Leader of the pack
No doubting Green Bay is Rodgers’s team
DALLAS — Some meetings are informative. Some meetings are useless. Some meetings prompt change.
Members of the Green Bay Packers offense participate in numerous meetings every week, but one in 2009 changed the unit. Any player who was there that day after the winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat the Packers, 38-28, remembers the meeting. Offensive linemen, running backs, receivers, and quarterback Aaron Rodgers gathered in a room and let everything out.
It was heated, direct, and productive. The meeting sparked another level of growth for Rodgers, who was in his second season as the established Packers starter. If he wanted to be a leader, he had to give criticism and he had to take it.
“You learn that conflict is good for a team,’’ Rodgers said. “There were some deep-seated emotions in that room that needed to get out — that guys were holding in. It was great. There were a lot of harsh words said, but at the end of the day we moved on together.
“A lot of times when there is strife on a team, it can get out in the wrong way — guys talking in the media on their own or behind the scenes — but we sat in the room as an offense and said, ‘What are the main issues here?’
“Myself, Donald [Driver], and different guys spoke up and we got our issues on the table and moved forward as a team. It wasn’t a divided locker room. We stayed together, talked about our problems, and moved forward together.’’
After that meeting, the Packers went 7-1 and earned a wild-card berth, losing in the playoffs to the Arizona Cardinals.
The Packers were hardly perfect in 2010, but they learned that frustrations don’t have to derail a team. They credit Rodgers with keeping them on that track. They went 10-6 during the regular season, added three playoff wins, and tonight Rodgers will lead them into Super Bowl XLV against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Goal-oriented Leadership was the final characteristic Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy wanted to see his quarterback develop.
When the Packers named Rodgers their starter over veteran Brett Favre in 2008, he needed time to settle into the position. The elements were there. He was, after all, a former first-round pick out of California.
“If there was one big hurdle, it would be leadership,’’ McCarthy said. “Leadership was something that we needed to have more of as a football team. It’s something I’ve given a lot of thought to over the last couple years — creating those opportunities in particular for Aaron Rodgers, Charles Woodson, A.J. Hawk, and the elected captains for the playoffs.
“Giving those men an opportunity to be in front of the team more, our leadership has definitely picked up. I’d say that’s the biggest hurdle and the biggest improvement in Aaron Rodgers.’’
The meeting following the Tampa Bay loss last season was part of that process. On-field mistakes, lack of intensity, and other issues were a losing equation for the Packers. There were meetings long after that day, but what the players took from that one helped them build toward common goals, according to Driver.
“He embraced it,’’ Driver said. “He said what he had to say, but I think when you look from veteran to veteran, they have a lot on their minds. Sooner or later, our careers are going to wind down and we’re going to be done playing. We know we have to win games because, unfortunately you don’t get here often. We hashed things out, guys took it to heart and it worked.
“Aaron as a leader said, ‘I understand where you guys are coming from: We have to win games, and it’s going to start with me.’ ’’
Accuracy counts The competitiveness of Rodgers was on display from the moment he arrived in Green Bay. Wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who joined the Packers in 2008, was intimidated by his intensity.
“I mean, it takes a little something to get used to because he expects perfection every play, even in practice,’’ Nelson said. “If you do something wrong or not quite the way he wants it, you can see it. It’s not in a bad way, but in the right way.
“He wants to make every play, even if it’s just practice. I think that feeds down to the rest of us.’’
Practices are especially important for an offense that sometimes uses five wide receivers and forces Rodgers to make quick decisions. Timing is everything, but Rodgers has qualities that allow offensive coordinator Joe Philbin to be creative.
Not only is Rodgers making decisions quickly, he combines it all with accuracy. In the divisional game against the Falcons, Rodgers completed 86.1 percent of his passes, hitting on 31 of 36. It was the highest completion percentage for a quarterback with at least 35 attempts in NFL playoff history. Overall in the playoffs, he is 66 of 93 for 790 yards with six touchdowns.
“Aaron processes real quickly, and when you’re leaving yourself exposed like that, you better be clear about where your linemen are working because you may have to redirect them if you want,’’ Philbin said. “You better be in tune with your receivers. His ability to process and make decisions like that really helps him.’’
Looking for options from a batch of receivers that includes playmakers such as Greg Jennings and Driver is a luxury, Rodgers said. This season, five Packers registered at least 43 receptions. Jennings led the group with 76 catches for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“My receivers make me look really good,’’ said Rodgers. “I’ve got five really talented guys who I’d match up against any guy in the league.
“Greg Jennings is as good as any receiver. Donald, Jordy, James [Jones], and Brett [Swain] all have a lot of talent and different things that they can do for us. It’s tough for us to get them all on the field at the same time, but we try to draw plays for each of those guys every week.’’
Quite a ride As Rodgers prepared for the Super Bowl this past week, he did not talk to Favre. But in his time as Favre’s teammate, Rodgers said, he learned quite a bit from the veteran, beginning with consistency.
“The best players in this league are consistent week-in and week-out, and that’s something I’ve tried to do,’’ Rodgers said. “It’s important to be consistent not only with your preparation each week, but with your personality and trying to be the same guy every day in practice that you are on the field on Sundays.’’
When he took over as the starter, said Rodgers, his teammates were supportive and helped him create his own path. They didn’t need much convincing. During Rodgers’s rookie season in 2005, Driver had a conversation with him while traveling to a golf tournament in Louisiana. The conversation established their relationship.
“That is the first time we ever sat down with one another and just talked,’’ Driver said. “We had a great conversation. I got to know him and he got to know me.
“We used to say this little thing, ‘I don’t like you, but I am pulling for you today,’ and hug each other before the game. To this day we still hug each other but we don’t say we don’t like each other anymore.
“It has been great for both of us. The transition for me has been fine. When you build a relationship with a quarterback, you don’t expect him to leave. Once you have another relationship with a quarterback, then you can accept that role.
“Sometimes you don’t get to play with two great quarterbacks like I have. Some guys have to struggle and play with one and then their career seems to wind down because they don’t have that other great quarterback. I have another great quarterback that is sooner or later going to be another future Hall of Famer.’’