Mike Daniels played all of two snaps on offense last year as a novelty/fullback, but even he understands one undeniable fact about what happens on that side of the ball.
“We have two offenses: the offenses that the coaches call and Aaron’s offense,” the Green Bay Packers third-year defensive lineman said in an interview earlier this month on NFL Network. “Aaron’s an awesome player. I remember watching him [when I was] a rookie, he would throw the ball 70 yards joking around during OTAs. All the veterans would say, ‘He’s just getting warmed up. It’s OTAs. Wait until you see him during the season.’ They were right.”
After finding out last season what life without Rodgers is like – the team went 2-5-1, including 0-4-1 to start, after Rodgers fractured his left collarbone on the opening series against Chicago on Nov. 4 – Packers coach Mike McCarthy couldn’t be more excited about what his offense could accomplish this season with a healthy Rodgers, a few schematic changes, running back Eddie Lacy in his second NFL season and some unproven but intriguing potential pass-catchers behind Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson.
It all starts, though, with No. 12.
“We have a certain way you want to play on offense. You adjust each and every year,” McCarthy said. “Ours always starts with our quarterback, obviously with Aaron.”
In addition to wanting to go even more up-tempo – McCarthy told ESPN.com’s Rob Demovsky at the end of minicamp that his target is to average 75 offensive snaps per game after averaging more than 65 plays per game last year – there have also been subtle adjustments to the offense that will put even a greater onus on Rodgers as he works with a group of young wide receivers after Cobb and Nelson and an almost entirely unproven group at tight end.
“We’ve always talked about it in the spring trying to find ways to challenge him, and we’ve done some things in the system this year that are new for him, whether it be terminology or actual scheme,” said new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, who moved over from running backs coach after Ben McAdoo left to become the New York Giants’ offensive coordinator. “So it’s been a challenging spring for him; we’ve grabbed his attention. He’s very focused and very locked in all spring.”
For his part, Rodgers seemed to be in a terrific place both personally and professionally in spring, having turned 30 last December and appearing to have hit a sweet spot both in his football career and life in general.
“It’s been a great year, and it’s been fun,” he said. “I was talking a little tongue-in-cheek about the fact that you’re 30 and you’ve got it all figured out. I don’t truly believe that – yet – but I think you go through a lot in your 20s. You learn a lot about yourself, and your 30s is about achieving your goals and understanding what’s really important. And that’s what I’m trying to do this year by focusing on things I can control on and off the field and not letting things that maybe used to bother me more really get to me. Because the things that I can control, the things that are important, the people close to me in my life right now who are important, that’s what’s important. And the things I can’t control, I’m not going to let weigh me down anymore.”
Rodgers said he isn’t feeling any ill effects from the broken collarbone – the only concession he had to make during his offseason training was adjusting the amount of weightlifting he did with his upper body (especially the shoulder area) during the first part of his time off – but should he be forced to miss time again this season, the Packers enter training camp next week considerably more prepared for it than they were last year.
After entering camp last summer with Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman behind Rodgers, and then signing a washed-up Vince Young when Harrell and Coleman faltered early, the Packers wound up starting the regular season with journeyman Seneca Wallace as Rodgers’ primary backup and ex-University of Wisconsin starter Scott Tolzien on the practice squad after both were cut by San Francisco. After starting the season 5-2 before Rodgers went down against Chicago, only ex-backup Matt Flynn’s unexpected availability and the unexpected collapse of the Detroit Lions allowed the Packers to stay afloat until Rodgers returned for the regular-season finale at Chicago on Dec. 29, when he threw a game-winning, last-minute fourth-down touchdown pass to Cobb to send the Packers into the postseason.
That game had significance only because Flynn came on in relief of Tolzien against Minnesota on Nov. 24 and rallied the team from a 23-7 deficit to forge a 26-26 tie, and because he led the Packers to victory with second-half rallies against Atlanta and Dallas in December.
Still, there’s no guarantee that the Packers will keep both Flynn and Tolzien behind Rodgers, and Flynn goes into camp as the No. 2 but with Tolzien not far behind.
“I’m approaching it as, I’ve got to play well. I’ve got to earn my spot and make the team, just like I have every year,” Flynn said. “I’ve never gone into a camp where I wasn’t competing in some way or fashion. I’m competing to make the 53, man. But right now, I feel like I’m the No. 2, but they haven’t really told us anything.”
Although Tolzien didn’t win any of the three games he played in, there’s no question he benefitted from his first extended NFL regular-season action, throwing 90 passes and learning from both good and bad plays. He also benefitted from the offseason program and quarterback school, getting to learn the offense from the ground up instead of taking a crash course like he did last year.
“There’s no substitute for game reps. You make a mistake in practice versus making a mistake in a game when there’s 80,000 people watching, you truly learn the lesson in a game,” Tolzien said. “With that, though, you’re trying to turn the practices into game-like situations so that when the bullets are flying, you’re ready to go.
“It’s always a chase for more knowledge. I’m looking forward to training camp and kind of having a little bit of a foundation going into it this year.”
QUICK READ: QUARTERBACKS
Have the Packers found their long-term backup in Flynn?
From 2008 through 2011, the Packers watched Flynn develop from underdog seventh-round pick who beat out second-rounder Brian Brohm for the backup job to such a trustworthy and effective backup that the Seattle Seahawks paid him $14.5 million to be their starter. While Flynn’s career as a starter never took off – he lost out to then-rookie Russell Wilson, then was traded to Oakland, where he also lost the starting job – he essentially saved the Packers season by engineering second-half comebacks in a tie with Minnesota and one-point victories over Atlanta and Dallas last year. The Packers dragged their feet in re-signing him before giving him a one-year deal in April that included only a $75,000 signing bonus and a base salary of $730,000, and the coaches loved the improvement they saw from Tolzien during the offseason. Nevertheless, both head coach Mike McCarthy and Rodgers have a comfort level with Flynn, and the way he came through in the clutch last season cannot be dismissed.