Week off helped Rodgers see the light

GREEN BAY, Wis. – The greatest run of Aaron Rodgers'(notes) career – and the latest run to a title for his storied franchise – started in the dark.

Sitting in his house late last season trying to deal with the effects of his second concussion, Rodgers said that's when he found the focus that led to a six-game winning streak for the Green Bay Packers. That turned a teetering, injury-marred season for Green Bay into a Super Bowl championship as Rodgers played four brilliant games and two others in which he managed to beat heated rival, the Chicago Bears.

"After the New England game, he was just different," Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings(notes) said, referring to a 31-27 loss to the Patriots on Dec. 19. Rodgers didn't play that game because of a concussion he had suffered the week before at Detroit. "I think he realized in that game how good we could be and that he could just add to it."

Aaron Rodgers helped the Green Bay Packers win their fourth Super Bowl title.
(US Presswire)

Green Bay cornerback Charles Woodson(notes) echoed those remarks, saying Rodgers was on point even in practice the rest of the way.

"Just a different level," Woodson said. "You could see it in practice every day. He was on with everything. He had that look."

Rodgers readily agreed when asked about his focus, going so far as to say it was part of a time when he got a sense of his own "mortality."

"True, 100 percent true. I had the two worst days of my career, Wednesday and Thursday of the New England week," Rodgers said. "I really wanted to play badly. I knew I had to feel good by Friday for [coach] Mike [McCarthy] to play me. … [But] they sent me home both days, and I knew I wasn't going to play.

"I came in each morning, did my preliminary test. They asked me if I was symptomatic and I said, 'Yes,' and then went home. Those are the two worst days of my career because I sat at home in the dark. I couldn't do anything and I just missed the guys. Not only was it like a bye week for my body, but mentally I was a changed man because I just enjoyed being back with the guys. Maybe you take it for granted how great it is and what an opportunity you have, and I just wanted to make sure from that moment on that I made the most of my opportunities. My focus and my preparation went up and I was just determined to get us on a run and I played my best football."

The results tell the story as the Packers needed to win their final two games to get into the playoffs. In his first game back against the New York Giants, Rodgers completed 25 of 37 passes for 404 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in a 45-17 victory. In the next game, he helped get the team past Chicago, 10-3.

Then came a stunning playoff run featuring three of four games in which he posted a quarterback rating of 111.5 or better. Beyond the numbers, there were indelible moments. His 31-of-36, three-touchdown performance against the Atlanta Falcons was a clinic. In the Super Bowl, he was brilliant, hitting at least two amazing throws, including a memorable third-and-9 toss to Jennings that went just over the fingers of cornerback Ike Taylor(notes) (Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson referred to that throw as one of those "moments in time" that you never forget).

"That's the best I've ever seen a quarterback play over that long a stretch," McCarthy said. The only thing that compared, according to McCarthy, was a late-season run by Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana in 1993 that propelled the Kansas City Chiefs to the AFC championship game against the Buffalo Bills.

To Rodgers, this was part of a deeper moment for him as an athlete. Unlike the first concussion he had earlier in the 2010 season, the decision by McCarthy to send him home struck a different chord.

"I had to be distant from it for two whole days, and it was brutal," the Super Bowl XLV MVP admits. "I didn't get to see the guys, I didn't get to sit in meetings, I didn't get to practice, I didn't get to watch film. I was just miserable. So when I got an opportunity to get back to my preparation, get back to my football team, I just wanted to make the most of that and be a better leader, be more prepared, be a better practice player, so all that kicked in and I went on a run and the rest is history."

McCarthy made the decision based on a more personal sense of responsibility rather than a ploy to push Rodgers. After the Detroit game, he and Thompson discussed what to do at length on the plane ride home. With the season teetering in the balance, McCarthy and Thompson didn't let the pressure consume them.

Under Mike McCarthy's leadership, the Green Bay Packers have reached the playoffs the past two seasons.
(AP Photo)

"I knew he wasn't going to play, but I also knew he was going to argue with me all week long about it, so I didn't tell him he wasn't going to play," McCarthy said. "This was the second one he had. We had to do what was right by him for his long-term health. At a certain point, you have to think, 'What would you do if this was your own son?' "

Regardless of the intent, the results were stunning. Even Rodgers, who is somewhat guarded about his emotions, believes the six-game span was the best he has ever played.

"The Giants game … I was just on fire," said Rodgers, who threw for 3,922 yards in the 2010 regular season. "Then there are the Atlanta [playoff] game and the Super Bowl. That Chicago game [at the end of the regular season], I didn't play as well in the second half. The Philadelphia [playoff] game, I played pretty good ,and the Bears game [the NFC championship] I was just kind of average. You don't expect to play real, real well against Chicago because there's so much familiarity there, but that stretch was special."

The question now is simple, even if the answer is complex. Short of another life-altering moment, how exactly do you get back to that mindset? How do you recapture the confidence (even hubris) Rodgers displayed as he fired one brilliant pass after another against the best teams in the league?

"Good question. I like to write a lot of stuff down. I wouldn't call it journaling, but I definitely wrote a lot of thoughts down during those six weeks about how I did things," Rodgers said. "I'm definitely going to reflect back on those things as the season starts and … remember the things I did in order to be successful on the field and try to replicate that."

That state of mind is not something that can be turned on and off like a light switch, but Rodgers hopes to get there again somehow.

"There just gets to be a point where you're in a zone and you're playing so well that the game does slow down and you're seeing things at a different speed and you're able to think about a million things in a really quick period of time," Rodgers said. "I think it takes a little bit of time to get into that mode, it's not just a one-game thing. It's a string of games where you're really seeing things the way you want to. It takes going through a season to get into that zone, and once you get there it's tough to stay in it. You have to maintain those things that you do at that time. But that's what all quarterbacks are chasing – that feeling of being in control."

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