If Aaron Rodgers looks like a better quarterback, it’s because Rodgers feels like a better quarterback.
Rodgers, who’s in his fifth year in the NFL, was named to his first Pro Bowl team this week. The honor is the latest milestone for a quarterback who admitted this week that he was “pretty nervous” during his cameo appearances in games early in his career.
And that so-called “sophomore slump?” Forget about it — he’s better in every category following a breakout 2008 season. After throwing for 4,038 yards, 28 touchdowns and 13 interceptions with 63.6 percent accuracy last year, he’s thrown for 4,199 yards, 29 touchdowns and seven interceptions with 63.9 percent accuracy entering today’s regular-season finale at Arizona. His passer rating was 93.8 last season, when the Packers went 6-10. This year, it’s 102.4 as the Packers are 10-5 and headed for the playoffs.
Chalk up that improvement to that old sports adage of the “game slowing down.”
“I think you’ve got to train yourself to just think quickly but have your mind work very slowly,” Rodgers told Packer Report for the cover story of the upcoming magazine. “It kind of doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t even make sense when I’m saying it, but the more experience you get in the games, the slower the game’s going to seem to you, although your mind is still going very, very quickly and you’re diagnosing a number of things in milliseconds.”
That mental game goes a long way toward explaining how Rodgers has become one of the game’s truly elite quarterbacks. A lot of quarterbacks have talent. A lot of them have intelligence. He’s just one of the rare players with a combination of both — with a large helping of poise and toughness to go with it.
“Everyone does have a certain amount of talent but I think he’s on the upper end of talent level and I think he’s on the upper end as far as intelligence and decision-making,” quarterbacks coach Tom Clements said. “Ultimately as a quarterback, it comes down to the decisions you make with the ball. Obviously, you have to have a certain amount of talent but you have the ball in your hand every play. If you’re able to get it to the right guy generally and get an accurate throw to him, you’re going to have success, and he’s been able to do that.”
Rodgers was able to do that last year, but not always in the key spots. This year, Rodgers has come through in clutch situations more often than not. There are the big-picture things, such as his Week 1 touchdown pass that beat the Bears and his three-touchdown fourth quarter at Pittsburgh. And there are the smaller things, such as his league-leading performance on third downs. His ability to avoid turnovers (league-low seven interceptions) can’t be overstated.
“All that training comes from the film study, the study of your own game plan,” Rodgers said. “It takes awhile to really understand it. When I got into a game my first and second years, even on run plays or short passes that I was able to do, I was pretty nervous and it was all kind of foreign to me. But once you get that feel for your own offense and get into a preparation schedule where all week you’re building confidence about the game plan and about what you’re going to see on Sunday, when you get into the game on Sunday, it’s all the things you’ve seen before.”
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Woodson vs. Fitzgerald
One of the story lines this week is how Greg Jennings and Larry Fitzgerald worked out together this offseason and developed a mutual respect for each other.
That respect also runs deep between Fitzgerald and the man who might be covering him today — and in a possible playoff rematch next week — fellow NFC Pro Bowler Charles Woodson.
Asked this week if he has gone to Jennings to get any information about Fitzgerald, Woodson smiled and laughed.
“I don’t have to. He’s on the highlights every week,” Woodson said.
Fitzgerald frequently exchanges text-messages with Jennings to get a scouting report on common opponents. That didn’t change this week; not surprisingly, Jennings didn’t send a reply.
Not that Fitzgerald needed Jennings’ help, because he had Woodson pretty well figured out during a conference call on Wednesday.
“He moves around so much on the field, so you’ve always got to account for him, not only in the passing game but blitzing and picking him up in protection,” Fitzgerald said. “You’ve got to always watch where he’s going. He does a great of disguising and running across, motioning and blitzing, and causing a lot of havoc in the line count. So not only for the receivers but for the backs, the quarterbacks, the offensive line, he causes problems for everybody. We have to do a good job of running good, crisp routes on him and trying to get separation. He does a good job of locking onto receivers and making great plays on the ball.”
Fitzgerald said it was “amazing” to consider Woodson was having the best season of his 12-year career, citing his ball skills and ability to read routes.
Fitzgerald’s 94 receptions rank sixth in the NFL. Woodson’s eight interceptions are tied for second. Their battles will be must-see TV.
“It’s going to be fun,” Woodson said. “You know they’re going to air it out. That’s what they’re known for. They have some great players on that offense, great quarterback and they’re known for throwing the ball around. For the guys in the secondary, it’s a great challenge for us and we look forward to it.”
Woodson lent some additional insight into this matchup. While cornerback vs. receiver generally is seen as a one-on-one clash, Woodson sees it differently because of his incredibly high football IQ and wealth of experience.
“You play the offense. It’s not always necessarily playing the receiver. You play the offense,” he said. “When they go out there and they line up, you get a good understanding of what they’re doing, what they’re trying to do and you play the offense. You worry about the receiver next.
Speaking of Jennings and Fitzgerald
Sometimes, a peek at the statistics will open your eyes. Take, for instance, the NFL receiving leaders. Fitzgerald is back in the Pro Bowl while Jennings seemingly has had a quiet season.
But in terms of receiving yards, Jennings ranks 15th with 1,084 while Fitzgerald is 16th with 1,075.
Jennings had just one 100-yard game during a 10-game span but has back-to-back games of 118 yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh and 111 yards against Seattle. While offensive coordinator Joe Philbin didn’t agree with the premise that Jennings is a “different guy” because of those workouts with Fitzgerald, it’s encouraging that Jennings has back-to-back big games after only two 100-yard performances in his first 15 December games.
“Man, he’s just so smooth in and out of his routes, the way he catches the ball, how fluid he is, no wasted movements in his routes, and then once he gets the ball in his hands, he’s one of the best premier guys in the league running after the catch,” Fitzgerald said. “I mean, you saw the play he made against the Steelers. I saw him make the play against the San Francisco 49ers when he split the safeties. I mean, the guy, when he gets the football in his hands, he’s just a tough person to get down on the ground and he prides himself on that. I watch him every week. I get his cutups every single week. I just watch his routes and what he does after the catch. It’s something I really try to emulate. God didn’t bless me with those kinds of hips and feet but I’m working on it.”
A bread-and-butter play on the offense has become the “smoke” route in which Rodgers takes one step and just throws the ball to Jennings or Donald Driver. Last week, Jennings turned one of them into a 24-yard gain to the 3-yard line.
“You’ve got to love those plays,” Philbin said. “We say all the time, the chalkboard is overrated. Getting the ball to a player and giving him a chance to make a play is more important, and that’s a great illustration right there.”
Special teams on the mend
Lost in the shuffle of Mason Crosby’s struggles, the Packers’ special teams have been on the uptick in recent weeks.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
So, not surprisingly, with Crosby coming off a 2-for-2 week, only two reporters gathered around special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum on Thursday. With Crosby perhaps working out his kinks and the weekly gaffes by the coverage units largely eliminated, apparently good news is no news.
“We went through a scenario of having to change personnel, which is fairly common in this league, and we experienced some lack of continuity as a result and gave up some plays,” Slocum said. “The guys have really done a great job of responding to that adversity and working hard to improve the special teams. I think you’ve seen over the last couple weeks that we’ve been more and more productive, particularly in our coverage.”
One area in which the Packers have quietly produced is kickoff returns. Jordy Nelson’s average of 24.8 yards per return ranks 15th in the NFL, and 18 of his 22 returns have gone at least 20 yards. That 81.8 percent, for context, is much better than Percy Harvin (64.3 percent) or Josh Cribbs (73.1 percent). Since Nelson’s fumble against Detroit, the Packers’ average starting position following a kickoff has been the 32.7-yard line. What’s been missing is the explosive runback. While Nelson’s strength has led to consistency, his lack of big-time speed has sometimes made him late to the hole.
“I think overall, we’ve done a very good job blocking on the kickoff return for the most part,” Slocum said. “The first kickoff return (against Seattle), we turned a guy loose in the middle and Jordy made him miss and got us some production. The next one was very well blocked and he didn’t burst through the hole. It’s a combination of the blocking and the runner pressing the track that he’s on and trying to explode through the open area. We’ve got some production but we’d like to hit a big one.”
Couple the improved coverage and consistent returns with — hopefully — a rejuvenated Crosby, and perhaps the Packers’ maligned special teams will be a strength in the playoffs.
“I feel good about Mason,” Slocum said. “He is very practical in his approach to his job. He has done a good job of really evaluating his entire process as far as the entire kick. I think you see it in the results of his hard work, and last week was an indication of him getting on track.”
— Like the Packers, the Cardinals have two Pro Bowlers in the secondary with a cornerback (Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie) and safety (Adrian Wilson). “Their back end is talented. It’s as good of talent in the secondary as we’ve played all year,” Philbin said.
— Fitzgerald is the Pro Bowler but Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston give the Cardinals an embarrassment of riches in the passing game. Combined, those three receivers have a league-high 227 receptions. “The size of these guys, just the physicality of both Larry and Anquan is unique to one team,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “This will be a big challenge, and I’m sure they’ll try to spread us out and challenge us that way. They’re two definitely Pro Bowl-special players.”
— Woodson was voted to his sixth Pro Bowl this week and is a top candidate to be named defensive player of the year. “Anytime you go out on the field, you go out there to win the game, of course, but you go out there to be consistent and a reliable player,” he said. “That’s what that award is. You go out there and you make plays and continue to make them throughout the course of the season and you’re mentioned as far as defensive player of the year, you know you’re doing some things right. Accompany that with us winning, getting into the playoffs, makes it that much sweeter.”
— If the Packers can score 29 points, they’ll set a new franchise record. The record of 456 was set in 1996. On defense, the Packers never have led the league in run defense. Green Bay leads that category by 31 yards over Cincinnati.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at email@example.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.