Aaron Rodgers fancies himself as something of an amateur NFL historian, so it hardly came as a surprise when the Green Bay Packers quarterback had his answer at the ready when asked during the offseason what he and the Super Bowl XLV champions must do for an encore.
“No team from the NFC has repeated as conference champions in the last 10 years,” Rodgers replied, well aware that the last NFC team to go to back-to-back Super Bowls was the Packers in 1996 and 1997, when they won Super Bowl XXXI, then lost Super Bowl XXXII to the underdog Denver Broncos. “That’s definitely motivation.”
The reigning Super Bowl MVP enters 2011 with plenty of personal motivation as well. Now in his seventh season, Rodgers stands as the NFL career leader in passer rating (98.4) but still believes he has some work to do in convincing naysayers he’s among the league’s elite signal-callers.
But with a deep arsenal of offensive weapons, a defense capable of taking over games and an influx of depth from players returning from injury, Rodgers and the Packers have an excellent opportunity to reach the Super Bowl once again.
Coach Mike McCarthy calls his offense “quarterback driven,” and there might not be a better guy to have behind the wheel than Rodgers, who was magnificent down the stretch last year (122.1 passer rating during his final seven regular-season starts and four playoff games). Right now, his game is essentially without weakness. He’s fantastic against the blitz because of his high football IQ, allowing him to read defenses, adjust protection schemes and get the ball out. After two concussions and the first missed start of his career, he needs to avoid further injury, but at least the Packers now know that they have a capable backup in Matt Flynn.
Of course, there’s only one ball to go around to Rodgers’ deep corps of pass-catchers. In the first four games of 2010, the passing game was routed through tight end Jermichael Finley, whose size-speed combination was a matchup nightmare for opponents. After Finley’s season-ending knee injury at Washington on Oct. 10, Pro Bowl wideout Greg Jennings (76 catches, 1,265 yards, 12 TDs) became the focal point of the passing game. In 2011, Finley will be back to full health and entering a contract year, meaning he’ll require touches. But at whose expense? Not only has Jennings emerged as a star, but Jordy Nelson also had a breakout game in the Super Bowl (nine receptions for 140 yards and a touchdown) and looks like the Packers’ next big thing. The biggest question among the receivers is whether 36-year-old Donald Driver is in decline after having his streak of six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons snapped.
The Packers’ ground game last season might have been just as formidable had Ryan Grant’s season not ended in Week 1 because of an ankle injury. With Grant back to full strength, 2011 could be interesting in the backfield. While the Packers’ running back committee of Brandon Jackson, James Starks, John Kuhn and Dimitri Nance did very little to keep opposing defenses honest, the late-season emergence of Starks gave a glimpse of a potentially lethal 1-2 punch. Starks had fresh legs late in the year and ran hard every time he touched the ball.
The offensive line did a better job of protecting the quarterback (38 sacks, down from 51 in 2009) but still has work to do. Veteran left tackle Chad Clifton isn’t getting any younger, but Josh Sitton is among the league’s best guards, second-year right tackle Bryan Bulaga should lift his game after starting 12 games as a rookie, center Scott Wells’ intelligence makes up for his lack of size, and first-round pick Derek Sherrod adds depth at tackle.
Retired Packers GM Ron Wolf used to talk about players who “tilted the field,” and he had two during the franchise’s last run atop the league — defensive end Reggie White and safety LeRoy Butler. The Packers’ latest championship defense had two such defenders as well in outside linebacker Clay Matthews and cornerback Charles Woodson. Both will have to continue their elite play for a defense predicated on stopping the run, pressuring the quarterback and forcing turnovers.
Up front, third-year nose tackle B.J. Raji should be mentioned in the same breath as the top 3-4 noses in the league. Whether it’s eating up double teams, stuffing the run or getting after the quarterback when allowed (7.5 sacks, including playoffs), he emerged as an impact player. He’ll anchor a line that will include fellow big men Ryan Pickett and Howard Green and will be counting on promising second-year man Mike Neal to step up.
The linebackers are led by Matthews, who had six sacks in the first two games of 2010 and may have challenged Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record if not for a shin injury that slowed him at midseason. Matthews is the total package; all he lacks is a big-time running mate on the opposite side, where part-time starters Erik Walden, Frank Zombo and Brad Jones will compete for the starting gig. Inside, Desmond Bishop took over for an injured Nick Barnett after four games and never looked back, seizing the starting job. He’ll be paired with steady A.J. Hawk.
While Woodson isn’t the cover man he used to be, he’s seldom outside anymore, with the Packers in nickel nearly 60 percent of the time. In those situations, Woodson is more of a slot corner or safety hybrid. He’s been surpassed as a cover man by Tramon Williams. Third cornerback Sam Shields, an undrafted free agent, was phenomenal as a rookie.
The team hasn’t had a kickoff return for a touchdown since Allen Rossum took one back in 2000, and many fans hold their breath when Williams, a Pro Bowl cornerback, sets up deep on fourth down. The drafting of Randall Cobb in the second round could remedy the situation, with the speedy Shields also an option on kickoff returns now that he catches the ball more consistently.
Kicker Mason Crosby is solid, especially in Green Bay’s unfriendly climate, but he hasn’t made a game-winning field goal since his NFL debut in 2007. Since then, he’s missed all three of his chances. Punter Tim Masthay — who won the job in training camp last season over Australian import Chris Bryan — was a godsend, almost singlehandedly beating the Jets and Bears during the regular season by dominating the field-position battle in low-scoring affairs.
If the Packers were able to win the Super Bowl despite having 16 players on season-ending injured reserve, imagine how good they could be if they actually stayed healthy. Rodgers alone makes them a perennial contender as long as he’s healthy, and the offensive weaponry at his disposal is almost unfair. Add to that a defense that is entering its third year in Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme, and the pieces are in place for a repeat.
Outside the Huddle
Millions of fans watching the aftermath of Super Bowl XLV saw Clay Matthews put a glittery boxing/wrestling-style championship belt over Aaron Rodgers’ shoulder on the podium, a nod to Rodgers’ patented touchdown celebration. But few know the humble beginnings of Rodgers’ signature move, which dates back to 2005, when Rodgers was the backup to ironman Brett Favre. “The championship belt represents my personality more than anything. Because it is a joke of a celebration that I started on the practice field, on the scout team, that has turned into this cult following,” Rodgers says. “For me, wanting to get the most out of those (scout team) reps, the best way I found to get those guys motivated was to make it fun for them, and the way to make it fun was to celebrate every big play. And taunt the defense. And the way we did it was (by saying), ‘You know what? Every time we make a play, we’re celebrating. And let’s make it as ridiculous as we can.’ And that’s how it started.”
John Candy moment
Growing up a Joe Montana fan in Northern California, Rodgers had hoped his first Super Bowl would give him what he called his “John Candy moment,” referring to how Montana saw the comedian in the stands and pointed him out in the huddle to loosen up the 49ers offense before the game-winning 92-yard touchdown drive at the end of Super Bowl XXIII. As it turned out, Rodgers got his before kickoff, when a pair of foreign photojournalists nearly came to blows at the coin flip. “At the Super Bowl, there are these long TV timeouts. So we go out for the coin toss, there are five of us, and the Steelers guys are standing over there. And we’re just standing there looking at each other for a good three minutes,” Rodgers says. “Over to the left, about 10 cameramen have been trying to get in place to get the best shot, and two of them are fighting. They’re yelling at each other in different languages, flipping each other off. They’re both screaming at each other taking pictures of each other for a good minute and a half. And I’m tapping A.J. (Hawk) and saying, ‘Look at that! Look at that! It’s unbelievable!’”
Learning to lead
Rodgers’ circuitous route to the NFL is well known: He went unrecruited out of high school and attended Butte (Calif.) College before transferring to California. But one lesson learned during that winding road is paying dividends for him now that he’s the leader of the Pack. As an 18-year-old freshman at Butte, Rodgers took the class An Introduction To Coaching As A Career in 2002, taught by the school’s basketball coach, Russ Critchfield. “I remember specifically one day we were talking in class about motivation, and how coaches need to treat their teams as individuals — and how each individual has different buttons,” Critchfield says. “People often talk about well-known people and the presence they have, and they seem to have the ‘It’ factor. I don’t know if I can describe what it means. He just has a presence about him. You can see why people would follow him. He just has those qualities. The class, it’s a fun class, and we have a lot of discussions. I think he got something out of it. Anything Aaron does, he gets something out of it.”
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