Fascinating read on what's going on between plays. JSOnline limits the number of times you can visit their site...
The game within the game is part of what makes him an elite quarterback
By Bob McGinn of the Journal Sentinel
Aaron Rodgers didn't get to where he ranks among the quarterbacking giants in the National Football League by excelling simply from snap to whistle.
There's another game, one in which Rodgers doesn't have the football in his large hands, that the Green Bay Packers franchise quarterback owns as well.
To Rodgers, the half-minute or so between the activation of the 40-second clock and the snap of the ball is as critical as what occurs afterward.
"For sure," Rodgers said in an extended interview Aug. 25. "Most of it isn't caught on camera. Who knows where the camera goes? But there's a lot of stuff that happens between 40 and zero on the play clock.
"From 40 to 10 is when all the film study comes into play. The recall from the reps in practice. The feelings I have as you're going through the film from practice and of the opponent, and marrying that up to the game plan."
The television networks often show replays of the previous play or promos for upcoming programs. Fans in the stadium look up to the Jumbotron or trade comments with friends. Reporters take their notes.
This is how the 29-year-old Rodgers, at the pinnacle of his prodigious nine-year career, says he conducts himself in the game within the game.
At Lambeau Field, where replays flash within seconds, Rodgers refers to himself as "just another fan" from 40 to 35 on the clock.
"Often, if you're not talking to anybody, you look up," he said. "You like to see a nice pass. You also can be your biggest critic."
If an opposing player happens to be nearby, Rodgers will chat him up.
"I like to interact with the guys on defense," he said. "That's the fun of the competition. For me, it's a gauge on where they're at mentally.
"That's what I always appreciated about Brian Urlacher. He was the most focused, determined guy between the whistles. After the whistle, he's someone you could joke around with."
Rodgers can speak clearly because he hasn't worn a mouthpiece since his collegiate days at California. He noticed that Brett Favre didn't wear one, thought it was a sign of toughness and never went back to it.
Maybe half of NFL quarterbacks use mouthpieces, according to Rodgers.
"What I struggled with in college is, I felt like I couldn't enunciate any words," he said. "How could the guys actually hear me? Or if you took it out you had to put it back in. It was too much."
Rodgers tried playing in gloves but didn't like it. He's always worn a large sweatband on his left wrist, a superstition more than anything else.
He also is sure to make mental notes off the previous play. It might be how the defensive end reacted as he faked on the back side of a run, or what he can see of a cornerback covering a receiver.
By the 30-second mark the voice of Mike McCarthy generally is being heard by Rodgers through the coach-to-quarterback electronic communication device.
There are two speakers in the helmet. When Rodgers had his helmet off during training camp and teammates cruised by, they invariably were stunned how loud it was.
"I'm, like, 'Yeah, try wearing it all the time,'" said Rodgers.
Rodgers' first experience with helmet electronics was a dud. The offensive coordinator for his eighth-grade team illegally wired Rodgers' helmet through which the coach called every play.
"We proceeded to lose, 33-0, to Oroville (Calif.)," he recalled. "So that didn't help."
Rodgers, who has never called his own plays for an entire game at any level, would have loved the challenge quarterbacks typically enjoyed 50 years ago.
"At that point it would have been a chess match between you and the defense," he said. "But often Mike gets me in situations where I can change plays pretty frequently."
Early in Rodgers' career, McCarthy would give him not only the play but possible checks (audibles) and other information. Today, says Rodgers, it's usually the play and formation only, although during their one-on-one meeting each Saturday Rodgers will ask McCarthy to read him on game day an agreed-upon reminder if he calls certain plays from funky formations.
By league rule McCarthy's voice automatically cuts out with 15 seconds left on the play clock, but that usually only becomes an issue if there's a delay knowing if it's a first down or not. Otherwise, Rodgers credits his coach with almost never being tardy.
Is it difficult for McCarthy to choose the next play a matter of seconds after the previous play?
"I like to think it's easy calling a game for our offense," said Rodgers. "I think Mike, over the last couple years, has realized that the simplest plays are often the best plays. It's being timely when he makes those calls, getting them in, and giving us the latitude when we need it to change."
Although the quality of sound inside Rodgers' helmet is excellent regardless of venue, there are times when McCarthy has to repeat the play.
"He's from Pittsburgh so he says everything very fast," Rodgers said. "You have to speak Pittsburgh to understand him."
If the Packers aren't huddling, Rodgers' attention might be distracted by conversation with a receiver or if he's studying the defensive sideline for a substitution.
When Rodgers has the play, he might give a thumbs up to McCarthy as if to say, "I'm good. I got it."
At times, McCarthy won't be on the proper radio frequency, talking to one of his coaches instead of Rodgers. When Rodgers signals that there's still no sound at about the 25-second mark, McCarthy will punch the proper frequency and hurriedly deliver the play.
Are there times when Rodgers forgets what play McCarthy told him?
"Occasionally," he replied. "There's a lot of stuff going on and I couldn't understand the accent. So you go with a safe play."
The foundation of the Packers' huddle is the five offensive linemen standing parallel to the line with their backs to the defense and facing Rodgers. That leaves the five skill-position players to fill the ends of the oval between the tackles and Rodgers.
Rodgers insists on having three of those players on his right and two on his left.
"I get a little OCD about it every now and then," he said. "If ever there's only two guys to my right I know something's up. That means somebody's usually running on the field or a young guy might have stepped to the left."
Another one of a quarterback's responsibilities is to be on the lookout for the glazed-eye giveaway of an injured teammate. He remembered sending running back Ryan Grant to the sideline one year in Philadelphia after he absorbed a blow to the head.
"Once I get in there I'm usually the only one talking," Rodgers said. "If we get the play in quickly and it's in the late 20s, I might ask them what count they want to go on or what check they want to go to.
"I like an input every now and then because I think it keeps the guys engaged. Especially the big guys have a real good feel how that defensive line is getting off every play.
"They know they've got two or three seconds there to spit something out. Or nothing's going to get done and I'm going to have the final say."
Rodgers regards hard counts as an essential tactic.
"The defense is so big and athletic, and teams know we like passing the football early and often," he said. "If you can make them wait for it to be snapped you have that half-step home-field advantage."
Rodgers gives his teammates the call in this order: shift and motion, formation, play, audible and cadence.
Despite being given increasing freedom at the line to change the play, Rodgers said that the play called by McCarthy is run "a lot. At least half the time."
In what Rodgers refers to as the Packers' "controlled no-huddle" offense, McCarthy calls the plays and his quarterback disseminates through word and signal. In two-minute situations, Rodgers said he usually calls the plays.
Either way, Rodgers is constantly giving individual tips to teammates in and around the huddle.
"That's what being a leader and a quarterback's all about," he said. "Even if it's not in the play call I'll make mental notes during the week that I probably should say this to this guy.
"Sometimes a guy might be thinking, 'Well, I might not be getting the ball on this one.' Sometimes those guys need a reminder like, 'You're not running a sponge, you're not a decoy. Run your route to win.'"
The play clock usually is in the low 20s when Rodgers saunters to the line.
"As you break the huddle you make sure everybody's running to the right spots," said Rodgers. "We've got to have seven on the line. The last thing you want is six on the line or a stupid penalty."
Then Rodgers gets his first look at the defense. Some teams disguise on almost every snap so that first glance against them isn't deemed critical.
"I take a look at the front," he said. "Often that will tell you what they're going to do. Then I get a look at the linebackers and corners and safeties.
"Keep your eyes on them and your guys. Make sure if there's a motion or a shift that it's done in a proper manner. If two guys are moving before the snap, make sure everybody gets reset.
"Then make sure you're keeping your eyes up for any type of movement by the defense or any verbiage you hear. You also take a look at the 40-second clock, make your check and then remember what the snap count is."
It's only natural that a less experienced quarterback might glance once too often where a running play is headed.
"But you can't," Rodgers said. "You have to play it off a bit. That's part of the art form. Trying to make the runs and the passes look the same.
"The more comfortable you are, the less you need second and third looks."
If the ball is to be taken under center, Rodgers probably ranks in the minority of quarterbacks when he wraps his throwing hand thumb (right) under his other (left) thumb. He says it's easier to keep his hands together and prevents fumbled exchanges; he hasn't had one since Week 3 of 2008.
Rodgers said: "I take a lot of pride in the little things."
The less time Rodgers has to be crouched under center, the better.
"I've always found it slightly uncomfortable to be in a flex position the entire time," he said. "A lot of times I'll have one hand in, I'll slip a second under, I'll be in a half-squat and then get under there. I like to keep moving and make sure we're on the same page and then get under there and get the snap."
As Rodgers surveys the defense over the back of center Evan Dietrich-Smith, he's eyeball-to-eyeball with the middle linebacker and little more than arm's length from massive, muscular defensive linemen itching to knock the quarterback into next week.
It's not much different from visiting your favorite zoo, only here the doors do swing open.
"It feels like it sometimes," Rodgers said. "You just have to have a lot of trust in your guys that they're going to block 'em."
There was a time, back at Pleasant Valley High in Chico, Calif., that centers would sometimes snap the ball early and/or low. Rodgers suffered a dislocated finger that way once.
"With Scotty (Wells) and Evan, the ball comes up firm and laces every time," he said. "That's very nice."
Rodgers played out of the shotgun at Butte (Calif.) College, taking the snap with his right foot forward. Pleasant Valley and the University of California never employed it.
McCarthy changed Rodgers' shotgun stance to left foot up. He's 41/2 to 5 yards directly behind center.
Maybe five seconds before the snap, Dietrich-Smith and Rodgers often will each call out the number of what they consider the middle linebacker so the four other linemen can formulate their responsibilities in pass protection.
Some of their declarations are bogus, Rodgers acknowledged.
The same type of ruse occurs late in the play clock, especially against NFC North Division teams that know the Packers oh so well.
"It's their disguise against my check," said Rodgers. "Who's going to give in first? Are they going to move first, or am I going to check first and they're going to check to something else? That's the cat and mouse game."
On the road in noisy venues, Rodgers will lift one of his feet from shotgun formation and the center then will snap the ball shortly thereafter without benefit of cadence.
With verbal commands made all but impossible, Rodgers makes checks through a variety of hand signals and glances to his receivers.
Again, some of those signals are fakes designed to throw off the defense.
Before the supportive crowds at Lambeau Field, Rodgers said his audibles almost always can be heard. In effect, he said he's at liberty to check into any play.
"If something pops in my mind that I've seen before I can check to that," he said. "Anything could hit my brain. Especially when you have Jordy (Nelson), James (Jones) and Randall (Cobb), they're going to know what I'm thinking."
Then the ball is snapped, a play is run and the cycle starts all over again.
"I love being a part of something special," Rodgers said. "I love being part of a team. I love being in a leadership position.
"I mean, it's tough. It takes a toll on you. Mental, physically, emotionally.
"The thing you don't think about when you're not in it are how the external impacts your everyday life more than maybe you expected. But the football has been a blast."