GREEN BAY — There isn’t a writer covering the 2021 Green Bay Packers who’s more well-respected than Pete Dougherty of the Green Bay Press-Gazette. He’s an old-school, don’t-make-yourself-part-of-the-story throwback in his 29th year on the beat, having started back in 1993, in the early days of the franchise’s renaissance led by Ron Wolf, Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre.
There also isn’t a media member who’s been mentioned more frequently this season by Aaron Rodgers, either, thanks to Dougherty’s with-all-due-respect question about how Rodgers’ running ability has been affected by time — and because of the quarterback’s all-in-good-fun repeated claims that he’s proving Dougherty’s premise wrong with every scramble, run or sneak, up to and including last Sunday’s “I still own you!” touchdown sprint against the Chicago Bears.
“I like to exaggerate (the storyline) just to make Pete feel real good about it,” Rodgers kidded at midweek, as the Packers prepared for Sunday’s game against the Washington Football Team at Lambeau Field. “I can’t say his name enough.”
But while Rodgers may be goofing around, the value of his running ability — even at the advanced football age of 37 — is no joke.
“I’ll be honest with you guys, I don’t even think about his age. To me, it hasn’t shown,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “If anything, his experience is such a benefit for us. He understands how to manipulate the pocket, how to get out of the pocket and then when need be, he takes off and runs.
“It definitely gives you a lot of flexibility, just like we’ve talked about with many of these (other) quarterbacks. Anytime you have a guy that can create off schedule and move the sticks with his legs, he presents another challenge to the defense (and) adds another dimension to your offense.”
It all started on September 15, with Rodgers’ weekly Wednesday Q&A session following the Packers’ horrendous performance in a 38-3 season-opening loss to the New Orleans Saints. Rodgers’ back-and-forth with reporters that day had in no way been contentious, despite his unhappiness with his and the team’s performance three days earlier in Jacksonville, a game Rodgers insisted would prove to be an outlier.
Then Dougherty chimed in late in the press briefing. Little did anyone know at the time that a season-long meme was about to be born.
Dougherty wondered if Rodgers had made any “adaptations” — his word — on the field to account for being 37 years old and in his 14th season as the starter.
“When you say ‘adaptations,’ Pete, what exactly are you talking about?” Rodgers asked. “Are you talking about physical adaptations or mental adaptations or …”
“Both,” Dougherty replied. “A little less mobility, for instance.”
Rodgers smirked, one of his multi-use facial expressions that can come from bemusement, annoyance, begrudging respect — or just be to buy time while contemplating an answer.
“Hmmmm,” Rodgers pondered as several in the room chuckled. (Rodgers has always insisted on doing such interviews in front of his locker, but the NFL’s COVID-19 restrictions are keeping even vaccinated reporters out of the locker room again this season.) “I think that comes with age, for sure.
“Just for you, Pete, I’m going to break off a couple runs this week if I can. I’ll be thinking about you. I wish I could dap you up in the locker room next week after I bust off a career long.”
Rodgers paused briefly, then delivered his actual answer — and an honest self-evaluation.
“I think you saw last year, Pete, when I can play on time in the pocket, obviously I can be really accurate and we can get really humming on offense, And that’s the goal,” Rodgers said of a 2020 season in which he won his third MVP while setting career highs for completion percentage (70.5) and touchdown passes (48) and finishing with a quarterback rating (121.5) that was one point shy of his NFL-record rating set in 2011.
“(I) ran around for a long time around here. But I’m not quite the runner that I used to be. I’d like to stay in the pocket as much as possible. But, adaptation-wise, I don’t know. It just comes down to footwork. When I’m throwing the ball on time and in rhythm, I’m pretty effective.”
It turns out he’s also still effective on those rare occasions when he runs, as evidenced by what he did against the Bears last Sunday.
For all the attention his trash-talking, boastful shout at Chicago fans in the end zone stands got all week long, lost in the conversation was the fact that Rodgers had a 16-yard scramble on the game’s first play from scrimmage; a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak that gained 2 yards to keep the Packers’ first touchdown drive going; and that now-infamous 6-yard touchdown sprint after finding no one open in the end zone.
“He’ll tell you it’s a huge part of his game. He’ll let you know that he’s a runner,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. ”But I think it is great to see him be able to get out there and be dangerous.”
Picking his spots
While seven yardage-losing kneel-downs at the end of halves have killed his per-carry average, Rodgers has had seven legitimate carries this season and gained 34 yards on them.
Against Detroit in Week 2, he had a 5-yard run and pair of 1-yard scrambles. Against Pittsburgh in Week 4, he had a 4-yard touchdown run. And against the Bears, his three runs produced 24 total yards.
And after each of those games, Rodgers singled out Dougherty in postgame press conferences, joking with him or mentioning him after beating the Lions (“That was for you, buddy”), Steelers (“I thought about you, Pete”) and Bears (“I don’t know if Pete’s here, but he inspired me with my running”).
Interestingly, in the Packers’ other three games this season, Rodgers did not run the ball once, and his 27 net rushing yards through six games puts him on pace for 76 rushing yards for a 17-game season — a career low, even including the 2013 and 2017 seasons, when he missed extended time with collarbone injuries.
In the 11 full seasons Rodgers has started, he’s run for at least 200 yards in nine of those seasons — all nine coming during coach Mike McCarthy’s tenure. Since running for 269 yards in 2018, when McCarthy was fired with four games left in the season, Rodgers’ rushing numbers have cratered. He ran for only 183 yards during his first season in LaFleur’s offense in 2019, and only 149 yards last season.
So far this season 29 other quarterbacks, including Tom Brady (37 yards) have run for more yardage than Rodgers. Regular starters with fewer rushing yards include Atlanta’s Matt Ryan, the Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford, San Francisco’s Jimmy Garopplo and New England’s Mac Jones, who all have 26 yards.
“When it comes to running, scrambling, I always want that to be a part of my game,” Rodgers said. “It obviously hasn’t been the last few years, one, because this offense is way more schematic; and two, the protections have been better. Those are two great plusses, and every now and then — when necessary — I can get out and move around still a little bit.”
Throughout his career, Rodgers has always emphasized his belief in extending plays with his legs to set up big plays in the passing game, not running just for the sake of running. That was his philosophy even when his production on the ground — he ranks 13th all-time in Packers history in rushing yards (3,298) and seventh in rushing touchdowns (33) — was significant.
And while running for big yardage may no longer be a major part of his repertoire, making sure his legs remain strong has become an even greater focus. Ever since suffering a tibial plateau fracture in his leg in the 2018 opener, Rodgers has redoubled his leg workouts, making squats a centerpiece of his workout regimen — both in the offseason, and in-season.
And his commitment to trying to reverse his legs’ aging process traces in part back to advice he got from McCarthy.
“I think the focus as you get up over 35 has got to be more on the legs than it was at 25. (And) my squatting in-season, I feel like really helped me get my legs back after my 2018 injury,” Rodgers explained.
“Mike used to say that, and it just always stuck with me, because I thought about some of the quarterbacks that he’d been around and some of the quarterbacks that I enjoyed watching, and it seemed like toward the end of their careers, they became less and less mobile and less and less able to generate power and force from the ground.
“I always wanted to work on those things. (But) it was pushed right in my face in ’18 when I had that difficult injury to my left leg and had a hard time getting my rhythm and my balance and my strength back. So I just rededicated myself, and I feel it’s made a difference.”
Myers on injured reserve
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