Not surprisingly after Sunday's tour de force, the mailbag this week was full of questions about the Packers' Aaron Rodgers. Although I have touched on some of this before, here are a few of them, with too many names to specify individually, with a couple other Packers-Bears questions:
You've been an advocate of Aaron Rodgers for a long time. Did you really know he'd be this good?
You never know that. And in my three years at the Packers with him, he only played in one meaningful game, a Thursday nighter in Dallas when he replaced Brett and played reasonably well.
Packer management saw enough in Aaron to be comfortable moving him into the role of starter. From the moment he arrived, he was popular with the players and staff. He showed off-the-charts intelligence, a wry sense of humor and an aptitude to not take the all-consuming nature of football too seriously, a trait that would serve him well in 2008. The best way to describe him may be simply "northern California cool."
On the field, I am not a scout but it was easy to notice arm strength, easy progression reads, accuracy, mobility, calm, etc. On the first practice of his first minicamp practice in 2005, Aaron easily moved away from pressure and hit Donald Driver in stride 45 yards downfield. My eyes caught those of Ted Thompson, who gave as expressive a look as I've seen him give. Aaron was going to be the guy.
Aaron prepared to be the starter over the couple of off seasons where Brett was deciding whether to retire (Brett didn't decide to return until late April in 2006). We all saw it and liked what we saw.
As I've often said, although I was not there during that ugly divorce with Brett, the decision to move on was less about Brett and more about Aaron. He'd been in the bullpen for three years and everyone knew he was ready.
What was your relationship with Aaron like when you were there?
Like others in management at the Packers, I was fairly close during our three years together there and we bantered back and forth about Cal and Stanford (my alma mater). He lost the bet on the Big Game one year and had to dress in Stanford gear on our subsequent road trip. He came over our house a couple times for dinner and was always good to my sons.
We talked and shared most during the spring of 2008 when Brett retired and then wanted to return. He fully understood the circus ahead for him. He also consulted me about the change he wanted to make in representation at that time.
You've mentioned how fate shined on the Packers in selecting him. Could you refresh?
Franchise-defining decisions often happen due to fate. I vividly remember all the defensive players that we were targeting in the Draft -- DeMarcus Ware, Marcus Spears, to name a couple, who both went to the Cowboys -- fall off the board before our pick. And then the time came and there was one player name staring at us that we had rated as a first-round player: Aaron Rodgers. Even then it wasn't a sure thing, as I kept Aaron and his agent on hold for an agonizing ten minutes per Ted’s instructions while waiting to see if the phone would ring with an offer we couldn’t refuse.
What about the report on television in Green Bay showing Aaron walking past a woman -- a cancer survivor -- on the way to the team flight to Atlanta?
I've made that walk many times through fans at Austin-Straubel airport on the way to the team charter (and no, no one ever asked for my autograph). Sometimes players stop, sometimes they don't. Sometimes there are many fans; sometimes there are few. I don't know what happened with Aaron but I do know him -- from personal experience and reputation -- as someone who does a lot of good things far from the cameras.
Since that report, I've received dozens of emails from fans telling me of Aaron's kindness away from the media. Several messages mentioned a pre-Christmas gathering of 100 kids from the Boys & Girls club at a bowling alley with 15 Packer players; free soda, pizza and bowling; and a $100 gift certificate to Shopko for each kid. It received no publicity at the time and was completely funded by Rodgers.
I knew that during the season a couple of years ago, at eight o'clock on Saturday mornings, Aaron would be out at eight-year old flag football, warming up the kids with passes. And I knew he used to babysit for his neighbors' children to give them a night out on occasion. It is unfortunate he did no sign that woman's autograph. In the overall context of what I know, however, it's a minor hitch in a solid body of work with Packer nation, much of it while no one's looking.
Are you surprised to see the Packers doing so well?
Not at all; I picked them to win the Super Bowl at the start of the season. And I thought Atlanta was a great match-up for them; the Packers moved the ball up and down the field on the Falcons in the regular season and are a much faster team. Ironically, the Packers are more of a "dome team" than the Falcons.
The Packers are reaping the benefits of the maturation of players that have been in the system at least three years and are hitting their peaks: Greg Jennings, Tramon Williams, James Jones, Daryn Colledge, Scott Wells, Nick Collins, John Kuhn, Jordy Nelson, etc.
The "draft and develop" formula, with sprinkled in free agent acquisitions such as Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett, is working right now.
What about the Bears, or are you just biased?
Yes, I am biased but I am also a fan of the Bears' organization. Having competed against them in my nine years in Green Bay, I got to know that team and its staff well and think highly of them. We went through years where we were winning and they weren't; where they were winning and we weren't; where we played in Champaign, Illinois while Soldier Field was being rennovated; where we played on New Year's eve where Brett cried and everyone thought he would retire; where we lost to them and their quarterback Cade McNown; where Paris Hilton was in the next box wearing Brian Urlacher's jersey, etc.
Speaking of Urlacher, he’s been the constant there. Having watched him up close twice a year for most of a decade, he consistently impressed. In a team sport with so many players on the field, it always struck me how often he showed up. He appears to be one of those rare athletes that can will a team to victory.
More on this great rivalry – now playing in the NFC Championship – and a prediction to come later in the week.
Follow me on Twitter at adbrandt.
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