'I Want Kinship, Not Animosity'

Backing up Aaron Rodgers requires a lot of patience, but for those who do, the job offers not only a master class in how to be a quarterback but also a chance to hang with a future Hall of Famer.
photo of David GardnerDavid Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterSeptember 2, 2020

When Brett Hundley heard that the Packers planned to pick him in the 2015 NFL draft, his first thought was: Fuck. 

Hundley, a record-breaking, three-year starter at UCLA, had already slid down to the fifth round, lower than many pundits had predicted. But that isn't why he was upset. The problem was he knew he wouldn't see the field anytime soon. He possessed all the confidence you'd expect from a superstar college quarterback, but he was realistic: He wasn't going to beat out Aaron Rodgers.

Soon after, though, he saw the upside.

"I was pretty pumped once I got over the initial shock," Hundley said. "Now I get to learn and soak up as much as I can. I needed it. Coming from the spread offense, I knew nothing about playing in the NFL. Aaron taught me everything. Being able to learn from a guy like that made me a better quarterback than I ever thought I could be."

Rodgers won't say what his exact first thought was when he found out the Packers had traded up to select Utah State quarterback Jordan Love in the first round of this year's NFL draft. When he spoke to reporters about the selection in May, he said he "wasn't thrilled by the pick, obviously."

Rodgers is coming off a season in which he threw for more than 4,000 yards and only four interceptions. The Packers had advanced to the NFC Championship Game. With a few more pieces ready to play right away, Green Bay might have improved its chances at making a Super Bowl this season. Instead, the team began building its future.

That forced Rodgers to confront his future as well.

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Brett Favre was 35 when the Packers drafted Rodgers out of Cal as his heir apparent. The relationship between those two star signal-callers became something of a soap opera for several seasons. Rivals at first, the pair became friends by Rodgers' third year. Then, after Favre retired and un-retired to join the Vikings, they were rivals once more. They've recently become close, and they speak on the phone at least every few weeks.

Rodgers is 36 now, and the Packers' plans for Love are apparent. After the draft, Favre called Rodgers to commiserate.

"He didn't offer any advice, not really," Rodgers said. "It's more of an understanding of how beautiful life can be when it repeats itself in interesting ways. It's hard to ignore the age similarity of how old I was coming in with him, and with J. Love now joining our squad."

But Rodgers believes the similarities will end there.

When he talked to reporters after the draft, he insisted that he'd treat Love the same way he'd treated every other backup that came before him: as a mentor and a friend. Through the years, more than a dozen quarterbacks have spent time behind Rodgers in offseasons, preseasons and regular seasons. To get a better sense of what it's like to back up one of the best quarterbacks in the league, I talked to a handful of them. And then to Rodgers himself.

When asked if his friendship with Favre now gives him confidence that his friendship with Love could outlast any potential tension that comes up in the next few years, he challenged the very premise of the question. "Well, that's not gonna happen," he said. "There's no point in even answering that one."

Instead, he insisted that, like the Packers, he had his eye on the long term with Love.

"Part of your legacy," he said, "is how you treat your teammates. I want Jordan to have as great of memories as possible of me being in the QB room and having some great laughs and competing. I want kinship, not animosity. That's what I've always tried to do with all my backups."

  

The Perks of Being a Backup

A few months after he was drafted, Hundley strode shoulder to shoulder with Rodgers as they made their way to the practice field. Rodgers grabbed a football from a stand, and Hundley streaked 15 yards down the sideline to catch his first practice pass as an NFL player. Then it came time to throw the ball back. This has to be perfect, he thought. He threw the ball 20 yards over Rodgers' head. Rodgers watched the ball sail by, chuckled and picked up another ball to throw back.

While Brett Hundley arrived in Green Bay with an understanding that he was unlikely to get much playing time, he soon grew to appreciate what Aaron Rodgers taught him about playing quarterback.
While Brett Hundley arrived in Green Bay with an understanding that he was unlikely to get much playing time, he soon grew to appreciate what Aaron Rodgers taught him about playing quarterback.Morry Gash/Associated Press

"To this day, I can't believe I airmailed it," said Hundley, who played behind Rodgers for three seasons and is now with the Cardinals. "I also can't believe he never said another word about it. He just laughed it off."

As a young player, Rodgers had a reputation for ambition as he tried to show he could usurp Favre on the depth chart. As a starter, he's earned respect for a demeanor so cool that he almost seems put out by the idea of having to pull off another miraculous Packers win. But with his teammates, and especially with his former backup quarterbacks, he has a far different reputation.

"He's Aaron Rodgers. He gets his work done," Hundley said. "But he's always had this childlike energy. Everything is competitive, but everything is fun. You really remember it's a game when you're around him."

Each offseason, new quarterbacks come in for tryouts, hoping to win what could wind up being just one roster spot behind Rodgers. At the beginning of the first meeting in the quarterbacks room each summer, Rodgers makes everyone go around and say their name, where they're from and a fun fact about themselves that can't be Googled. And if the fact isn't fun enough, he'll make the newbie go again.

"Their answer didn't matter that much," Rodgers said. "It was almost a litmus test for personality. Are they a shy person? Are they gregarious? What fact are they going to choose to divulge? Is it something minuscule, like, 'I like to eat Oreos?' Or is it something maybe more deep and meaningful? It gives you a glimpse into that personality. As a leader, it's important to understand what's important to your teammates so you can know how best to meet their needs."

When the preseason begins, the quarterbacks behind Rodgers on the depth chart take turns coming up with game-plan questions. If there's a road game that weekend, Rodgers also asks them to prepare eight trivia questions about the city where they'll be playing. Since Rodgers has only played in one division throughout his entire career, coming up with surprising facts about, say, Chicago, poses something of a challenge.

"Putting together those questions was a ton of work," said Graham Harrell, who played for the Packers from 2010-12. "I'd be up all night on the internet doing research. And somehow, Aaron would be salty either way. If the question was too easy, he'd complain. But if he didn't know the answer, he'd be pissed. He wanted it to be hard, but not too hard."

Rodgers thrives on that kind of friendly competition. The former Celebrity Jeopardy winner would set aside 30 minutes for trivia every Friday. He'd take on any challenger in HORSE between meetings. He'd escalate prank wars with a seemingly endless supply of water balloons or with mysteriously sourced (and surreptitiously placed) crickets. And if he somehow got the notion that you were good at golf, he'd have you on the links at the next opportunity.

Joe Callahan, who spent parts of the 2016 and 2017 seasons in Green Bay, didn't even own his own clubs. That didn't stop Rodgers from inviting Callahan out to one of the most esteemed golf courses in the country.

"Aaron asked me if I liked to play one day," Callahan said. "So, of course, I said yes."

The next thing he knew, Callahan was hacking it at Whistling Straits with his father's sand wedge.

Brett Favre didn't exactly take his successor under his wing when they both played for the Packers, but he allowed him to listen in on his interactions with teammates and coaches to learn how to lead a team.
Brett Favre didn't exactly take his successor under his wing when they both played for the Packers, but he allowed him to listen in on his interactions with teammates and coaches to learn how to lead a team.John Biever/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images

The idea of beating Rodgers was at first intimidating for a lot of his former backups, but they soon learned a secret. The quickest way to get another round in was to win. That way, he'd invite you back out to try to get his revenge.

But according to Rodgers, the level of competition on the fairway was about the same as the level of competition for the starting quarterback spot. "Yeah, none of those guys could beat me," he said, and laughed.

The only truly competitive activity was karaoke. Rodgers, who has a reputation for his eclectic taste in music, from '90s hip-hop to the Wisconsin-based indie act Bon Iver, takes his singing competitions very seriously. Early in his career, he would head into a pub to perform karaoke. Now he has his own machine. With two microphones. And a built-in scoring system.

"I used to sing 'Jack & Diane' by [John] Mellencamp and 'Don't Stop Believin'' by Journey, but those are a little played out," Rodgers said. "So when I got my own machine, I wanted to mix it up a little bit. I do enjoy sticking in the '90s a lot with the Counting Crows' 'A Long December.' But my go-to song would be the Scorpions' 'Wind of Change'."

When it came to duets, though, Rodgers' taste seemed to be a touch poppier.

"I distinctly remember singing 'She Will Be Loved' by Maroon 5 with Aaron," Callahan said. "He definitely puts you on the spot. You have to be ready. And, of course, he takes his turn on the mic seriously. There's nothing he can't turn into a competition."

When it came to football, there was no competition.

   

The Aaron Rodgers Coaching Tree

When Harrell meets with recruits, he doesn't often bring up his time with the Packers. That's because he doesn't have to. The USC offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach has his Super Bowl XLV jersey framed on the wall. He has his Super Bowl ring on display on his desk. Recruits have a tendency to ask him about Green Bay. And that gives him the chance to talk about his good friend Aaron Rodgers.

He's hardly the only coach in the country who can do so. 

Although coaching trees are typically associated with, well, coaches, Rodgers is a noteworthy exception. At least a handful of his former backups have gone onto successful coaching careers.

Brian Brohm, who backed Rodgers up from 2008-09, is the co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Purdue. Nick Hill (2012 offseason) is the head coach at Southern Illinois. Seneca Wallace (2013) is an assistant at John Paul II (Texas) High School. Scott Tolzien (2013-15) is an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys. And there's Harrell, who's considered a rising star in college football.

To Hill, it's no surprise that so many players who have worked with Rodgers have become coaches.

"As a coach, you end up going to a ton of clinics," he said. "I look back at that time when I was with the Packers, and I would have paid big money to attend that clinic. If there were a silent auction to spend eight weeks at quarterback training school with Aaron Rodgers, Graham Harrell and Mike McCarthy, I would have bid my house on it."

Graham Harrell credits playing alongside Rodgers with shaping how he approaches his current job as USC's offensive coordinator.
Graham Harrell credits playing alongside Rodgers with shaping how he approaches his current job as USC's offensive coordinator.Morry Gash/Associated Press

Callahan played college football at Wesley College, a Division III school in Delaware. The Packers were the only team to call him for a tryout, and his prospects for making the roster were a lot less than a Rodgers Hail Mary. Yet when he came off the field after a preseason drive, he would find Rodgers on the bench waiting with a Surface Pro in hand, ready to break down a coverage for Callahan or compliment him for correctly diagnosing a blitz. Though Callahan's time with the Packers was brief, it also led to stints with six other NFL teams and an XFL gig as well.

Harrell arrived in Green Bay via Texas Tech, where he joked that then-head coach Mike Leach only had one instruction for his quarterbacks: Throw it to the guy when he's open. From Rodgers, Harrell learned the immense attention to detail it takes to succeed in the NFL. It wasn't just the way that Rodgers prepared in film sessions or team meetings; Harrell also observed the way he maximized his time on the practice field.

Whenever Rodgers had individual workout periods, he would grab his wide receivers and practice his route timings.

"Most people know what a three-step drop is," Harrell said, "but there are different ways to take a three-step drop. You can slow it down or speed it up. I'd never paid that much attention to it, but Aaron was meticulous."

At USC, Harrell now harps on his quarterbacks to time their drops so they have their feet set when wide receivers break open. He and the other offensive coaches will spend practice after practice perfecting the timing of the drops and the routes to ensure their quarterback feels confident in his feet and with his timing.

He also tries to make his quarterbacks feel confident by making them feel comfortable, another lesson he learned while working with Rodgers. Harrell recalls how loose the meeting rooms were in Green Bay, and he tries to make sure his players at USC feel they can have fun.

"With Rodgers," Harrell said, "you were always working, but there wasn't always all this pressure. It didn't feel like 4th-and-1 all the time."

For his part, Rodgers credited the Packers' offensive coaching staff with the pipeline that has come out of the Green Bay quarterback room.

"The way we've trained quarterbacks over the years has been great for guys who want to coach," he said. "I'm not surprised they're all doing great things. Even if Graham, unfortunately, decided to do it down there at Southern Cal."

Hill notes, though, that there is one major problem with trying to coach your quarterbacks to play like Rodgers.

"It's natural for young quarterbacks to try to emulate their idols," he said. "But 99.9 percent of all players can't do what Aaron can do. He just has a God-given ability to throw the football. You may have seen him do something, but you're not him. He might be the greatest quarterback of all time. Trying to get your QBs to play like him can get you in trouble as a coach."

All the players who spoke to B/R emphasized that same caution for Love. Rodgers worshipped Favre but didn't try to become him. Love will have to learn to take the best aspects of Rodgers' approach to the game without losing himself as a player. But that may depend on how helpful Rodgers is with the man who ultimately hopes to inherit his job.

    

What about Love?

The last time Rodgers faced a serious quarterback competition was more than a decade ago. In April 2008, in between when Favre announced his retirement and his comeback, the Packers picked Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm in the second round of the NFL draft. At the time, Rodgers had only thrown 59 passes in three seasons. Brohm was viewed as a serious threat to become the starter.

On ESPN's NFL draft show, analyst Merrill Hoge said: "Actually, I do like Brohm better than Aaron Rodgers, given where Rodgers is right now in his career." Draft expert Todd McShay added: "I honestly think Brian Brohm two years from now could be the starting quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. It would not shock me at all. And I still think Aaron Rodgers has a chance as well. But I think Brian Brohm's upside is greater than that of Aaron Rodgers."

Instead, in the 2008 season, Rodgers threw for 4,038 yards and 28 touchdowns. By October, the Packers had signed him to a six-year, $65 million extension. Brohm wound up third on the depth chart, behind 2008 seventh-round pick Matt Flynn. The Packers released him the following September, with his short tenure serving as a reminder that succession plans don't always pan out.

Maybe the final years of the Rodgers era in Green Bay will play out like Tom Brady's with the Patriots. Bill Belichick picked Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round in 2014 when Brady was 36. But Brady continued to beat out Garoppolo so convincingly that the Patriots traded their QB of the future to the 49ers in 2017. Brady went on to start for New England for six more seasons.

Hill thinks Rodgers is about to go on the same kind of tear that Brady did during his final years in New England.

"Nobody in the world needs motivation less than Aaron Rodgers does," Hill said. "Watch him on the golf course, watch him do anything; he's super competitive. He'll be helpful to Jordan, but that fire will be burning pretty hot."

Barring an injury or a blowout win, Love likely won't see the field in 2020. His ascendance will be further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic's effect on everything from OTAs to the season. But beginning in 2021, every pick or sack Rodgers suffers will lead to whispers about Love. That's a tension Rodgers has never encountered with any of his backups—even those who have started in his place.

In 2017, when Rodgers suffered a broken collarbone in Week 6, Hundley became the Packers' starter. In between rehab appointments, Rodgers was in the quarterback room every week with Hundley helping him prepare.

To hear Hundley tell it, the biggest problem Love will face isn't a sense of animosity from Rodgers, but simply the pressure of being the Packers' quarterback of the future.

"Aaron knows it better than anyone," Hundley said. "Taking over for Brett Favre was a lot of pressure. Jordan is going to have to take over from Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers. That's a massive amount of pressure. You're not expected to start for three years. You're expected to play for 10 or 20. And you're expected to win."

Rodgers made it clear after the draft that he wished the Packers had gotten him more weapons on offense, but says he will try to offer an example for rookie QB Jordan Love to follow.
Rodgers made it clear after the draft that he wished the Packers had gotten him more weapons on offense, but says he will try to offer an example for rookie QB Jordan Love to follow.Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Rodgers said Favre never gave him much hands-on instruction. Instead, Rodgers would just shadow the future Hall of Famer and eavesdrop on him in the huddle. So far, he said, Love has been similarly quiet and cautious with him.

"I remember what it was like to be 21 and be in a quarterback room with an older quarterback and a new offense and just trying to find my bearings," Rodgers added. "It's a lot. The key to being a quarterback and leader in this league is just doing it your own way and taking time with your personality and letting guys get to know the authentic you. He's a good kid. He really is. I enjoy being in the room with him. I think he's got a bright future."

Perhaps Rodgers will go out of his way to bring Love along. But even if he doesn't explicitly help, Love can learn plenty just by watching Rodgers, as Rodgers watched Favre, and as all of Rodgers' former backups have watched him.

"Here's the deal," Harrell said. "It might be awkward at first because the media has hyped it up, but it'll be two days before Love settles in and relaxes. Aaron is not a bully. He's not going to be rude to the dude. He'll help Jordan out. That's who Aaron is with his backups, and I don't expect him to be different with Jordan.

"Getting drafted by the Packers and playing behind Aaron Rodgers: Those will be the best two things that have ever happened to Jordan Love."