GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers will report for duty Monday morning for the first day of the Green Bay Packers' offseason program and experience something he hasn’t faced in over a decade: A new head coach with a new offensive playbook.
Perhaps you've heard a bit about it. It's come up once or twice since the Packers' disappointing 2018 season ended with a thud on Dec. 30.
While the first portion of the annual offseason program isn’t Xs and Os oriented — all NFL teams, even ones who get an extra week because they have a new head coach, start with strength and conditioning work — it will mark the start of the veteran quarterback and new head coach Matt LaFleur’s much talked-about “partnership,” as LaFleur has described it.
But there’ll be one feeling the 35-year-old Rodgers will experience that he’s become accustomed to in recent years: Looking around a locker room and once again noticing that one — or more — of his closest friends or longest-tenured teammates is absent.
In 2015, it was linebacker A.J. Hawk, Rodgers’ locker-room neighbor and teammate for the previous nine years, who wasn’t there.
In 2016, fullback John Kuhn, the one player Rodgers would grudgingly acknowledge knew coach Mike McCarthy’s playbook as well as him, was gone. So, too, was wide receiver James Jones, who’d returned the previous season for a one-year curtain call after being Rodgers’ teammate from 2007 through 2013.
In 2017, Rodgers came back but Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang, his teammate since 2009, did not, having left in free agency. And, future Pro Football Hall of Famer Julius Peppers, one of the “old heads” as Rodgers liked to say, wasn’t brought back after a three-year tenure during which he and the quarterback had become close after years of being rivals.
Then came last year, when the team cut wide receiver Jordy Nelson, Rodgers’ BFF and go-to receiver for the better part of a decade. While not necessarily pleased with some of the prior departures, Nelson’s exit bothered Rodgers the most.
This offseason, it happened again with two more of Rodgers’ closest pals. Wide receiver Randall Cobb wasn’t re-signed (he took a one-year, $5 million deal with the Dallas Cowboys), and outside linebacker Clay Matthews (a two-year, $9.5 million deal with the Los Angeles Rams) wasn’t, either. Rodgers and Cobb had not only been together since 2011, but Rodgers stood up in Cobb’s wedding (Nelson did, too) and attended his graduation from the University of Kentucky.
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Matthews and Rodgers had been buddies since Matthews’ arrival in 2009, and the pair not only were the faces of the 2010 team that won Super Bowl XLV, but starred in TV commercials together and had long worked out together in Southern California during the offseason.
Now they’re gone, too.
Rodgers is expected to address reporters when the initial media availability session is set later this week. But in recent years, he’s tried to explain the feeling of looking around the locker room and seeing another familiar nameplate replaced.
“It’s weird. It’s a different locker room,” Rodgers said one recent spring. “It’s tough when you lose guys like that or you show back up in the locker room in spring and they’re not there.
“(But that’s part of getting older in the league. A.J. Hawk, I sat next to him for nine years in the meeting room. His locker was just a couple down from (mine). James Jones came back to us (in 2015) and was our leading receiver, and then he’s not here anymore. And then John (Kuhn). Those are three of my closest friends as teammates over the years. You’d love to see guys like (them) around because you know they can help us win.”
It’s a feeling Rodgers’ predecessor, Brett Favre, experienced at the same point in his career. Whether it was the departure of longtime backup quarterback Doug Pederson, or the retirements of the other 2/3 of the infamous “Three Amigos,” Mark Chmura and Frank Winters, or guards Marco Rivera and Mike Wahle leaving in free agency in 2005, Favre lamented not having his guys around anymore, too.
“The longer you're here, the more that happens,” Favre said when he returned to Green Bay in the spring of 2006 for the start McCarthy’s first season. “It's like I was telling (my wife) Deanna, ‘You know, there's nobody left that was (on the Super Bowl teams).' You look at the roster, and guys were born in the '80s — that's when Deanna and I started dating, '83! It's like, ‘My god! We've got guys born in '83, '84!'
"But it's a good thing because I'm still here; not a lot of guys can say that."
For Rodgers a decade later, it was finding “a lot of '90s babies” in a locker room where only three others — cornerback Tramon Williams, kicker Mason Crosby, and right tackle Bryan Bulaga — were with him for that Super Bowl XLV title. And that means trying to find common ground with players who know him not as the kid tasked with following Favre, but as the two-time NFL MVP and future Hall of Famer.
That’s a process Rodgers is used to, too. And one he’ll start once again on Monday.
“You just have to be intentional about spending time with them and talking to them,” Rodgers said. “The thing you learn as you get older in the league is there’s some apprehension in them coming up to you. They might not feel comfortable asking those questions right away, so you have to have an ice-breaker, whether it’s a joke or a nickname or a funny anecdote that you read about them or found out about them.
“You’ve just got to be intentional about it and find time to talk to those guys. The more comfortable they feel with you, the more comfortable they’re going to be in asking questions. And the more questions that they ask when it’s the appropriate time, the more we can start to get on the same page.”
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9-11 on “Wilde & Tausch” on your local ESPN station.