quarter. Then, the left tackle was hurt in the fourth.

It would be, again, all on Rodgers' shoulders.

The Packers came back from a 20-point deficit. The same problems were there, as pointed out repeatedly during the broadcast by analyst Phil Simms. The Packers receivers rarely were able to free themselves from the Lions defenders.

But the defense played better, and Rodgers, as he has all year, in many different ways, kept fighting.

The incredible thing about the Hail Mary pass wasn't that it traveled, on a rope, nearly 70 yards. It was that it also had the perfect arc, like a Steph Curry three-pointer, allowing the football to sort of just float into the hands of Richard Rodgers.

Rodgers has come full circle. When he was coming out of Cal, every team misjudged his talent, and he slipped in the first round.

"Aaron was drafted with the 24th pick in the 2005 draft," former Raiders executive Amy Trask said. "The San Francisco 49ers, who had the first pick in the draft, played their home games roughly 18 miles from the stadium in which Aaron played his college games. We had the 23rd pick in the draft and played our home games roughly 10 miles from that stadium. So the two teams in closest proximity, each of which needed help at the quarterback position, missed. Bad miss."

From that miss emerged a two-time MVP and Super Bowl winner.

What's happening now doesn't take away from that. What's happening now is what every quarterback faces—the trying time. All the greats have seen it. It's Rodgers' turn.

During the Packers' 6-0 start, the Packers were averaging six yards per play with a plus-six turnover differential. Then came the bye, and since then (not including the most recent Lions game) the Packers went 1-4 and the yards per play fell to 4.7 and the turnover differential dropped to zero.

As these hard times have come, what we've seen is Rodgers not being overwhelmed. We've seen him respond in a way some may not have seen coming.

We've seen Aaron Rodgers the leader. And that may be the best Rodgers of all.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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