Twice last summer, The New York Times dispatched me to Green Bay to cover Brett Favre’s attempt to bully the Packers into trading him to the Vikings. Even now, I can’t think of the right words to describe what I saw and heard.
Packer fans, normally among the NFL’s most loyal and supportive, took sides, with the pro-Brett crowd demanding general manager Ted Thompson be fired. Dueling talking heads on ESPN breathlessly claimed inside information. Some reporters even staked out Favre’s SUV in the Lambeau Field parking lot one night. Not everyone’s finest hour.
Through all this insanity, Aaron Rodgers — the young quarterback groomed to succeed Favre — handled the swirling circus atmosphere at training camp with unusual poise and cool.
After practice one day, Rodgers walked out of the shower to find about four-dozen reporters and a half-dozen TV camera operators camped at his locker. Instead of freaking out, he laughed — not with distaste, but with can-you-believe-this wonder. Then he spent 15 minutes answering everyone’s questions, sometimes with humor, but never with annoyance. On the practice field, the 24-year-old Rodgers walked and played with the swagger of someone entrenched as the starter.
As I learned from multiple interviews with Rodgers’ teammates, and coaches past and present, this was no act. They described Rodgers as an unflappable high-achiever, with the confidence and mental toughness to handle the pressure of replacing a future Hall of Famer.
Though Rodgers is still learning, his eight-game performance as Green Bay’s first new starting quarterback since 1992 lived up to the Packers’ expectations. Thompson recently extended Rodgers’ contract through 2014. Sunday, of course, will be another big test: Rodgers’ first start at the raucous Metrodome.
Rodgers handled his debut, on “Monday Night Football” against the Vikings — the night Favre’s No. 4 was supposed to be retired — better than anyone could have expected. In the Pack’s 24-19 victory, Rodgers completed 18 of 22 passes, for the second-best completion percentage (minimum 20 attempts) by a first-time starter in NFL history at 81.8 percent; Jacksonville’s Rob Johnson went 20-for-24 (83.3 percent) in 1997. Rodgers threw for one touchdown, ran for another and did not commit a turnover while outplaying the soon-to-be-benched Tarvaris Jackson.
Since then, Rodgers has thrown for more than 300 yards three times, two after spraining his right shoulder. Rodgers still isn’t a finished product, and Green Bay stands 14th in the NFL in red zone efficiency (12 touchdowns on 23 possessions). But Rodgers ranks fifth in the overall NFL passer ratings and No. 1 on third down, when he has thrown 10 of his 13 touchdown passes.
In retrospect, the Packers handled everything right in Rodgers’ development. As a rookie in 2005, Rodgers observed Favre’s every move and took copious notes. After Mike McCarthy replaced Mike Sherman as head coach in 2006, Rodgers attended McCarthy’s off-season “quarterback school” and learned the West Coast offense so thoroughly he helped teach it to Favre, who skipped the school.
And when Rodgers’s time came, he embraced the starter’s responsibility, vindicating the decision by Thompson to nudge Favre out the door.
“His first game — I think that first half — you could tell he was a young quarterback,” said veteran Vikings safety Darren Sharper, the former Packer. “He was seeing things a little bit the wrong way. But then after that, he settled in, made some plays for them, and it’s continued since that game.
“Brett’s a legend. Is he [Rodgers] playing at legendary status right now? I wouldn’t say that. But he’s playing as a top-flight quarterback in this league … He’s proven to everyone that he is the reason why they let Brett Favre go, because he’s a guy that can step in and help that team win, whether it’s him moving around with his feet or making plays with his arm. He’s doing a great job for them.”
Unlike the Vikings’ handling of Jackson, whom Coach Brad Childress demoted after Week Two, the Packers provided Rodgers a stronger chance to succeed. McCarthy is known for developing NFL quarterbacks. Rich Gannon, Matt Hasselback, Marc Bulger and Jake Delhomme all went on to Pro Bowls after early tutelege from McCarthy. Childress can claim one Pro Bowler, Donovan McNabb.
The Packers also drafted speedy wideout Greg Jennings in 2006 to team with Donald Driver, giving Rodgers better targets than Jackson ever had. (Bernard Berriam’s bad toe held him back for the first few games this season.) And Rodgers, at Cal, faced tougher competition in a brighter spotlight playing in the Pac-10 than Jackson ever did at Alabama State.
Driver, in a conference call this week, praised Rodgers’ arm strength and toughness. “I think after he hurt himself, no one believed he was going to be able to come back and play,” Driver said. “But he proved week in and week out that, regardless of if he is not practicing, he can still go out there and win games.”
Whether Jared Allen (right shoulder separation) plays or not, expect the Vikings to blitz frequently and pressure Rodgers any way they can.
“If you can hit him enough, you’ll be able to rattle any quarterback,” Sharper said. “Just hitting the guy, getting in his face, will hopefully slow him and slow some of his reads, and get him a little bit flustered. You can maybe make him not be as accurate as he might be if he wasn’t as comfortable.”
True enough. But Rodgers, even in the national spotlight, hasn’t looked uncomfortable yet.