Green Bay - It might have taken Aaron Rodgers three long years to become the Green Bay Packers' starting quarterback, but it took him about a week to realize this National Football League thing was going to be a little tougher than he thought.
Following a breakout season at the University of California, Rodgers came to the Packers after a very humbling freefall through the first round of the 2005 draft. He went from what he thought was a possibility of being picked No. 1 overall to being Ted Thompsons first pick as general manager 23 selections later.
On his very first day inside the Don Hutson Center, during a minicamp less than a week after the draft, Rodgers found himself running Mike Shermans offense with absolutely no clue. He was the quarterback, but veteran Craig Nall was standing behind him calling the play out to the rest of the huddle.
When I came in, it was kind of like, Its Bretts offense, whatever were going to do were going to do, and keep up, Rodgers said. Which was fine, it was a good challenge, but I couldnt keep up. I was struggling big time.
Thus, began the education of Aaron Rodgers.
He wouldnt know until this summer if it was going to be a one-year, three-year or five-year program, but from that point forward he was determined never again to feel like the dumbest kid in the class.
Three years later, as the Packers embark on their first season in the post-Favre era, Rodgers is ready. He has never started a regular-season game, but hes not Matt Ryan or Alex Smith or David Carr or any of those guys asked to be saviors right away.
Rodgers has had time lots of time to get ready. As the season begins, he may have exactly as many starts as Ryan, the Atlanta first-round draft choice, but he has valuable experience that will give him a better shot at handling arguably one of the hardest assignments in recent NFL history.
The way Aarons doing it, thats how you want it, said Jeff Jagodzinski, former Packers offensive coordinator and Ryans coach at Boston College. Sometimes it takes a guy longer to develop. Its a luxury if you can actually sit and learn.
Look how many young quarterbacks who played right away were ruined. Then look at Mark Brunell and Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks they all sat behind Brett and they learned how to play quarterback. If the past means anything, Aaron will do well.
The Packers have done everything they can to make the transition from Favre to Rodgers a smooth one. It got a little rough at the start of training camp when Favre decided he wanted to come out of retirement and get his job back, but Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy stood behind Rodgers, placing both of their futures on the line by sticking with the young guy.
Both men feel that the time is right for Rodgers to take over, not just because he fits the situation but because the situation fits him.
Im not talking bad about the 49ers, but our team was not ready for Alex, McCarthy said of his year tutoring Smith when McCarthy was San Franciscos offensive coordinator. We had 100 starts missed because of injury. We needed a quarterback to win a couple of games.
Here, we have a good defense, good special teams. Thats where I think were ready for this. Its been a process leading up to this, an education over the last three years. Hes matured. The only thing he needs is to be playing the game.
If Rodgers fails this season, it wont be because he is unprepared. Everything he has done the past three seasons has pointed toward this, and every hard lesson he has learned has shaped him into the quarterback and person he is now.
Dropped smack dab into the beating heart of the game, Rodgers made a decision early in his career to soak up everything he could from Favre. Extremely intelligent, sometimes cocky, but always aware of his surroundings, Rodgers figured things out quickly.
I think the first progression every quarterback makes is you come in being the guy, and if youre not the starter you realize that theres someone better in front of you, and thats a big step to take because when youre the guy youre confident, Rodgers said. Second, figure out the things he does that are better than you and study it and work on those things and improve.
When Rodgers arrived, Favre made no bones about refusing to be a mentor to him, stating in an interview that it wasnt his job. Nobody had done it for him, and besides, Favres No. 1 responsibility was to win games.
Rodgers had to accept that, but it didnt mean he wasnt going to watch Favre.
The best way to describe it was we were teammates the first year, Rodgers said. It was a very business relationship. But I was kind of in his hip pocket. My biggest thing was if were not going to be friends yet, which is fine, Im still going to be in his hip pocket until he tells me to get lost.
So Id stick my head in there when hes talking in the huddle and lean in and listen to what hes saying and listen to him in practice. Id watch him like a hawk. This guy is one of the greatest quarterbacks to every play, so I better figure out what hes doing.
What Rodgers noticed was the way Favre commanded the huddle. How he used his eyes to make it appear he was going to throw one way and then throw the other. How he never got fooled by what blitz the defense was about to run. How he anticipated exactly where a receiver was going to make his break and threw the ball before it even happened. How he never had a bad practice.
And then Rodgers would study it.
Anytime he opened his mouth in meetings to talk to a receiver I listened, Rodgers said. I wrote it down. I have journals from the first three years, note and notes. Notes from computers Ive printed out. I have them stashed in my filing cabinet.
During his first year, Rodgers struggled badly during the exhibition season and his only extended playing time came in a dreadful 48-3 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. He replaced Favre in the fourth quarter and was sacked three times twice from behind that resulted in fumbles returned for touchdowns and threw an interception in the end zone.
It was another humbling experience, but one Rodgers took with him into the off-season.
The highlight was talking to Deion Sanders between the third and fourth quarters, Rodgers said. I realized at that point, I was kind of like a kid who was just out of place a little bit, on this field with these great stars and Im not performing. That was the most frustrating thing, and I knew that off-season I had to make some improvements to get to where I want to go.
After the 2005 season, Sherman was fired and McCarthy hired.
All of a sudden there were new demands on Rodgers. He was required to attend off-season quarterback school, six hours of it several days a week. Then McCarthy got on him about his weight. Rodgers weighed 228 at the time and measured about 15% body fat. McCarthy wanted the body fat down to 10% to 12%.
I fought it and I was like, Why? Rodgers said. But I think it definitely helped me out. Im 217 right now, the lightest Ive been before my sophomore year at Cal, and Im a lot stronger and more fit. But I fought the system. Change has always been tough. Any type of change in my life Ive always met with some resistance, so we butted heads the first year a little bit.
Favre didnt attend McCarthys quarterback school and didnt make his decision to return for another year until just before the draft. When he showed up, he didnt know any of the terminology of McCarthys system.
With Nall gone to Buffalo, Rodgers was the only familiar face in the quarterback room, and he was able to lean over and tell Favre which plays under the Sherman system corresponded to the ones McCarthy was teaching. It was at that point that Favre and Rodgers started to become close.
During the 06 season, Rodgers mostly ran the opponents offense on the scout team. But those repetitions proved valuable because McCarthy and quarterbacks coach Tom Clements structured it so plays that were similar to those in the Packers playbook were called with Packers terminology.
Thus, on many plays, Rodgers was simulating the Packers offense.
Rodgers only significant playing time came after Favre hurt his elbow against New England, and the results werent pretty. He completed 4 of 12 passes and was sacked three times. Not until after the game did Rodgers realize he had suffered a broken foot that ended his season.
Even though the injury stunted his progression on the field, he continued to make strides off it, showing less of the cockiness and salesmanship he brought with him from Cal. Through the urging of offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, he became more conscious of his body language and stopped being so demonstrative when a teammate made a poor play.
You come into the league when youre 21, I would hope youd mature a lot between then and now, said former NFL quarterback Trent Dilfer, a close friend of Rodgers. And thats kind of what Aaron did. Thats really the time when you understand the responsibility of manhood and having a bigger picture of life. All of that makes you more well-rounded and it helped him as a football player, too.
Rodgers education continued into 07. McCarthy urged Favre to spend more time mentoring Rodgers, and Favre responded.
My first year, he was kind of like, Yeah, he needs to grow up and this and that, McCarthy said. I told Brett, You need to give back now. Youre at the point now where youre older than most the quarterbacks coaches in the league. You can give back, not only to Aaron. Brett really embraced that. Thats one of the things you dont really hear about.
Besides continuing to study coverages and meeting with Favre on the sideline during games, in 07 Rodgers was given a scouting assignment. As soon as the game was over, he started working on the next opponent, providing a report on Wednesday morning to the coaches and other quarterbacks.
He would watch tape on Mondays and Tuesdays and write the report Tuesday night. It started out being a report on the cornerbacks Favre would be facing that week, but it advanced into in-depth reports on schemes, tendencies and other players.
Favre used to joke that Rodgers presentation was his least favorite part of the week, but Clements said the work was invaluable for Rodgers. Soon he was coming up with the same evaluations as the coaches.
It wound up being especially valuable when Rodgers got pressed into action against Dallas on Nov. 29. When Favre got knocked out of the game, Rodgers came in and completed 18 of 26 passes for 201 yards and a touchdown, nearly rallying the Packers to victory on the road.
The touchdown I threw was exactly what we saw on film, the exact defense we were expecting, Rodgers said. It was the exact play call we talked about during the week, the play I had seen on film on Tuesday. I said, I hope we get this look during the game. And sure of enough were on the 8-yard line and they give us that look and I hit Greg (Jennings) and he scores.
As the season begins, there should be many more opportunities like that one. Rodgers carries with him a Harvard degree in quarterbacking, the kind only a few have the luxury of obtaining. Rodgers wont outwardly resemble the quarterback Favre was, but there will be subtle similarities that coaches and teammates will recognize.
Rodgers, to be sure, is his own man, his own quarterback. But the lessons he learned along the way, those are what prepared him for this day.