More Packers: Backfield in trouble
GREEN BAY, Wis. – It was almost 9:30 p.m. and Aaron Rodgers was the last one on the field. Yet, the masses waited.
More than 100 Green Bay Packers fans, almost 50 yards away, clung to the fences and spilled into the street, quietly watching and waiting. Rodgers knows that feeling – watching and waiting. Across the way, he used the moment to speculate about his future in the eyes of those very fans and his somewhat frustrating existence with this franchise.
"You know, it's funny how things work out," Rodgers said, philosophizing on his awkward existence behind Brett Favre. "I was such a huge Joe Montana fan growing up. And when Joe left for the Chiefs and Steve (Young) took over, I hate to say it, but I really wasn't a 49ers fan anymore. But since I've been in the league, I've become a big Steve Young fan. I always respected his talents, but now that I can really understand what he had to go through as a player and a person."
This is what it sounds like to be a first-round pick and sitting on the bench behind a league deity for the third year in a row. Rodgers says he's not anxious … then talks about being a starter the way a starving man would describe his first bite of filet mignon. He claims he's not discouraged … but later says, "If things don't work out here, they'll work out somewhere."
And because history has taught him so, Rodgers says he fully expects he'll see virtually no action in 2007. Just like last season. Just like the season before that, too. But this time around the mothballing will sting a little more, because for the first time in Rodgers' career, Packers decision makers and Rodgers think he is finally prepared to be the team's starting quarterback.
"I will be ready to take over from day one – in a year, if that's when it happens," said Rodgers, who has played in five games and completed 15 of 31 pass attempts for the Packers. "Who knows? I don't know if that's when it's going to happen. It might be in year five for me. And it might be with another team.
"Hopefully it's in Green Bay."
Not that anyone wants to get carried away with that notion. Like every other quarterbacking icon who has come and gone in league history, nobody wants to be perceived as pushing Favre out the door. Rather, they use code words like "preparation" and "planning." Talk to the people whose job standing will bear the brunt of Favre's eventual departure, notably general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy, and they say Rodgers is: 1.) Prepared. 2.) The Post-Favre Plan.
When either of those statements will mean anything is anyone's guess.
"You can plan this whole thing as well as you can, but ultimately, it depends on that iconic player, whether it's Brett Favre or John Elway or whoever," Thompson said. "Whenever he decides that's it for him, then you better have your cards. At certain times, the Packers had a player in place that they felt like could be the successor, but Brett continued to play. Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck, Aaron Brooks. Through the years, there's always been a plan."
And Thompson said at this stage, Rodgers is it unequivocally. Not because they don't have other options, but because the organization has faith that he has become the player they hoped he would be when they drafted him in 2005. Indeed, when it comes to the belief in Rodgers' ability to take over, all hands appear to be on deck. This despite some notion in league circles – and nobody can say where it came from – that Green Bay wasn't sold on Rodgers after McCarthy came aboard before the 2006 season. There were even offseason rumors that Rodgers was on the trade block, and that the Packers were interested in Daunte Culpepper. As it turns out, neither came to fruition.
However, two 49ers sources did tell Yahoo! Sports last season that McCarthy, who was San Francisco's offensive coordinator prior to joining the Packers, played a role in the franchise passing over Rodgers in favor of Alex Smith in the 2005 NFL draft. But McCarthy insists he believes Rodgers has the tools to succeed Favre and be a success in Green Bay.
As for whether the quarterback can handle the fan hangover that will come with the departure of a franchise legend, everyone shrugs. Broncos coach Mike Shanahan, who has conferred with Rodgers at offseason golf tournaments over the last two summers, knows precisely what is coming.
"It's as tough as it gets," Shanahan said. "With great players, everybody just remembers the great years. They don't remember the tough times. They remember the Super Bowl wins. They don't remember the tough losses or mistakes. I've seen John Elway and Joe Montana and the guys who followed them. What about what Steve Young went through when Joe left? Steve got booed after two NFC Championship games. That's the nature of this game, and the pressure the next guy has to carry."
McCarthy backed Shanahan's sentiments.
"Brett Favre is part of the fiber of a tradition here," McCarthy said. "He may go down as the greatest Packer ever.
"There's no way to avoid that. We're going through (his retirement). Either it's going to happen next year or in the next few years. Aaron is starting his career in a situation like few guys have ever had to in NFL history. There was the guy who replaced Elway, the guy who replaced Montana, and Aaron is the guy who will replace Brett Favre."
When that will actually happen, well, the franchise is in a collective shrug.
Rodgers might be ready, and Green Bay's coaches and executives might agree, but until Favre no longer wants to be the Packers' starting quarterback, the status quo won't change. But while Rodgers might not know his ultimate fate with this franchise, there are some undeniable facts that define his progression up to this point.
First, coaches and executives say he's a noticeably more polished player now than when he was drafted. His weight is down to a svelte 217. His body fat percentage is at a career-best 10-percent. His arm strength is up, thanks to the same shoulder and core-muscle conditioning that added zip to the ball of Saints quarterback Drew Brees. His mechanics are improved – from his footwork to where he holds the ball in the pocket. And his understanding of the West Coast offense is more complete than it has ever been.
Beyond the fine-tuning of his game, the franchise has been very pleased with the character he's shown while waiting for an opportunity. While Favre has seen the generation gap grow between himself and a roster that continues to get younger, Rodgers has been able to grow close to and mature alongside the team's next generation of core players. Once criticized by scouts as having a needling cockiness that could alienate teammates, there hasn't been a hint of drama as he's been nothing less than amazingly deferential to Favre.
That attitude is no small point. Rodgers is too smart to ever admit it publicly – in fact, he might even deny it – but he and Favre are not fishing buddies. While some media members have played up their relationship, the truth is that they are teammates in the most businesslike fashion. They don't go out of their way to spend quality time together in the offseason. They don't text message. They don't have some Karate Kid style kinship. The reality is that Rodgers is learning from Favre the only way the elder has allowed him to – by watching and listening.
"I think he watches Brett and sees things that he might want to emulate," Thompson said. "Brett is his own man, which is probably more unusual than most cases with iconic quarterbacks. But Aaron is his own man as well. He's very well respected by guys in that locker room. He's worked hard to earn that confidence."
But Rodgers has certainly noticed what is going on around the league. He has watched other young quarterbacks such as Smith, Vince Young, Matt Leinart and Jay Cutler walk into starting jobs. Rodger shrugs off those players, calling them "different situations on different teams," but coaches know he's paying attention.
"Trust me, he knows exactly what Alex Smith is doing," McCarthy said. "He knows exactly how Alex Smith is playing and what the statistics are. Those are motivating factors for him – trust me on that."
Eventually, that motivation will play itself out. Until then, Rodgers has finally become the entire contingency plan – the proverbial red button that sits behind glass, waiting to be pushed. What happens when it finally comes about is anyone's guess.
"There's no way you can't be cognizant of the pressure and what this all means," Rodgers said. "I know what's coming. This isn't going to be easy at all. But if I do get the opportunity to start here – and I hope I will – I'm going to be following what will probably be 270 straight starts, a Super Bowl win, three MVPs, an all-time touchdown record and an all-time wins record for a quarterback. It's going to be tough duty."
Particularly now that Rodgers and his supporters feel he's finally ready.