Earlier this week, the fine folks at the NFL’s Department of Communications & Government Affairs – that’s what it said on the email – sent out a rundown of all 32 teams’ starting quarterbacks, with a blurb about each and every one of them, from Arizona’s John Skelton to Washington’s Robert Griffin III.
The longest one wasn’t a blurb. It was an ode to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers:
GREEN BAY: Pro Bowl quarterback AARON RODGERS set the NFL single-season record with a 122.5 passer rating last season and was named the NFL’s Most Valuable Player by AP. He had 13 games with a 100+ passer rating, the most in a single season in NFL history, and his 12 games with a 110+ rating also set a league record. Rodgers set franchise records with 4,643 yards and 45 touchdown passes and he is the only player in NFL history to pass for at least 45+ TDs and have six or fewer interceptions. He threw at least two touchdown passes in 13 consecutive games, tied for the longest such streak in NFL history.
Not long after that press release was sent out, San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh was slogging through his conference call with Wisconsin reporters. While the coach’s quotes were downright worthless in what became a somewhat contentious seven-minute affair, Harbaugh was absolutely gushing about Rodgers when he appeared on KNBR radio in San Francisco, going so far as to say – and we quote – that Rodgers “is playing at the highest level in the history of the game.”
“He’s doing everything really well, at the highest level I think that anybody has ever seen,” said Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback himself who coached rookie No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck at Stanford. “In terms of getting the ball out of his hands quick, throwing with tremendous accuracy, velocity and then the way he runs the football – he runs to score touchdowns in the red zone and is very, very good at running the football and very smart running the football. When he runs, he hurts you, picking up first downs and scoring touchdowns in the red zone.”
All of which begs the question: What on earth does Rodgers do for an encore?
“I really don’t know,” Rodgers replied during his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com. “Those numbers are a combination of a lot of things.”
The full statistical breakdown of Rodgers’ MVP numbers read this way: 343 completions in 502 attempts (68.3 percent) for 4,643 yards (9.25 yards per attempt) with 45 touchdowns and six interceptions (a 1.2 percent interception rate) while being sacked 36 times in 15 games.
“If we can top what we did last year,” Rodgers friend and go-to wide receiver Jordy Nelson said with a smile, “we’d be in good, good shape.”
But is that realistic? Not long after the season-ending NFC Divisional Playoff loss to the New York Giants, Rodgers put into perspective just how hard his numbers will be to replicate: After Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning threw 49 touchdown passes and only 10 interceptions in 2004, he threw just 28 TDs (and 10 INTs) in 2005. After New England’s Tom Brady threw 50 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions in 2007, he suffered a season-ending knee injury in the 2008 regular-season opener, then came back to throw just 28 TDs against 13 INTs in 2009.
So is it possible that Rodgers could have a better season by subjective measure but an inferior season statistically in 2012? Absolutely, he said.
“Obviously you need to play well, but you have to have guys making plays and have to avoid the occasional unlucky interception – a guy falling down, a tipped pass in the air that lingers and a guy picks off, the one that you throw real bad and the guy just drops. You have to avoid those; you have to have some good fortune. You have to play really well, you have to have guys making plays.
“A couple of years ago we counted the number of passes guys either caught and went out of bounds or caught and got tackled inside the 5-yard line – I think it was the 2010 season when I had 28 touchdowns – and it was like 12 (such plays). Last year, I would bet the number was under five.
“Just stuff like that kind of went our way and my way. For an encore, I think you try and duplicate it. You realize that, I don’t think that is standard that is above the standard. The standard is playing really well, winning football games, being efficient, not turning the ball over. If you do those things, it’s not always going to be those kinds of numbers. I would like to be in the vicinity.”
Rodgers will be challenged in other ways, too. Not only will defenses have spent an entire offseason dissecting his game and the Packers offense as a whole – a unit that put up a franchise-record 560 points, second-most in a season in NFL history – but the coaching staff around Rodgers changed this offseason when offensive coordinator Joe Philbin took over as the Miami Dolphins head coach, Tom Clements was promoted from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Ben McAdoo assumed the quarterback coaching duties.
But perhaps the biggest challenge Rodgers will face – and one he is embracing wholeheartedly – is coach Mike McCarthy’s plan to expand the team’s use of the no-huddle offense. While it’s unclear how much the Packers intend to use it this season, they figure to go no-huddle at least a little bit more than they did last season, when McCarthy says they ran 264 snaps of it.
Running backs coach Alex Van Pelt was Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly’s backup in Buffalo for three seasons (1994 through ’96) and watched Kelly operate the no-huddle offense better than perhaps anyone ever has.
“(Rodgers is) right there,” Van Pelt said. “You’re talking about greatest-of-all-time guys. Aaron’s got a little quicker release (than Kelly had), but same type of guy. Under center, the guy is definitely taking charge.”
That’s exactly what Rodgers will have to do, at least on occasion. He seemed to thrive in no-huddle situations last season, and he relishes the challenge of doing it again this year.
“It’s a tempo thing for us. We want to raise the tempo up a little bit on offense, get more plays in. Mike is always preaching being a 70-plus play team on offense, and to do that, you probably need to run some up-tempo stuff,” Rodgers said. “We’ve used that as a change-up at times in the past, and depending on how we start, that may or may not be a bigger part of our offense. We’re still trying to work the kinks out.
“I like the opportunity to have some input in plays, but when you play in this offense long enough and with the same coaching staff, it’s the natural progression to have a bigger role in the offense – obviously in the meetings and the game-planning and the ideas and then being able to have a direct impact at times in those no-huddle (situations), it’s just kind of a seamless transition for us.”