Packers by Position: QBs

GREEN BAY – In the climactic scene of the otherwise forgettable 1998 movie Rounders, John Malkovich’s character Teddy KGB utters the most memorable line of the film when Matt Damon’s character Mike McDermott beats him in a high-stakes game of poker.

Pay him. Pay that man his money.

Soon, another Ted – Green Bay Packers general manager Ted Thompson – figures to be saying that about another winner: Quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

In the wake of the New Orleans Saints signing quarterback Drew Brees to a five-year, $100 million deal that averages an NFL-record $20 million per season and reportedly includes a $37 million signing bonus and $60 million in guaranteed money, the market has been set for Rodgers, who won’t turn 29 until December (Brees is 33) and enters the 2012 season as the reigning NFL MVP.

Of course, Rodgers’s current contract doesn’t run out until after the 2014 season, and there’s a star-studded list of players ahead of him on the re-signing timeline, from defensive stalwarts Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji (both of whom are up after 2013 and, like Rodgers, are represented by David Dunn of Athletes First) to two-time Pro Bowl wideout Greg Jennings (whose three-year, $27 million extension runs out after the 2012 season and could be very expensive to re-sign).

So while it’s hard to predict in the wake of Brees’ megadeal when Rodgers will get his — the six-year, $65 million extension Rodgers signed in 2008 included $20 million in guaranteed money after he’d made only seven starts – this much is clear: Rodgers is on top of his game and, provided he stays healthy, will surpass Brees as the league’s highest-paid player in the relatively near future.

In the meantime, he’s faced with the challenge of replicating or improving upon one of the most statistically impressive seasons in NFL history, having set the NFL record for single-season passer efficiency and several team records for single-season productivity.

Rodgers finished the year having completed 343 of 502 passes (68.3 percent) for 4,643 yards (9.25 yards per attempt) with 45 TDs and six interceptions (a 1.2 percent interception rate) while being sacked 36 times in 15 games, setting an NFL record for single-season passer rating (122.5) while breaking the franchise record for touchdown passes and passing yardage in 15 games before sitting out the meaningless regular-season finale against the Detroit Lions on Jan. 1.

Putting up similar numbers won’t be easy, as Rodgers – being an amateur NFL historian – well knows. 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.

“I think it’s going to be tough,” Rodgers admitted. “Not a lot of guys have been able to equal the numbers they had. I mean, Peyton had 49 touchdowns one year, Tom had 50. It’s been tough to replicate the crazy numbers we’ve seen from the 50 touchdowns of Tom and so on.

“But I think really the focus changed last year from a desire to maybe make the Pro Bowl every year, be considered one of the top guys to realizing that winning championships is the most important thing. After you win the first one you kind of take it for granted almost because it’s so special. You feel like you’ve got a young team, you’ll be back every year and just trying to remember how important each season, each opportunity is.”

It’s not as though Rodgers won’t be challenged this year – by more than just opposing defenses hell-bent on stopping him. His coaching dynamic changed significantly this offseason, after quarterbacks coach Tom Clements was promoted to offensive coordinator to replace now-Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin, and tight ends coach Ben McAdoo shifted over to become quarterbacks coach. Before McAdoo’s hiring, Rodgers expressed a preference for a coach who’d played the position in the NFL and had coached it before – as turned out to be the case with Alex Van Pelt, whom head coach Mike McCarthy hired to coach running backs – but said during the offseason that he and McAdoo are working well together.

Asked what he could do to help the reigning NFL MVP improve, McAdoo wouldn’t say what goals he’s set with Rodgers, deferring to the quarterback on whether he would want to share them.

“There’s certain things that different guys need at different stages in their career. He obviously doesn’t need a lot of the fluff,” McAdoo said of his dynamic with Rodgers. “He knows the offense; he’s been here since 2006 when we put it in. He’s had an opportunity to learn the wrinkles. He knows the offense as well as anybody.”

With arguably the best backup quarterback insurance policy in the league, Matt Flynn, having departed as a free agent in March to sign with Seattle, the Packers appear content to let Graham Harrell, the third-stringer the past two years, ascend to the No. 2 job. A club source shot down reports on two occasions that the team would pursue a trade for ex-Cleveland Browns starter Colt McCoy – “We like Graham,” the source insisted – but if Harrell bombs, it’s conceivable that the team could change course.

“It’s nice that they didn’t bring in a veteran guy,” Harrell said, adding that his snaps in OTAs and minicamp have been invaluable. “I think the best way to learn an offense more than anything, at least for me, is to get reps. Watching film and stuff like that is very beneficial, no question about it. But the best way to learn things is to actually do it. So the more reps you get, the better you get.”

Asked about Harrell’s development after two seasons spent primarily on the practice squad, McAdoo replied: “I think he’s a smart guy. I think he’s a conscientious player. I think he’s a much better athlete than he’s been given credit for in the past. I think he has a bright future. … Graham just needs to play. He feels comfortable with the protections, with the pass game. He just needs to go through it. He’s going to get more opportunities this year in training camp being the No. 2 guy as it sits right now.”

Meanwhile, as for Rodgers’ contract, he isn’t making any noise about being underpaid, even though he’s set to earn base salaries of $8 million in 2012, $9.25 million in 2013 and $10.5 million in 2014

Late last season, Rodgers said on his weekly radio show that he wasn’t worried about when he’d get a new deal, saying, “It’s not something I think about. We were so blessed to be able to have that contract done in 2008. We knew at the time that was more money than I ever could have imagined signing for, and it was a no brainer for me. But we knew if I performed the way I felt I was capable of performing, that by league standards that by the time I got into my third or fourth or fifth season, that I’d be underpaid by league standards.

“But I don’t look at it that way. I look at it as I’m fortunate to make the kind of money I make and be in the situation I’m in and be with the Packers’ organization. I want to retire as a Packer. They know that, the fans know that, my teammates know that, and this is where I want to be. I’m not worried about (a new contract). We’re still a few years away from me completing this deal, and whenever it comes time to make a new deal, I’m looking forward to maybe signing my last deal, playing it out, and retiring.”