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For Aaron Rodgers, path to third NFL MVP began with training-camp film discovery
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For Aaron Rodgers, path to third NFL MVP began with training-camp film discovery

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GREEN BAY — Having come of age playing video games and loving the Michael Jordan-era NBA of the late 1980s and 1990s, Aaron Rodgers will still drop a reference from time to time that reminds his younger Green Bay Packers teammates he’s the old man in the locker room.

So it was during a timeout during the Packers’ Jan. 16 NFC divisional playoff victory over the Los Angeles Rams. The 8,000 or so fans in the Lambeau Field bleachers were chanting “M-V-P! M-V-P!” and Rodgers had responded by giving them the sign-language sign for “I love you.”

While the FOX Sports broadcast was still in commercial, Rodgers began regaling his teammates with a story about his favorite video game, NBA 2K, and how early in his NFL career he’d have epic offseason battles with one of his closest friends, Ryan “Papa” Zachary.

Rodgers had grown up worshipping Jordan — he was enthralled by ESPN’s 10-part “The Last Dance” documentary this spring — but he also was such a basketball fan that he has an encyclopedic knowledge of mid-level players from that era, too.

“What happens a lot of times late in games (in NBA 2K) is, if your stud player for the game has had a good game, and gets to the free throw line, (the crowd) will chant, ‘MVP!’” Rodgers recounted. “So I used to tease my buddy ‘Papa,’ I’d be feeding (the ball to) Drew Gooden or Mark Eaton, some random obscure ‘80s or ‘90s or even ‘70s basketball player, try to get him to score 40 or 50 in the game, (just) to hear that ‘MVP!’ chant. It was just something special in those moments.

“(At the end of the Rams game), I was just feeling what that felt like, just how sweet and special that chant is. I’ve heard it a few times over the years, and every time, it gets you. It’s really, really special.”

On Saturday night at the annual NFL Honors awards ceremony on the eve of Super Bowl LV, what those fans chanted that night became official as Rodgers was named the NFL MVP for the third time in his career.

Rodgers, who won the 2011 and 2014 MVPs as well, became just the sixth player in league history to have won the award more than twice, joining Peyton Manning (five), Tom Brady (three), Jim Brown (three), Johnny Unitas (three) and Rodgers’ predecessor, Brett Favre (three).

The award felt like a foregone conclusion when Rodgers was chosen as The Associated Press’ first-team All-Pro quarterback last month, receiving 46 of a possible 50 votes from a panel of media members — the same voters who selected the awards presented Saturday night.

Rodgers beat out Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes for the award, though Rodgers surely would trade spots with Mahomes, who’ll face Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV on Sunday evening. Rodgers received 44 of the 50 votes, while Allen received four and Mahomes received two.

“It’s an honor to win this award for a third time,” Rodgers said in a pre-recorded, virtual acceptance speech. “2020 was definitely a crazy year, filled with lots of change, growth, some amazing, memorable moments. 180 straight days of having my nose hair scraped. A plan for very little fans or no fans the entire season. I got engaged. And I played some of the best football in my career.”

Rodgers, who turned 37 in December, started all 16 regular-season games this past season and completed 372 of 526 passes (a career-best and franchise single-season record 70.7% completion rate) for 4,299 yards with 48 touchdowns and five interceptions (121.5 passer rating). His 48 TD passes were a career-high and team single-season record, and his 121.5 rating was the second-highest of his career and second-highest in NFL history, one point off of his NFL-record 122.5 rating in 2011.

In two playoff games — a 32-18 win over the Rams and a 31-26 loss to the Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game — Rodgers was 56 of 84 (66.7%) for 642 yards with five touchdowns and one interception (104.3 rating).

“He’s one of the best players to ever put a football helmet on,” Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “It started from Day 1 when we got into training camp, even in the offseason. You (could) truly see the enjoyment in his face and in his body language.”

Added coach Matt LaFleur: “When you have great players, they can make you look really good. You look at everything he does for us, obviously leading us on the field, and (to) the No. 1 seed. You look at the production, I think those numbers kind of speak for themselves. I don’t think there’s anybody in the game that’s played as consistent or as well as he has the entire season.”

To be sure, there were a host of reasons for his resurgence, from staying healthy (which he traced to an altered workout regimen that improved his leg strength); to LaFleur’s offensive scheme (where Rodgers found his comfort zone after Zoom meetings with the coaches during the virtual offseason program); to a banner year by the offensive line (which allowed him to be sacked a career full-season low 20 times); to wide receiver Davante Adams’ star turn (the first-team All-Pro wideout caught 115 of Rodgers’ passes); and to whatever motivation Rodgers drew from the team’s decision to trade up in the first round to pick his heir apparent, Jordan Love, in the 2020 NFL draft.

But early on in training camp, during a video-driven playbook installation meeting, Rodgers came across a film clip of a throw he’d made during the 2010 season, when he led the Packers to the Super Bowl XLV title in his third year as the starter. While he was coy at the time about what he’d seen, he explained last month it was a matter of keeping his balance and proper weight distribution on throws, a slight adjustment that in turn improved his timing and accuracy.

“The key that I saw was just the rhythm in my hitch,” Rodgers explained on his final weekly appearance on The Pat McAfee Show on SiriusXM satellite radio late last month. “I was realizing the thing that I was working on back then so much was the sinking into the hitch at the top of my drop. And that was one area that I think that was lacking based on my injury and some of the adjustments I had to make fundamentally to deal with a knee (after a 2018 tibial plateau fracture) and a leg (after a 2014 torn calf muscle) that just wasn’t as strong as it used to be.

“And that’s part of the reason why I really got back into squatting (in the weight room), because I wanted to build that thing up so I could put a ton of weight and pressure into that knee and those legs. Because the deeper I was sinking into my hitches, the more on time I was throwing the ball. And I really just saw how much of an emphasis I was doing that in 2010, 2009, 2011. What that was allowing me to do was, I was throwing the ball on time and all these games I was watching, my timing was very, very good.

“The entire route tree and concepts, I was able to perfectly hitch to them and that’s why I feel like I was so accurate. From that point forward, I literally watched a few of those things and the next day went out and worked on ‘em and things just started clicking.”

And it kept clicking.

“The physical ability of Aaron and his talent as a thrower, as a mover, all that I think is obvious to people. But I think that game within a game is what makes the truly elite quarterbacks special — how they beat you with their mind,” said new Los Angeles Chargers head coach Brandon Staley, who had to game plan for Rodgers as the Rams’ defensive coordinator. “He’s got an incredible awareness of all 22 guys on the field. He’s aware of your sideline. He’s aware of the officials. He has full command over what’s happening on the field and that’s what truly makes him special. It’s something that requires all of us working as a team in order to compete against him, because he does bring that element to the table. I think that’s why he’s one of the special players to play at that position.”

Put it all together, and it led Rodgers to what he called a “special” season, one he said he will long cherish after trying to do exactly that each week throughout the year.

“It’s a perspective change,” Rodgers explained late in the year. “I think a lot of us, myself included at times, we think too much about what we don’t have, comparing ourselves to other situations. I think that robs you of a lot of the joy you can take with you in your daily journey. Just counting my blessing that I do have, being thankful for the things that I have, not wishful or ruing the things that I don’t have or haven’t accomplished or want to accomplish.

“It allows me to stay in the present a little better. And staying in the present allows me to have that good awareness about the things that are important to me.”

The NFL Most Valuable Players named by The Associated Press in balloting by a nationwide panel of the media (x-unanimous):

2020 - Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay, QB

2019 - x-Lamar Jackson, Baltimore, QB

2018 - Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City, QB

2017 - Tom Brady, New England, QB

2016 - Matt Ryan, Atlanta, QB

2015 - Cam Newton, Carolina, QB

2014 - Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay, QB

2013 - Peyton Manning, Denver, QB

2012 - Adrian Peterson, Minnesota, RB

2011 - Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay, QB

2010 - x-Tom Brady, New England, QB

2009 - Peyton Manning, Indianapolis, QB

2008 - Peyton Manning, Indianapolis, QB

2007 - Tom Brady, New England, QB

2006 - LaDainian Tomlinson, San Diego, RB

2005 - Shaun Alexander, Seattle, RB

2004 - Peyton Manning, Indianapolis, QB

2003 - Peyton Manning, Indianapolis, and Steve McNair, Tennessee, QBs

2002 - Rich Gannon, Oakland, QB

2001 - Kurt Warner, St. Louis, QB

2000 - Marshall Faulk, St. Louis, RB

1999 - Kurt Warner, St. Louis, QB

1998 - Terrell Davis, Denver, RB

1997 - Brett Favre, Green Bay, QB, and Barry Sanders, Detroit, RB

1996 - Brett Favre, Green Bay, QB

1995 - Brett Favre, Green Bay, QB

1994 - Steve Young, San Francisco, QB

1993 - Emmitt Smith, Dallas, RB

1992 - Steve Young, San Francisco, QB

1991 - Thurman Thomas, Buffalo, RB

1990 - Joe Montana, San Francisco, QB

1989 - Joe Montana, San Francisco, QB

1988 - Boomer Esiason, Cincinnati, QB

1987 - John Elway, Denver, QB

1986 - Lawrence Taylor, New York Giants, LB

1985 - Marcus Allen, Los Angeles Raiders, RB

1984 - Dan Marino, Miami, QB

1983 - Joe Theismann, Washington, QB

1982 - Mark Moseley, Washington, PK

1981 - Ken Anderson, Cincinnati, QB

1980 - Brian Sipe, Cleveland, QB

1979 - Earl Campbell, Houston, RB

1978 - Terry Bradshaw, Pittsburgh, QB

1977 - Walter Payton, Chicago, RB

1976 - Bert Jones, Baltimore, QB

1975 - Fran Tarkenton, Minnesota, QB

1974 - Ken Stabler, Oakland, QB

1973 - O.J. Simpson, Buffalo, RB

1972 - Larry Brown, Washington, RB

1971 - Alan Page, Minnesota, DT

1970 - John Brodie, San Francisco, QB

1969 - Roman Gabriel, Los Angeles Rams, QB

1968 - Earl Morrall, Baltimore, QB

1967 - John Unitas, Baltimore, QB

1966 - Bart Starr, Green Bay, QB

1965 - Jim Brown, Cleveland, RB

1964 - John Unitas, Baltimore, QB

1963 - Y.A. Tittle, New York Giants, QB

1962 - Jim Taylor, Green Bay, RB

1961 - Paul Hornung, Green Bay, RB

Photos: Packers' 2020 season in pictures

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Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9 a.m. until noon on “Wilde & Tausch” on 100.5 FM ESPN Madison.


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