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Packers’ Rodgers is in rarefied air right now

By Greg A. Bedard
Globe Staff / November 6, 2011

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In his first team meeting after being named coach in 2006, Mike McCarthy went to the podium and told the Packers their greatest challenge would be how they handle success.

There was a collective, “Huh?’’ in the auditorium.

The Packers had just gone 4-12 under former coach Mike Sherman. They didn’t look like they were going to set the world on fire with the talent assembled. And nobody was quite sure who this McCarthy guy was - other than the fact that he was the coordinator of a 49ers offense that ranked last in yards and 30th in points the previous year.

But McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson proved to be right about a lot of things, and to this point their Packers have dealt with success just fine.

Now comes the real challenge.

The Packers are defending Super Bowl champions. They are 7-0. They are Sports Illustrated cover boys this week.

It’s one thing for a team, even a defending champion, to get off to a hot start in September and October. But when it continues as the days grow shorter, the national glare is going to become that much brighter - and hotter.

McCarthy thinks his team is ready to handle its intimate closeup.

“We’re conscientious about it,’’ McCarthy said. “We have a period in our team meeting on Thursday where we continue to educate based on where I feel the pulse of our team is, and that’s a focus.

“I’m very pleased with the culture of our locker room. I think the leadership has been excellent, but culture is a moving target. It’s either improving or going the other way. I’m very happy with what’s happened so far, but it is a daily focus.’’

McCarthy can afford to relax a little because of whom he has at quarterback.

You can argue about which quarterback you’d want in a must-win situation, but, as of this moment, there’s little debate that Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback on the planet and the league’s Most Valuable Player.

Sorry, Tom Brady - you’re excellent in your own right, and we might take you in a one-game situation - but Rodgers is putting together perhaps the greatest passing season in NFL history.

Rodgers’s 9.92 yards per attempt would be the highest mark in modern history, and would trail only Sid Luckman (10.86 in 1943), Otto Graham (10.55 in ’53), and Norm Van Brocklin (10.14 in ’54) all-time.

Rodgers is on pace for 5,422 yards, which would shatter Dan Marino’s record of 5,084 set in 1984.

Rodgers has completed 71.5 percent of his passes, which would break Drew Brees’s single-season record of 70.62 set in 2009.

With 20 touchdown passes, Rodgers is on pace for 46, which gets him in range of Brady’s record of 50 set in 2007.

His passer rating of 125.7 would break Peyton Manning’s record of 121.1 in set in 2004.

“He’s still growing,’’ McCarthy said. “He’s playing at an extremely high level and he’s done it seven weeks in a row and that’s what’s been fun to watch.’’

Rodgers, at least publicly, always finds some fault in his play. A lot of that comes from the incredibly tough grading he receives from quarterbacks coach Tom Clement.

“I just feel like for 60 minutes, we all can play a little bit more consistently,’’ said Rodgers, who is the first NFL quarterback to post 2,300 yards passing and 20 touchdowns in the first seven games of a season.

What’s been impressive is how Rodgers has grown since becoming a starter in 2008, his fourth season in the league.

Early as a starter, he shied away from making the tough throws because he worried about turnovers; he didn’t want to emulate Brett Favre in that way. Rodgers also had trouble balancing his desire to keep plays alive while not taking bad sacks (he was taken down a franchise-record 50 times in 2009).

“I really felt he hit his stride last year and I think he has just really continued it this year,’’ McCarthy said. “He had some games last year that probably he didn’t grade out as well as he would have liked, but he’s played at this level before.

“The biggest area of improvement for him is just the consistency of it. The first year, the 6-10 year, he had some ups and downs, but we didn’t do a very good job as a team, either.

“I really felt that he hit his stride, especially, going into the playoffs and has really continued it.’’

Rodgers is still working on the sacks - he has 16 this season - but his all-around play has been outstanding. He’ll throw the ball into any spot, and no quarterback throws back across his body while moving to the right like Rodgers.

“He’s such a complete player,’’ said Chargers coach Norv Turner, who tutored Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman with the Cowboys. “He can make all the throws. He obviously can buy time to help guys get open. He’s such a good athlete, he can run if something breaks down.’’

It also doesn’t hurt that Rodgers has perhaps the top assortment of targets in the league: wide receivers Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, and Randall Cobb, and tight end Jermichael Finley.

“I think it’s a natural progression for a quarterback to gain more and more confidence as you move on - not only in the offense but playing with the same perimeter players,’’ McCarthy said. “So there’s a lot of confidence between the quarterback and the perimeter players and even more so with the protection unit as far as picking things up, making sure he has a good pocket.

“And he has great confidence, not just in one receiver, but it’s the whole group. I think you’re really seeing what happens when you get to that point.’’

To this point, it’s been unstoppable.

But now the heat will be on.

The Packers sneaked up on people last season. They might not have made the playoffs if it weren’t for the Eagles’ improbable comeback win over the Giants in Week 15.

Everyone will be gunning for Green Bay from this point on.


More glimpses into Belichick

The new book by WEEI talk show host Michael Holley, “War Room: The Legacy of Bill Belichick and the Art of Building the Perfect Team,’’ goes on sale Tuesday from It Books.

It’s definitely worth the investment, as it chronicles the rise of Belichick, Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli, and Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff.

It’s a little lighter on insider tidbits than would be ideal, but these are three men still in positions of power. The lack of insight into some of the Patriots’ personnel decisions - including this year - was disappointing. Everything done on Belichick (like the NFL Network documentary) gives you a few juicy details, but never close to the whole story.

But there’s a lot of good stuff in the book, especially on ex-Patriots players.

One of the most interesting passages, which could be seen as foreshadowing some of the current personnel woes, has to do with the 2006 draft and the selections of running back Laurence Maroney and receiver Chad Jackson.

“Most scouts didn’t want them to be Patriots,’’ Holley writes. “But something was happening during the process that hadn’t taken place before. Outside opinions (college coaches at Minnesota and Florida were listened to on both players) were considered, as usual, but they seemed to be more weighted than they had been in the past . . . Whether or not it was intended to be this way, the message to the scouts was that their exhaustive reports were not being considered as carefully . . . It didn’t feel like Foxboro anymore.’’

Other things that stood out:

After so many key people left in coaching and personnel, Belchick is definitely much more on his own to make decisions, and there aren’t many - if any - people who will stand up to him. Belichick was trying to “avoid mistakes and do it in an organization with fewer people willing to confront him’’ after Pioli departed for Kansas City in early 2009.

While Belichick put out “perhaps the most heartfelt statement of the Belichick era’’ when Pioli left, those words weren’t said face-to-face, and that hurt Pioli.

Dimitroff is, without question, the hero of the book - even though Holley probably didn’t set out with that in mind. That Dimitroff blazed his own trail, before and after the Patriots, really stands out.

The book makes you understand why he’s been the biggest success from the Belichick tree to this point - because he did it on his terms.

“Pioli was proud of Dimitroff and inspired by him,’’ Holley wrote. “Not only had he left the Patriot nest and had instant success, he’d done it his way. He wasn’t trying to be Belichick or Pioli, or even his father (the legendary scout/coach).’’

Former linebacker Adalius Thomas had become a “distraction,’’ according to Tedy Bruschi, and others were following Thomas’s lead. Thomas had to go.

The Patriots went into the 2004 draft prepared to take running back Steven Jackson but switched when Vince Wilfork fell to them.

Randy Moss’s press conference after the win over the Bengals in 2010 set the wheels in motion for his trade to Minnesota.

Belichick told Dimitroff not to trade five picks to move up and select Alabama receiver Julio Jones this year, though Dimitroff did so anyway.

“Thomas, I’m just telling you as a friend,’’ Belichick said, “I wouldn’t do it.’’

Belichick thought Jonathan Baldwin, a player with character who would go to the Chiefs and Pioli at 26, was just as good.


Pass defense not up to par

Like the Patriots, the Packers have had issues with their pass defense. The Patriots are tied for last at 8.3 yards per pass attempt allowed, while the Packers are 23d (7.8). Green Bay coach Mike McCarthy is confident that defensive coordinator Dom Capers will get that fixed. “We’ve done some things that are very good, particularly with takeaways, but third down and big-play production against our defense is an area of emphasis for us,’’ he said. The difference between the Patriots and teams like the Packers and Saints getting their defenses turned around is talent. The Packers have end B.J. Raji, linebackers Clay Matthews and Desmond Bishop, and cornerbacks Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, and Sam Shields. They will be getting pass-rushing end Mike Neal back from injury soon. The Patriots’ talent just doesn’t compare. Another thing is that the Patriots are strong up the middle: They have talent at defensive tackle, with linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, and with safety Patrick Chung. The problem is that the game is played on the edges more than ever.

Nickel package

1. I hate a lot of the new safety rules - except in regard to concussions - but the NFL’s decision not to fine Steelers safety Troy Polamalu for his head tackle of Wes Welker was flat wrong. It’s exactly the type of head shot the league should be outlawing. Not to mention it seemed like a clear violation of Rule 12, Section 2: “All players are prohibited from: striking, swinging, or clubbing to the head, neck, or face with the . . . wrist, arm, elbow, or clasped hands.’’

2. We’ll see what this Patriots team is made of the rest of the season. In years part, if someone questioned their talent the way Hines Ward and others did last week, you knew they would rise up and silence the doubters. Does this team have the ability to do that? That’s the big question.

3. Lost in the hysteria of the loss to the Steelers is the fact that this Patriots team is going to the playoffs, and may not lose another regular-season game. Eli Manning and Michael Vick are the only remaining quarterbacks capable of throwing all over the Patriots, and they both have their flaws. And if the Steelers and Texans are taken out by others, we like Tom Brady and Bill Belichick against any other team and quarterback.

4. If the Patriots were in the NFC and in, say, the NFC East, we’re not sure they make the postseason.

5. Leigh Bodden. Still unemployed.

New England update

Cardinals fullback Anthony Sherman (North Attleboro/UConn) suffered an ankle injury against the Ravens and will likely miss a few weeks. The team re-signed Reagan Maui’a, whom Sherman beat out in training camp, to take his place. Sherman had caught the eye of offensive coordinator Mike Miller before the injury, and was getting more looks in the passing game. “It shows them I can contribute in more than one way, and that’s the biggest thing,’’ said Sherman, who had five catches for 51 yards. “You have to do your job, whatever is required of you, on that play. If it’s to block, it’s to block. The coaches know you can catch and do other things, and if they want to utilize it, they’ll draw something up in a play.’’

By the numbers

0: Games the Rams have played against an NFC West foe. Today is their first divisional matchup, against the Cardinals.

1: Loss by the Packers in nine previous games against the Chargers. Green Bay’s .889 winning percentage against San Diego is its highest against any opponent.

13: Sacks for Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs in 17 career games against the Steelers.

10,568: Consecutive snaps played by Chiefs center Casey Wiegmann, who has started 166 straight games.

View from the outside

From Aaron Schatz of the Boston-bred “New England’s top playmaker this season (tackles, assists, turnovers, and passes defensed) is Patrick Chung, with 53 plays, followed by Devin McCourty (51) and Kyle Arrington (41). The Patriots are one of only two teams without a linebacker ranking among their top three playmakers. The other is New Orleans.’’

Short yardage

Had the Patriots traded up in April’s draft to get pass-rushing help, Robert Quinn of North Carolina could have been a target. Taken 14th overall by the Rams after being suspended for his senior season, Quinn hasn’t been able to crack the lineup behind Chris Long and James Hall. He finally got his first sack last Sunday against the Saints. “He has progressed as a defensive end,’’ said coach Steve Spagnuolo. “He’s in there playing more. You’re talking about a guy who didn’t play any football last year, no offseason. He’s on a gradual uphill, and he’s doing a good job of it.’’ . . . The Saints have struggled with red-zone defense; they are ranked last, having allowed 14 touchdowns in 19 trips by the opponent (73.7 percent) . . . Titans cornerback Jason McCourty, the twin brother of Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty, scored a touchdown on a blocked punt last week and leads the team with 59 tackles.

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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