Packers’ Rodgers: A beautiful mind
GREEN BAY — Matt Flynn thought for a moment, then smiled.
Sure, the Green Bay Packers backup quarterback said, Aaron Rodgers is a smart guy. Very smart. Among the smartest guys he’s ever met.
But he’s no Peter Dyakowski.
“He’s a member of MENSA,” Flynn said with an exaggerated ho-hum. “He won the game show, ‘Smartest Man in Canada.'”
He’s also Flynn’s old college roommate at LSU, and plays in the Canadian Football League with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
“Pretty smart guy.”
“Overrated,” Flynn quipped.
When Flynn had sufficiently amused himself at the expense of Rodgers – who, incidentally, was just a few feet away, at his neighboring locker – the jokes stopped and the serious discussion began: Amid one of the most impressive streaks of quarterbacking the NFL has ever seen, is it possible that more than anything else, it’s Rodgers’ brain – more than his rocket arm, or his ever-young, play-extending legs – that makes him, arguably, the NFL’s best QB?
“He’s got a heck of a combination going,” Flynn said. “Usually being the most talented guy out there on the field, extremely smart, and he’s got a lot experience, so there are a lot of moves he’s making that he probably didn’t do his first couple years. But now he has so much game experience to go along with everything else that he has, that there are these little nuances and movements in his game that have made him pretty deadly.”
Several years ago, Rodgers did a series of video vignettes as part of a promotional campaign with Green Bay-based Associated Bank. During one of them, he discusses all that goes through his mind from the moment the Packers break the huddle – back when they weren’t in constant no-huddle mode – to when he takes the snap from center. And at the very end of the 90-second piece, he explains how all that intelligence is put into practice.
“All that stuff happens so quickly, but when you’ve seen it and you’ve experienced it, you’re able to not let your thoughts overtake your ability to react to what you’re seeing.”
And that’s exactly what Rodgers has been doing, erasing the Packers’ – and his – slow start by leading the team to six victories in its last seven games, including back-to-back 50-point performances in wins over the Chicago Bears and Philadelphia Eagles at Lambeau Field. With their 53-20 rout of the Eagles Sunday, the Packers scored 50 points in consecutive games for the first time in the club’s 94-year history, and became only the fifth team ever to accomplish the feat. With 330 points, they lead the NFL in scoring and have a shot at the team’s 2011 franchise record for points in a season (560).
And at the center of it all is Rodgers, orchestrating coach Mike McCarthy’s efficient, no-huddle attack.
“Aaron at the line of scrimmage, his ability as far as recognition, anticipation – he’s off the charts,” McCarthy said. “Just the way he sees the game and the way he’s able to react and communicate and adjust, he’s at the highest level of his career.
“You can’t play quarterback without the ability to process, anticipate, recognize. Then, you have the mental toughness part of it. Clearly, I think the strength of any successful quarterback is his mental and emotional gifts, and Aaron is definitely at the highest level.”
That mental toughness was tested early, when the Packers offense wasn’t clicking the way it is currently.
In the first three games of the season, as the Packers stumbled to a 1-2 start, Rodgers completed 64 of 102 passes (62.7 percent) for 697 yards with five touchdowns and one interception for a passer rating of 95.1. Since then, the Packers have gone 6-1 to move into a first-place tie in the NFC North while Rodgers has completed 145 of 211 passes (68.7 percent) for 2,051 yards with 23 touchdowns and two interceptions for a passer rating of 132.2 in those seven games.
Against the Eagles, Rodgers finished 22 for 36 for 341 yards with three TDs, no INTs and a passer rating of 120.3 – only his fifth-highest single-game passer rating this season. Entering Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, he’s 209 of 313 (66.8 percent) for 2,748 yards with 28 touchdowns against only three interceptions for an NFL-best passer rating of 120.1 – putting himself in the thick of the NFL MVP race.
“If you blitzed him, he got it out quick. If you didn’t, he held it until guys got open. He got it to everybody,” Eagles coach Chip Kelly said of Rodgers’ virtuoso performance Sunday. “Everybody contributed for him, but that all starts with the trigger man, and he put on a show. He is as good as they get.”
Especially at playing the game between the ears.
“He’s seen everything. Been through a lot. He’s a very smart, talented guy who has a lot of belief in what he can do and the guys around him can do,” said leading receiver Jordy Nelson, who has caught nine of Rodgers’ 28 touchdown passes this season. “He’s going to be able to handle anything that comes his way. We just have to make sure everybody else is doing the same.”
Nelson knows how vital that is, as Rodgers’ football IQ was on full display on the 73-yard touchdown he caught on the opening possession against Chicago.
The play began with McCarthy’s call from the sideline, but as Rodgers surveyed the Bears’ defensive alignment – man coverage, with one safety high – he knew the call wouldn’t convert the third-and-12 the Packers were facing. So after Nelson went in motion, Rodgers changed the play, and linebacker Lance Briggs in turn tried to change the Bears’ defense, too, to a Cover-2 zone look.
One problem: While Rodgers had his 10 teammates on the same page, Briggs didn’t. Cornerback Tim Jennings thought he had safety help, but safeties Brock Vereen and Chris Conte were still in a 1-high look and the linebackers were in Cover-2.
“You just had guys on different pages,” Rodgers said on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com last Tuesday. “When an offensive play is run well, it takes all 11 guys on the same page, and when a defensive team gets beat, a lot of times it’s because not everybody’s on the same page. That’s kind of what happened there.”
And that made the throw the least of Rodgers’ concerns, his brain already having beaten the Bears on the play.
“One of those easy ones, you just want to make sure you put it in his area,” Rodgers said of the throw. “Jordy caught it and did the rest.”
So how does he do it? Offensive coordinator Tom Clements, who was Rodgers’ position coach from 2006 through 2011, said Monday he knew from the first offseason quarterback school that Rodgers was intellectually unique. As they discussed concepts and the intricacies of the new offense – Rodgers, who’d spent his rookie season of 2005 under head coach Mike Sherman, offensive coordinator Tom Rossley and quarterbacks coach Darrell Bevell, was starting the second of three years as Brett Favre’s backup – Clements was struck by Rodgers’ understanding not only of the whats but the whys. Although his smarts might have been God-given, Rodgers felt it was incumbent upon him to sharpen them
“You could just tell,” Clements said. “We always say that the smart players are the best players. And he’s obviously a very smart player. He has the physical tools to go along with the mental ability.”
Quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, who played the position for nine years in the NFL as a backup and is in his first year as Rodgers’ position coach, was struck by Rodgers’ brainpower while he was still coaching the running backs, before he began working directly with Rodgers on a daily basis.
“He sees things very quickly. His ability to process information is second to none,” Van Pelt said. “That’s a huge part of playing the position is being able to process the information right up to the snap of the ball. It’s something that he’s exceptional at. He sees the field well. Through film study, he understands concepts of what they’re trying to do. He can ID that very quickly.
“A big part of his success is his intelligence. That one to Jordy that he changed the play on, the coverage was a bust, but still, he has to have the understanding of, ‘Hey, this is what they’re in. This is how I beat it,’ and be able to process it so quickly and get it done. It’s one of the things that separates him.”
For his part, Rodgers went back to something Flynn said – when he wasn’t poking fun at him. Although pure intelligence is important, Rodgers said, having the experience to recognize something and applying that previous knowledge to the present play is how he believes his smarts help him the most.
“The ability to recall – whether it’s memories from practice that week, a play from six years ago when you were [first] starting, or something you saw on film – very quickly is really important,” Rodgers explained. “I think the ability to recall things quickly and have a picture in your mind when you break the huddle and you get to the line of scrimmage is very important, and that’s part of being a good player.
“It’s based on film study, it’s based on the practice reps, it’s based on the plays you want to run. You have to put it all together. You have to learn how to watch film and learn how to study guys and just react to things very quickly. I think trusting your reactions and your instincts is very important to playing the position well, and you have to pair that with really good film study and preparation so when you get out there you can look for the right things but then just react to things quickly and make the proper decisions. A lot of times, you have an idea of what’s coming, but you always have to get a good pre-snap, at-the-snap and post-snap read, put it all together and make the proper throw.”
And then, the Packers’ would-be MENSA member added it all up.
“The mental part of it is 90 percent of it,” he said. “And the other half is athleticism.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
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