While there's little question now that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been the best at his position over the last two seasons (only Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints could provide any serious challenge to that assertion), the current lead dog in the NFL MVP race was anything but a slam-dunk as a successful signal-caller early on. In fact, as recalled in a fascinating article by Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Rodgers had aspects of a bust when he came into the NFL as the 24th overall pick in the 2005 draft.
As a rookie, Rodgers' six substantial outings included a scrimmage against Buffalo, four exhibition games and the fourth quarter of a December night game in Baltimore.
He was brutal every time out.
In each of the exhibition games, Brett Favre started before turning it over to Rodgers. Until his 20th and final series, when the Packers scored a touchdown in Tennessee with the aid of a 33-yard penalty for pass interference, Rodgers had not generated a point. Sixteen possessions ended with punts, two on interceptions and one on a fumble.
If the No. 2 quarterback job had been awarded based on performance in training camp and games, it would have gone to Craig Nall hands-down.
In addition, as McGinn remembers, there were several scouts and personnel executives who rated some very … um … "unconventional" quarterbacks over Rodgers at the time — worldbeaters like Charlie Whitehurst and Brodie Croyle. Not one of a pool of 18 talent evaluators put Rodgers in the same class as the Big Three of the time: Matt Leinart, Vince Young and Jay Cutler.
Why was Rodgers behind the 8-ball? First, he came from a system at Cal where he was told to do specific mechanical things that hampered his style:
He had been taught at California by coach Jeff Tedford to carry the ball high near his ear, on the so-called "shelf." Rodgers insisted that it quickened his release and sharpened his accuracy, but it also limited his ability to vary his release point against pressure and probably prevented him from really driving the ball downfield.
McCarthy has said the Packers worked with Rodgers to carry the ball lower to enhance his natural throwing motion, and by about his third year his ball positioning no longer was an issue.
Beyond that, Rodgers also had to take care of a few mental and emotional factors — early on, he would point out when teammates made less-than-perfect plays when things weren't going well, and that's as sure a no-no for any elite quarterback as there can be. Part of what Rodgers had to do was simply to grow up.
"I have been humbled through not playing and through my poor play my first year," Rodgers said in August of 2007. "I came out as a 21-year-old kid still wet behind the ears, thinking I had all the answers. I feel like my body language in general, practice included, has really improved."
That year, as McGinn put it, Rodgers "cut weight and body fat while adding bulk strength to better absorb hits. He threw tighter spirals. He made fewer impulsive mistakes. He stayed in the pocket longer. He stopped blaming others, quit being so defensive and let teammates see the positive side of him.
By the end of 2007, head coach Mike McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson were confident enough in Rodgers' future to barely break a sweat when Brett Favre decided to retire for the first time in early 2008, Famously, when Favre tried to come back to the team, the Packers brass shone it on and told Favre that they were all good, thanks very much.
As Favre toured various NFL outposts and vacillated between retirement and unretirement, Rodgers fixed the last few odd remnants of his playing style. He worked with biomechanical experts to put together the deep passing game that has now become a hallmark of his style, and the style of the Packers. He learned to get rid of the ball when the read wasn't there, which was the last vestige of his quarterback mortality.
"That used to be our thing … we knew we could sack him," an NFC North executive told McGinn. "Now he doesn't get sacked much anymore." Rodgers led the league with 50 sacks in 2009, and reduced those totals to 31 in 2010 and 36 in 2011. More than that, Rodgers has become the NFL's most dangerous quarterback when hurried or on the run.
It's a fascinating story, and one that can provide encouragement for fans of those teams with quarterbacks still looking to find their way. For every player who turns out to be what we thought he was (for better or worse), there are hidden diamonds like Aaron Rodgers who just need the right combination of mechanics, maturity, and patience.