GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers rolled his eyes at the thought.
Had he and head coach Mike McCarthy had their issues during their 13 joined-at-the-hip seasons together? Of course, they had. Some of them significant, especially later in McCarthy’s tenure. Rodgers wasn’t about to dispute any of that.
But the suggestion in a national report this spring that the Green Bay Packers two-time NFL MVP quarterback was still carrying a grudge over the 2005 NFL draft — McCarthy had been the San Francisco 49ers offensive coordinator when the Niners passed on Rodgers and took Utah quarterback Alex Smith instead with the No. 1 overall pick that year — and it was at the root of them not seeing eye to eye?
“Yeah, it irritated me — until we won a Super Bowl and I won a couple MVPs,” Rodgers said during an offseason ESPN Wisconsin interview. “Those chips are gone. You have to find new ways to motivate yourself.
“I’ve talked about it many times. As you get older, you have to find different ways to motivate yourself and different things that inspire you. The whole, ‘Who are we playing this week? Oh, they passed on me in ’05.’ I don’t think like that.
“I’m fortunate I’m here. This is my 15th year. It’s the butterfly effect we talk about. If they picked me, who knows? Would I still be here at age 35, living out my dream and still getting to play? Probably not. So, why should I have animosity toward a decision that happened that actually built character at a time when I needed a little bit of humility?”
OK, so Rodgers isn’t harboring any ill will toward McCarthy, who was fired on Dec. 2 with four games left in his 13th season as head coach, or toward the 49ers, whom the Packers face on Nov. 24 at Levi’s Stadium. Glad that’s cleared up.
But if Rodgers, who is entering his 12th season as the team’s starter and is set to turn 36 in December, is in need of extrinsic motivation, he has plenty of chips available to him as the 2019 season approaches.
With a new head coach (Matt LaFleur), a new offensive scheme (the popular Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay offense that’s become so chic league-wide), and plenty of doubters who wonder if recent injuries (a 2018 tibial plateau fracture in his left knee that he played through, a 2017 broken right collarbone that he couldn’t) have brought his otherworldly game crashing back to earth.
How much of last season’s below-standard numbers were related to his injury, his largely inexperienced receiver group or the quarterback-playcaller relationship going stale is hard to say. It’s also fair to ask if Father Time is closing the gap on Rodgers.
Nonetheless, his 2018 numbers were what they were: He finished with a 97.6 passer rating, the third-lowest of his time as a starter, and while he threw for 4,442 yards and 25 touchdowns with only two interceptions, he only completed 62.3 percent of his passes, his second-worst season completion percentage as a starter. He also absorbed a whopping 49 sacks — the third-most of his tenure — and often seemed to hold on to the ball longer than he should have.
Whether Rodgers held the ball because he wasn’t sure whether his wideouts not named Davante Adams would be open, or he was freelancing out of a play-call he didn’t like, he should benefit from LaFleur’s scheme, which is largely predicated on the quarterback getting the ball out quickly and in rhythm. Throughout offseason practices, that emphasis was crystal clear.
“Aaron is Aaron. Aaron has done some pretty good things up to this point in his career,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett deadpanned. “I think we’re still trying to understand this whole offense as a group, and where we can try to take him even farther. I think that’s what we’re always trying to find out, what we’re trying to accomplish. We just want to make it even easier for him.
“He’s already at a very high level and we’ve all seen that. We all know that. And I think that our job as coaches with this offense is to just try to fit it with him and give him more ammo.”
12 Aaron Rodgers: 6-foot-2, 225, age 35, 15th year from California.
9 DeShone Kizer: 6-4, 235, 23, third year from Notre Dame.
8 Tim Boyle: 6-4, 232, 24, second year from Eastern Kentucky.
18 Manny Wilkins: 6-2, 193, 23, rookie from Arizona State.
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Is Kizer ready if disaster strikes?
When pressed into duty twice last season, when Rodgers departed the season-opener with what was feared to be a season-ending leg injury, and when Rodgers departed the regular-season finale with a concussion, Kizer was not good enough. He completed just 20 of 42 passes (47.6 percent) for 187 yards with no touchdowns, two interceptions and four sacks (40.5 rating).
The thought had to have crossed many Packers fans’ minds — not to mention general manager Brian Gutekunst’s and then-head coach Mike McCarthy’s — that if Rodgers’ injury was catastrophic, the Packers were in deep trouble with Kizer playing in his stead. Whether the new coaching staff and new scheme will fit Kizer better remains to be seen, but the fact is that departed backup Brett Hundley didn’t play well enough in 2017 when Rodgers missed nearly 10 games with a broken right collarbone, and Kizer did little in preseason (53.3 completion percentage, 88.2 rating) and limited regular-season action to inspire much more confidence.
Kizer was up-and-down during the offseason practices open to the media, but no one on the offensive side of the ball was stellar as they learned LaFleur’s scheme — Kizer’s third in three years after starting his NFL career with Cleveland in 2017.
“There’s some guys that pick stuff up quick, there’s some guys that take a little bit longer time. It’s always hard once you’re on that third, fourth system in a short career at this level, with so many high expectations for everybody,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “There’s so many things that we ask those guys to do. So we just need to slow it down for them.”
On the rise
One of the pleasant surprises of camp a year ago when he won a spot on the 53-man roster with his rocket arm and potential, Boyle doesn’t seem worried about playing for a new coach in a new offense. He did that a lot in college — he played for three coaches in three years at UConn, then started over when he transferred to Eastern Kentucky for his final year of eligibility — and believes what he learned as a rookie gave him the foundation he needs to handle the transition.
“It’s hard to tell (how much improvement there has been) because I haven’t played in an actual, competitive game,” admitted Boyle, who saw no regular-season action after playing 107 snaps in preseason, when he completed 26 of 53 passes for 294 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions for a 69.2 rating. “But I’d like to think I’ve gotten better. Just being around Aaron, your game increases so rapidly. You feel like your accuracy increases, your arm strength increases, just because you want to keep up with Aaron.”
Player to watch
Among the offseason storylines was how Rodgers, a virtuoso at changing plays at the line of scrimmage, and LaFleur, whose offensive scheme is predicated on the quarterback running either the play that’s called or another so-called “can” play built into the call, would find common ground on the issue. Both acknowledged that the feeling-out and getting-on-the-same-page processes will continue during training camp, but the drama that seemed to follow the narrative might have been overblown considering that LaFleur was already talking during the annual NFL scouting combine in February about modifying the scheme to take advantage of Rodgers’ skill set.
“We traditionally haven’t had a whole lot of audibles, per se, in our offense. That’s not to say that that’s going to be the way we’re going forward because, again, we’re going to build it our way,” LaFleur said then. “We try to give the quarterback as many tools as possible.
“We call them ‘cans’ – and you’ll see him where he’ll ‘can’ to the other play. That’s always been a part of the offenses that I’ve been a part of, especially more in the last four years. It’s about trying to maximize your plays and try to get to premium-opportunity plays. That’s going to be a big part of our offense moving forward. We’ll have to see where it goes in terms of giving him freedom to, if he sees something, to totally erase what’s been called and get to something else.”
While the Packers gave the Browns a former first-round pick — Damarious Randall, who appears on a Pro Bowl trajectory at the safety position — to get Kizer 16 months ago, the Packers will have a wide-open competition for the backup job behind Rodgers. And during the offseason, neither Kizer nor Boyle looked particularly sharp in practices open to the media.
“Moving into training camp, that’s really when we’re hoping to see strides from really everybody,” Hackett said.
Asked if he felt any of the three backup candidates could win games for him, LaFleur replied, “Yeah, I definitely think both these guys are NFL quarterbacks. It’s just, how fast is it going to come for them? There (were) some really good moments, and some where you’d like some more consistency. But they’re competing every day. I know they’re giving us their all.
“When you look at it, they’re still young players. Especially when you’re talking about the early stages of learning a new offense, there’s going to be a learning curve. That’s to be expected.”