GREEN BAY, Wis. - The game everyone remembers, of course, is the rally in Dallas in 2007. The aging icon is sidelined with an elbow injury, the team is in a 17-point hole midway through the second quarter, and out trots the still-unproven, bonus-baby first-round draft pick from a few years earlier, the heir apparent who'd yet to definitively show if he would be able to someday handle the heavy crown.
He would prove himself that night, of course. Aaron Rodgers would come in and not only bring his team back, but show everyone – his coaches, his teammates, his detractors – that he just might have what it takes to lead the Green Bay Packers to where they wanted to go in the post-Brett Favre era, an era that would start sooner rather than later.
But as Rodgers looks back now, having led the team to the Super Bowl XLV title in 2010, won the NFL MVP in 2011, earned his third Pro Bowl berth in 2012 and become the NFL's highest-paid player this spring, it is not that comeback in Dallas that he points to as the turning point in what could have the makings of a Pro Football Hall of Fame career, just like the one his predecessor had.
No, it is a dreary night in Baltimore, in a lost game in a lost season, that Rodgers remembers most vividly. The going-nowhere Packers are limping toward a 4-12 finish, coach Mike Sherman is a dead man walking after having been stripped of his general manager duties, and Favre has been lifted from the game with 11 seconds left in the third quarter. It's 34-3, and most of the nation's television sets have been turned off.
As a result, not many people see Rodgers get sacked on his second snap of the game and fumble. They don't see him throw an interception in the end zone on his next series. They don't see him take another sack on third down on his third series to force a punt. And they certainly don't see him cough up yet another fumble on yet another sack that Adalius Thomas picked up and returned for a touchdown, finishing off a 48-3 embarrassment.
But Rodgers remembers. For it was on that night that he came to the stark realization that he had a lot of work to do if he was going to become the player he felt he could be.
"My rookie year, we're playing the Baltimore Ravens on Monday Night Football, and we're getting smashed," Rodgers recalled at his annual offseason fundraising event for Midwest Athletes Against Childhood Cancer in May. "It's 41-3, I go like 9 for 16 for 60 yards and a pick and two fumbles – one of them gets run back for a touchdown. (Officially, Rodgers was 8 of 15 for 65 yards and a 36.8 passer rating.)
"That's when I knew I wasn't ready to be successful. Now, I still believed inside of me; I was confident I had the talent and the ability to be successful. But I knew I had to step up my game. And that offseason, 2006, that was kind of the beginning for me personally of believing I could do it.
"I think we would all agree that not until you do it in a pressure situation, in a big game, do you have the kind of confidence you want to have to be a star in our respective sports. You have to do it on the biggest level, and you prove to yourself – and the world – that you belong."
As he preps for his sixth season as the Packers' starter when training camp opens on July 26, Rodgers has certainly proven he belongs. Although he wasn't able to replicate his 2011 MVP numbers, he came awfully close, despite injuries to key pass-catchers (Greg Jennings missed eight games, Jordy Nelson four and Randall Cobb one). His quarterback rating was still the NFL's best (108.0); he still threw the second-most touchdown passes in a single season in Packers history (39, tied with Favre's total in 1996 and six fewer than the 45 Rodgers threw in 2011); and he still finished with more than 4,000 yards passing (4,295, eighth in the NFL and his fourth 4,000-yard season).
Things weren't perfect – his yards per attempt plummeted from an NFL-high 9.25 yards in 2011 to only 7.78 in 2012, and he took a league-high 51 sacks – but the fact remains that the Packers are and will be legitimate Super Bowl contenders as long as he is healthy and on the field.
"We fell short the last two years, and moving forward we'd like to advance past the divisional round. So team success is the ultimate goal," quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo replied when asked where Rodgers can improve. "There are some things that we talk about in the quarterback room, being goal-oriented. But we like to keep that in the room. If Aaron chooses to talk about his personal goals, then I'll let him do that."
The sack number is the most glaring, and the topic at which Rodgers bristles. ProFootballFocus.com charged Rodgers with 10 of the 51 sacks he took last season, and while neither McAdoo nor offensive coordinator Tom Clements would confirm that number, both said reducing the total is a priority.
"Of the sacks that the quarterbacks were responsible for last year, we'd like to cut that number in half," McAdoo said. "At the same point in time, we don't want to take his aggressiveness away in the scramble drill, which was up last year as far as our opportunities. That's really a successful play for us. Anytime we can extend the play, give the receivers, tight ends or backs a chance to work, create downfield and out of the pocket, we don't want to take that away. But at the same time, we have to be smarter about the hits we take."
For his part, the 29-year-old Rodgers is confident that will remain highly productive. He seems unconcerned about changes at the receiver position and in the renovated offensive line, and while he's hopeful that a viable running game will indeed develop, he is controlling what he can control: His own preparation, which wasn't good enough on that night in Charm City almost eight years ago now.
"I tell you, this is really the first year where I've felt like I had to do a little bit more to get myself into the same shape I wanted to get in," Rodgers confessed. "And that's because it's not only my ninth season, but I know the most important thing for me to be able to play to the end of this contract is going to be to make sure my legs stay strong and I'm able to do the things I like to do on the field: Be athletic out of the pocket, make some plays with my feet, and be able to have that balance to throw in the pocket with my legs underneath me. So it's going to be all about getting myself in the best, tip-top physical shape I can, and getting ready to have a good season.
"For sure, we're a contender. For sure. I mean, we're going to put ourselves in position to win a lot of games. Our goal is to win our division and get to the playoffs. And anything can happen. And then hopefully we can take care of business like we did in 2010 when we get back there."
QUICK READ: QUARTERBACKS
Can Harrell do the job?
Harrell's first regular-season NFL snap was an unmitigated disaster, as he came in against New Orleans in Week 4 after Rodgers was poked in the eye and promptly tripped as he tried to hand the ball off to running back Cedric Benson. The Saints recovered the fumble, and not only did the gaffe cost the Packers points, it led to New Orleans' go-ahead touchdown. Although the Packers ended up winning the game and Harrell saw garbage-time action in three more games, the mistake is the lasting image of him from last season. Harrell was also utterly unimpressive in his first three preseason appearances, but the Packers remained committed to him. Let's be honest: If Rodgers goes down for an extended period of time, the Packers are sunk. But can Harrell keep them afloat if Rodgers were to miss two games? Four? No one really knows.
On the rise
This is true in part because he can't possibly be worse than he was in those aforementioned first three exhibition games last summer, when he completed just 32 of 63 passes for 261 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions for a passer rating of 53.7. While he was certainly playing behind a shaky offensive line and with inconsistent wide receivers, such is life for a backup. Harrell did rise to the occasion in the preseason finale against Kansas City, though, achieving the maximum passer rating possible of 158.3 by completing 13 of 15 passes for 223 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. His two incompletions were an intentional throw-away after being flushed from the pocket, and an on-target deep pass down the left sideline that wide receiver Tori Gurley dropped. If he could be somewhere in between pathetic and perfect this preseason, it'd go a long way toward proving that he's deserving of his gig.
Player to watch
When the season ended, even McAdoo himself had to confess that he wasn't sure what he had in Coleman, a seventh-round pick who spent the entire year on the practice squad. Now, with a quarterback school, the rookie orientation camp (for which he was eligible because he never suited up in 2012), organized team activities and minicamp, Coleman should be improved. His knowledge of the offense should be light-years better than it was, and he should look more confident in his reads and progressions, instead of running for his life as he did last year in exhibition play. "B.J. has improved tremendously from last year. Fundamentally, he's come a long way and still has a ways to go," McAdoo said. "Because in the drill work, he's a lot better. When you carry it over to the team stuff, (only) some of that carries over. You have to carry everything over into the team drills. He's getting better at the system, how to protect himself and the reads and the footwork that go along with the pass game, but he still has some work cut out for him. At the same point in time, in training camp, when we go out there and are competing for jobs and not to improve, he's got a chance. It's an open competition."
Realistically, Coleman would have to be a vastly different player to legitimately challenge Harrell for the backup gig, and that just seems unlikely. That said, Harrell knows nothing is guaranteed. Last year, there were reports that the Packers had expressed an interest in then-Cleveland Browns backup Colt McCoy, who'd been demoted after being a starter. Nothing came of that, but Harrell knows that general manager Ted Thompson scours the waiver wire and his free-agent lists for prospects at every position, including quarterback. Meanwhile, Coleman has a little competition of his own to contend with in undrafted rookie free agent Matt Brown. Packers coach Mike McCarthy certainly sounded like he wants four quarterbacks in the rotation when camp opens, and if Brown gets to stick around, perhaps he'll surprise Coleman and push him for the No. 3 gig.
The reason Rodgers and the Packers offense saw a steady diet of two-high safety looks last season wasn't solely the lack of a consistent run game. Defenses have figured out that all-out pressuring Rodgers is just plain foolhardy. Thus, they'd rather drop defenders in coverage and hope to fluster Rodgers that way. It's sound thinking, given Rodgers' numbers against the blitz. He completed 82 of 127 passes for 1,056 yards with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions (117.4 passer rating) against the blitz last season, and since 2009, no one is better against pressure. During that time span, Rodgers has posted a 115.3 passer rating, averaged 9.61 yards per attempt and thrown 62 passes that gained 25 yards or more against pressure.
"Ultimately it comes down to performance. (Harrell) has a very good grasp of the offense, he's very comfortable, he knows the adjustments, it flows for him. At the end of the day, Graham has to go out and perform. That's something that we go back to last year, he didn't have the greatest training camp, but he finished strong. I look for him to make improvements, I look for B.J. to compete with him. B.J. needs to continue to grow. He's got a lot in front of him and he has a lot of work to do too. Those types of questions will really be answered in the preseason." – McCarthy, on the backup quarterback situation.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today" on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
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