Can Aaron Rodgers Be the Type of Leader the Packers Need?

Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterNovember 18, 2016

GREEN BAY, WI - NOVEMBER 06:  Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers stands on the field before the game against the Indianapolis Colts at Lambeau Field on November 6, 2016 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

GREEN BAY, Wisc. — Roaring boos filled the house of Curly and Lombardi and Reggie and Favre on the night of November 6. Give your team's "owners" a diet of New Glarus Spotted Cow beer, bratwursts and abhorrent football, and of course they'll turn on you.

It was a damning scene. Fans even booed their beloved CEO, a player whose name can be mentioned in the same breath as those past greats.

Aaron Rodgers, Mr. R-E-L-A-X himself, knows that this is no time for relaxing.

His words have had bite these days. He has sounded irritated. Disgusted, even.

In a zipped-up gray hoodie, Rodgers stepped to the podium after the Packers' 31-26 loss to the Colts and shredded his team's lack of urgency.

Players must look themselves in the mirror, he said, because this effort was "unacceptable."

Never mind the fact Rodgers rarely interacted with teammates during the game. The atmosphere on the sideline? Lifeless.

When asked to assess his own play at this midway point of the season, Rodgers noted that someone other than himself needs to score a rushing touchdown.

One week later, the Titans flogged the Packers, 47-25.

Rodgers had another pointed message.

"There has to be that healthy fear as a player," he said, "that if you don't do your job, they'll get rid of you."

Here's the harsh reality for the 4-5 Packers: They're an ordinary team guided by an ordinary quarterback.

Give yourself paralysis by analysis studying all the factors around No. 12. Injuries. Personnel whiffs. Stale coaching. The fact remains this is a two-time MVP, a $100 million investment, a player who'll have a street named after him in Brown County one day.

Aaron Rodgers cannot be ordinary. He must be extraordinary. He must be the one holding the lantern, leading the way, out of this abyss.

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 13:  Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers walks off of the field with his head down after throwing an interception during the game against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium on November 13, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images
Aaron Rodgers career stats
Source: Pro-football-reference.com. Stats since becoming starter.

Can he be the type of leader the Packers need right now? This season, his season, is on the brink Sunday against the Redskins. Pressure is building with 52 sets of eyes all staring right back at Rodgers in this locker room.

He's the one who has seemed so immortal for so long. Rodgers declined an interview request, yet those in his orbit paint the picture of a complex man. A chameleon.

This is a teammate so loyal, he texted "Happy Birthday" to a former third-string tight end who caught nine passes in Green Bay. Said D.J. Williams, "He cares about guys on his team."

This is also a teammate who never gave his cellphone number to Jermichael Finley, the starting tight end, through six seasons together.

This is a friend who'll join offensive linemen for Thursday night dinners and dress up as a Jedi for defensive tackle Letroy Guion's Halloween bash at Bleu Restaurant in De Pere.

This is also a son and brother who hasn't spoken to his family in two years.

This is an MJ-level, cold-blooded assassin of a competitor who brings Super Bowl intensity to two-minute drills at practice. This isn't someone who'll inspire the masses with a Braveheart battle cry in the locker room.

Players here at 1265 Lombardi Ave.—right across the street from a mural of Rodgers painted on a fence—wholeheartedly believe.

"He is the leader of this team," Guion said. "We go as he goes. That's the reality of it. He's the quarterback. He's the superstar."

"There's no one else who can do what he can do," left tackle David Bakhtiari added. "He's Aaron Rodgers for a reason."

Then there's Finley, assuring Rodgers is no leader.

"In my opinion, he's a different guy," Finley said. "I didn't really know how he showed his leadership. He wasn't a vocal guy. He really wasn't a hands-on guy. To tell you the truth, it was all about his game and his stats in my opinion. … He was a guy that kept it all in. He kept grudges close to his chest. If you did something, he never really let it go. He always kept it close to his heart.

"I just don't think he was a natural-born leader. He wasn't put on Earth to lead."

The Packers better hope he was.

He's the mercurial master, the Obi-Wan Kenobi of this team inching toward collapse.

The relationship was doomed.

Quarterback and Tight End could not be any more different.

Rodgers is extremely detailed. He needs routes run a certain way—to the step, to a science, to the split-second. Finley? He'd rather freestyle. He'd rather take an eraser to that whiteboard scattered with X's and O's and play backyard football.

They were barely cordial co-workers, let alone friends. Finley didn't even know where Rodgers lived in Green Bay.

Many days, he said, they'd pass each other in the hallway without saying a word.

Hang out together? Please. "We didn't hang out a half a time," Finley said.

So 2008 flipped to 2009…to 2010…to 2011…to 2012, with no substantive changes to their rocky relationship.

Sep 15, 2013; Green Bay, WI, USA;  Green Bay Packers tight end Jermichael Finley (88) and quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) celebrate a touchdown during the second quarter against the Washington Redskins at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA T
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Then midway through 2012, Mike McCarthy hatched a plan. The head coach had Rodgers and Finley meet on Saturday nights at the team hotel for 30-45 minutes. It was McCarthy's idea, Finley noted, and admittedly "awkward." But finally they learned more about each other. Their families. Finley's kids. As they dissected the game plan together, the invisible wall between the two started to crack.

Six games into the 2013 season, the tight end suffered a career-ending neck injury. The hit still haunts him. The fact he couldn't find a rapport with Rodgers sooner? That haunts him more.

This relationship should not have been doomed.

"I feel like I wasted a ton of years," he said, "because of awkward situations."

Rodgers is the first to acknowledge he's no rah-rah leader. That "Not here, not ever!" State Farm ad is an exaggerated caricature of the man.

He attacks his profession like a maniac, a savant, "a wizard," Guion says, and then it's on everyone else to match his drive to achieve optimal success. Some teammates interpret this as aloof and distant. Others interpret this as raising the bar to a level no other team can.

Finley points to Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Cam Newton and even Jameis Winston as quarterbacks who lead vocally. That's what he wanted in Green Bay. A quarterback who'll laugh, scream and cry right there with every player. A quarterback who'll at least text him to shoot the bull.

"But Aaron Rodgers is so scared of what guys are going to say that he doesn't say nothing at all," Finley said. "He doesn't get vocal. He goes into his little shell. He's not a guy who hangs out with the fellas. He's real self-centered."

Echoing the likes of retired receiver Greg Jennings before him, Finley calls Rodgers "very sensitive."

"If he's joking with a guy and the guy comes back at him, he doesn't take it too well," Finley said. "Because of what position he's in, he thinks guys are supposed to bow down to him I guess."

Others do see a born leader. To Williams, Rodgers is sensitive but in a more comical way. He doesn't necessarily complain about media criticism behind the scenes, no, but tell Rodgers he looks 10 pounds heavier in training camp and he'll be unhappy.

As one of many players to be chewed out by Rodgers, as someone thrown into the doghouse for multiple weeks after staring at a replay on the videoboard instead of rushing onto the field for a no-huddle play, Williams respects Rodgers' style.

Rodgers is a "take care of business" leader, Williams said, not a "get in your face" leader.

He has zero patience for mental errors. Such a curt, demanding style resonates.

Cards. Pingpong. Dodgeball. Skeet shooting. Didn't matter. Rodgers brought the same competitiveness.

"You can never go out with Aaron Rodgers and have a casual day of a leisure activity," Williams said. "It's going to be competitive. That's just his nature. He's calm. But don't confuse that for him not being competitive."

So moments after watching the Cowboys fall for the Steelers' fake spike on TV, linebacker Desmond Bishop had flashbacks to the Packers' Super Bowl season. Not of Sundays. Rather, practice. During two-minute drills, Rodgers attacked his own defense with a killer instinct Bishop never witnessed before.

Once, Rodgers thwarted the defense with that same fake spike. Right then, the defense learned a valuable lesson. As far as Bishop is concerned, you can take this whole "vocal leader" debate and shove it.

This was leadership.

"His competitive fire was always so high," Bishop said. "That was infectious to everybody else. That's the kind of leader he is. It's not 'Come on guys, let's go!' It's 'I'm going to come out here and put my heart on the line. Follow me. Step your game up like I'm stepping mine up.' That's the kind of leader he is.

"We didn't win much against him. Because when we did, he was pretty pissed."

If Rodgers scores a touchdown Sunday night, Williams knows precisely what to expect. First, he'll adjust his heavyweight title belt. Then, he'll shoot the cameras "that little smirk." Bishop is "100 percent confident" this mentality alone will pull the Packers out of their slump.

Finley, well, he believes speaking up shouldn't be a "sometimes" thing. It's an "all the time" necessity.

No, the tight end doesn't believe Rodgers has it in him.

"No sir," he said. "Not one little centimeter."

Nov 13, 2016; Nashville, TN, USA; Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy talks with quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) during the first half against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

The doghouse is never vacant. Receivers pass in and out. Run the wrong route or drop a pass, and the quarterback will shoot you a scowl, maybe drop an F-bomb, maybe show you up on TV—and, voila, there's your seat on the bench.

Davante Adams and Jeff Janis have each earned approximately 20,000 doghouse reward points.

"There might be some words," Adams said. "There might be a look. But it's communicated either way. He's animated. He's colorful. It's not something we're ever worried about. I'm the same way."

Said Janis: "It's hard to tell if he's mad at himself or mad at you. But I think it just goes along with him wanting to be perfect. He's done it at a high level and that's what he expects."

Now consider how the last five seasons ended:

• A 37-20 loss to the Giants after a 15-1 regular season.

• A 45-31 thrashing to the 49ers, in which Rodgers was outplayed by Colin Kaepernick.

• A 23-20 loss to San Francisco, at home, one week after a pulsating last-second win over Chicago to win the division.

• A 28-22 loss, in overtime, to the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game, in which the Packers squandered a 12-point lead with five minutes left.

• A 26-20 loss to Arizona after completing a Hail Mary to force overtime.

Now remember how Rodgers is wired. In the Virgin Islands, for former teammate Terrence Murphy's wedding, he almost brawled with locals during a casual beach volleyball game. In high school baseball, after nearly getting dinged in the ribs, he whistled a pitch over that player's head when he took the mound two innings later.

These playoff defeats serve as parasites eating at his insides. Players in this locker room can sense it.

Rodgers must get back to the playoffs—needs to get back because this is where he knows legacies are defined.

"It's just more ammo to push him even further," Adams said. "I'm sure it's on his mind. It's on my mind all the time."

At this rate, the Packers will miss the playoffs for the first time since Rodgers' first season as a starter in 2008. So the snarling continues. He's more demanding. The utter absence of a running game has forced him to throw the ball 40-plus times in five of his last six games. Janis acknowledges he gets down on himself when Rodgers reams him out. But two weeks ago, the quarterback also pulled players aside to say he's only this hard on them "to be perfect, to be great."

That message meant a lot to Janis.

"To hear him say that," Janis said, "makes you realize he's not yelling at you just to yell."

Fifty hours later, on 3rd-and-10, Janis used his 4.42 burners to toast one of the best corners in the game, Vontae Davis. The picturesque rainbow delivery ricocheted off his facemask, his hands and his helmet again. Janis laid face up on the turf in disbelief, no doubt knowing this drop would drop him from the quarterback’s radar.

Of course one snap earlier, with all Wisconsin hunting season to stand in the pocket, Rodgers missed a wide-open Jordy Nelson on a surefire 80-yard touchdown.

Such is the current state of affairs in Green Bay.

Through this miserable 9-12 stretch, Rodgers has been part of the problem himself. He's whiffing routine throws. He’s turning the ball over. He's skittish. His 87.5 passer rating over the 21 games is far shy of his 103.3 career average.

SEATTLE, WA - JANUARY 18: Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers reacts after throwing an interception during the first half of the 2015 NFC Championship game against the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field on January 18, 2015 in Seattle, Washington
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images


Players here repeat their quarterback is human.

If only family and friends back in Chico, California, could say the same.

Whenever "What's Wrong with Aaron Rodgers?!" hysteria sweeps the nation and pundits hyperanalyze footwork, reads and the power struggle between Rodgers and McCarthy, those closest to the quarterback consider a factor that has nothing to do with football.

He doesn't have a relationship with his parents or brothers.

Of course, this storyline reached its fever pitch during The Bachelorette. Jordan Rodgers, a contestant on the show and eventually the winner, took JoJo Fletcher home to Chico, taking the world behind the curtain to look at this strained relationship. There are people once close to Rodgers who believe the strain affects his play.

One source, who was close to Rodgers for years but is among the many who have since been cut off by Rodgers entirely, said the quarterback has not spoken to his family since December 2014. Don't feel too bad, J-Mike. Immediate family members don't even have his cellphone number. When Mom and Dad sent Christmas presents to the quarterback and his girlfriend that year, the source said, those gifts were mailed back in February. He was set to be the groomsman in the wedding of one of his closest friends, the source said, and texted the day before he couldn't attend.

He didn't attend his grandfather's funeral—the same grandfather he once called before every game.

He fired a business manager he's known since high school.

The family was told they were no longer welcome in Green Bay. If Dad wants to attend a game now, he buys tickets on StubHub or goes through another player's family.

There certainly could be a side to this story the world does not know. Rodgers hasn't commented on this public schism. But this source once close to the quarterback, watching from afar, is not shy.

"There's no explanation for him playing any worse," said the source, who wished to speak under the condition of anonymity. "People are trying to figure it out. He's a f--king head case. He knows he's doing the wrong thing, and he's so arrogant and prideful that he thinks he can separate his personal life from his professional life, even though all of us know that's impossible. You can't do that. You can do that in little spurts, like when Brett Favre went out and played amazingly when he loses his Dad. But when you're talking about real situations that aren't all of a sudden circumstantial and you f--k over good people, people you're supposed to love, it's a s--tty thing to do and you're going to get humbled.

"You can't live like that, man. The people who live like that end up getting f--ked over. That's kind of what's happening here, but he's so prideful and will never admit he's wrong. Ever."

Teammates shun the theory that any family issues are affecting Rodgers. He may no longer have that family, but he has this family. Guion, for one, speaks to Rodgers every day and sees a leader making a concerted effort to know everyone.

"He's always happy. Always conversational," Guion said. "He's always in a good mood. I've never really seen him in a bad mood. Even after a loss, he comes in and works harder. He's a lot stronger and tougher than people probably think or know he is.

"He's got a competitive spirit that you just want to clutch onto."

Bakhtiari points to the size of Green Bay. Here, in this town of 105,000, players are drawn together. There's a natural kinship. Rodgers bonds with the men who block for him over dinner each week. Asked if the absence of family affects him, Bakhtiari said he can't answer that.

It is true, though, that all players deal with issues off the field to some degree.

"You come to work, punch in and punch out," Bakhtiari said. "No matter what's going on back at home, with wives and kids and family members there's going to be a lot of other stressors in your life. A lot of guys may have family issues we don't know."

David Goldman/Associated Press

Perhaps Rodgers is flawlessly compartmentalizing whatever drama stirs out of the public eye, and the fact he's been so pedestrian is strictly football-related. Perhaps he makes amends with his family down the road, too. The relationship remains salvageable. This source expects the gravity of missed weddings, holidays, funerals and anniversaries to "hit Aaron hard at one point."

And anyone wondering who that impostor in No. 12 is, the source continued, doesn't need to agonize over film.

"He completely, abruptly, 360 degrees changed into somebody else," the source said. "Think about it: He put himself on an island where he has no family. And you wonder why the dude can't do his job like he used to."

The day after the Colts clunker, David Bakhtiari didn't flinch. Didn't hesitate. Didn't care how many fans were booing in the stands. He all but ripped the weak question off the notebook and threw it into the Fox River.

Yes, Bakhtiari believes Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback in the game.

No player in the NFL combines arm strength, mobility and intelligence like him.

"People take it for granted because they're so accustomed to it," Bakhtiari said. "But when you're rolling out full speed and you can rifle it with just the flick of the wrist—how quick his release is, the drop of a dime, 30 yards downfield, it's such a f--king hard ball. Goddamn people have gotten too comfortable seeing that. It's routine. How many other quarterbacks can do that?"

Not many. Ever. But it's been two years since that Aaron Rodgers was giving coordinators aneurysms.

There are deficiencies all around him. General manager Ted Thompson should've signed veteran stopgaps instead of leaving coaches raw undrafted rookies that wouldn't make other rosters. The defense played like a hungover mess in Nashville. How's this for a case of the Sunday Scaries? The Titans had 35 points and 351 yards…at halftime. Injuries are mounting, too.

Yet, other elite quarterbacks don't want to hear it. Tom Brady was suspended four games, Ben Roethlisberger is hobbling around the pocket like Tiny Tim again, Andrew Luck's offensive line is leaking again and Tony Romo lost his job to a rookie.

Rodgers at least has a clean pocket and No. 1 wideout Jordy Nelson back in the fold.

NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 13:  Quarterback Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers throws a pass past Angelo Blackson #95 of the Tennessee Titans during the second half at Nissan Stadium on November 13, 2016 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick
Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Asking what's wrong with him can feel sacrilegious.

Guion repeated that every player has ups and downs. "You can't be perfect all the time," he said. "We're all human." A few lockers down, outside linebacker Datone Jones called Rodgers "human" three times.

But that's precisely the problem. Most of his career, Rodgers has been downright superhuman. He wills his team through turmoil, gets to the playoffs, suffers a crushing loss, dusts himself off and returns stronger. Hungrier. A bad, bad man. He's the 2016 prototype for the position who'll one day see his name inscribed next to "Brett Favre" in the Lambeau Field bowl.

Who'll one day be enshrined in Canton.

This living legend can easily turn those boos into worshipping hymns of "Roll Out The Barrel" and rev these Packers back into Super Bowl contention.

But only Aaron Rodgers truly knows what makes Aaron Rodgers tick.

Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.


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