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Understanding the metamorphasis of Aaron Rodgers, preseason all-stars and much more. Dan Pompei

Print This September 04, 2011, 05:30 AM EST
11 Comments

So I’m talking to a front office guy awhile back. We get on the topic of Aaron Rodgers. “He looks like a completely different player from when I studied him at Cal,” he tells me.

So on a recent trip to Green Bay, I did a little research on the quarterback who will lead the defending world champions against the Saints on Thursday night.

The short answer is this: the changes in Rodgers since he was drafted in 2005 have been less dramatic than you might think. But little changes have made a big difference.

The first change is Rodgers moves better. There is no doubt about it. He appears more athletic, and is a bigger threat to gain yards with his feet.

What can we attribute this to? Rodgers is in better shape, and he has worked at his movement skills. “His body looks a little different than five years ago,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy told me. “He probably was thicker in his legs back then. Now he’s more proportioned, a lot leaner.”

Just this past offseason, Rodgers told me, he lost five pounds. He’s down to 220, with a lower body fat percentage.

Aaron RodgersICONPackers QB Aaron Rodgers just keeps getting better and better.

A more athletic Rodgers has become a more difficult Rodgers to corner in the pocket. “It’s not that he couldn’t move in college, but he didn’t play that way back then,” McCarthy said. “We work on scramble drill every day.”

That’s not all the Packers work on. Twenty minutes before practice begins every day, McCarthy has the quarterbacks work on footwork. They jump rope, they do a box drill, bag drills, a pocket drill. They work on agility and transfer of weight. So if Rodgers is moving better, it’s because he’s worked at moving better.

Rodgers, though, probably has more natural athleticism than anyone gave him credit for back in 2005.

McCarthy went down to the team cafeteria for a cup of coffee earlier this month and bumped into Rodgers. With soccer highlights on TV, Rodgers told McCarthy he played soccer as a kid. He also told him when he was a young teenager, he could run five miles and do 50 pushups. “I told him I didn’t have him graded high enough athletically,’” he said. “If I had some of that information, I probably would have graded him higher.”

McCarthy, who is a quarterbacks coach first and foremost, and Tom Clements, who is the Packers titular quarterbacks coach, also have emphasized Rodgers’ footwork with how it relates to throwing. They have gotten him to throw using his feet. Rodgers believes this has made him a better on the long balls. “I became more efficient with my ground up throwing,” he said. “I became a better deep ball thrower. It’s having my feet in better position, my body positioned better and being able to be more accurate.”

It is a concept that was passed on to McCarthy from Paul Hackett when they worked together at the University of Pittsburgh. Hackett knew how important footwork was to Joe Montana, and McCarthy now believes the key to a quarterback is his feet.

Rodgers arm strength never has been questioned. Though McCarthy had Alex Smith rated ahead of Rodgers in the 2005 draft, he thought Rodgers clearly had the best arm strength of any QB in the draft. “When I went to his [pro day] workout, to this day it was the best one I’ve ever been to,” McCarthy said. “He threw the ball all over the place that day. I didn’t expect that. I still remember a couple rolling to his right, throwing back to his left. You saw the 65 yard throws.”

McCarthy and Clements did not have to mess with Rodgers’ throwing motion at all. Rodgers takes exception to the notion that he throws differently now. “To set the record straight, the book that was written about myself after the Super Bowl [Aaron Rodgers: Leader of the Pack], it was 100 percent incorrect when he said that any coaching staff ever said anything to me about my throwing style. There was never anything once mentioned about me needed to make changes.”

What was changed was Rodgers’ ball carriage. Like all Jeff Tedford quarterbacks, Rodgers had been schooled to hold the ball above his shoulders, at ear-height. The Packers brought the ball down to shoulder height.

“Mechanically, he had very good throwing fundamentals before I got here,” McCarthy said. We just took the ball carriage and made it more natural. I want my guy to play in controlled rhythm. When he transitions in and out of the pocket, it’s all part of the motion. That has gotten him to play more naturally. If your arms are up like this, it’s different. That’s a locked position.”

Initially, it was a bit of a shock to Rodgers. But eventually, he found a groove--an incredible groove that has made him one of football’s finest players.

Said Rodgers, “It was the best thing for me.”

Things I Didn’t Used To Know

*Nnamdi Asomugha wants to expand his game from what it was when he was in Oakland. Before he signed with the Eagles, he told coach Andy Reid that even though he has been a man-press corner his whole career, he would embrace the opportunity to use other techniques. The Eagles subsequently have worked their corners quite a bit in off coverage concepts. Asomugha also volunteered to play over the slot in nickel, and the Eagles have used him in that role. Eagles coaches tell me Asomugha has been doing it all well, and they play on being diverse in coverage but they don’t want to take away what Asomugha does best.

*Ricky Williams has found a home in Baltimore. The coaches there love him because he’s been very professional and quiet. He’s been the first player out at practice every day, and he came to work in fantastic shape. What’s more—his pass protection has been outstanding. Williams looks like an ideal role player who can get five to 10 carries a game, including some short yardage work. Eventually, though, he could be pushed by promising rookie Anthony Allen.

*The Saints have more talent at defensive tackle than they thought they could have. Their original plan was to try to bring back Remi Ayodele, but the Vikings paid him more than the Saints thought he was worth. They didn’t think they could afford Aubrayo Franklin, who had been a franchise player for the 49ers on eyear ago. As it turned out, the market dried up on Franklin even though he is regarded an outstanding run player. He signed a one year, $4 million deal with New Orleans, adding to a tackle group that already included Sedrick Ellis and Shaun Rodgers. The plan now is to play Franklin at nose tackle only, with Rodgers being mostly a nose who also can bounce to three technique, and with Ellis being mostly a three technique who can bounce to nose tackle.

*You can’t blame Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber if he’s rooting against Peyton Manning being able to start the season. Manning has started 227 straight games, the longest streak in the NFL. If he misses and Barber plays, Barber will have the longest consecutive start streak at 184 straight games. Barber already has started more straight games than any player at his position in history, something Manning has not done. And Barber has another reason to hope Manning is sidelined awhile. The Bucs host the Colts on Oct. 3.

*The Texans believe they can get more out of safety Danieal Manning than the Bears did. Their plan is to play him closer to the line than the Bears did with their Tampa 2 scheme. Texans coaches believe Manning is more valuable around the ball. They are high on his toughness, talent and work ethic.

*The Vikings are hoping Kyle Rudolph can make significant contributions as a rookie. Rudolph left Notre Dame early and didn’t have the benefit of a regular offseason, but he flashed in training camp. Their coaches are considering using more two tight end sets with Rudolph and Visanthe Shiancoe on the field together. It’s also worth noting that the second round pick appears to be developing chemistry with first rounder Christian Ponder, which bodes well for the long term future of the tight end.

My Sunday Best: Preseason all stars

Nobody makes the Super Bowl or the Pro Bowl based on what they do in August, but if we were handing out individual honors for preseason play, these players would receive some. Here are some of the best preseason players this year. Who would you add to the list?

QB—Matthew Stafford, Lions. This guy has done everything well and looks like he is ready to fly. He gets the edge over Colt McCoy.

RB—Joique Bell, Saints. There was some stiff competition here, with Jamie Harper, Tim Hightower, Kendall Hunter, Ryan Matthews, Stevan Ridley, Armond Smith, Ben Tate and others tearing it up this season. But Bell is used to stiff competition. He stood out in a backfield that included Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas, Chris Ivory and Darren Sproles.

WR-- Antonio Brown Steelers. He led the league in preseason receiving yards, and his playmaking ability and speed should show up in the regular season, too.

TE—Lance Kendricks, Rams. Injuries gave this rookie extra opportunities, and he’s made the most of them. Put an asterisk next to his name on your fantasy football draft list.

OT—Gabe Carimi, Bears. He may not have been the most dominating blocker in the NFL, but given what the Bears have been working with at tackle, Carimi looks like a godsend.

G—Wade Smith, Texans. He’s been a key piece of a very effective unit.

C—Phil Costa, Cowboys. Beating out Andre Gurode merits a tip of the cap.

DE—Ryan Kerrigan, Redskins. It looks like his hard-charging style will enable him to make a quick impact playing opposite Brian Orakpo.

DT—Vaughn Martin, Chargers. This Jamaican came to the Chargers by way of Canada and has been considered somewhat of a developmental project. Based on his three preseason sacks, it looks like Martin might be ready for prime time.

OLB—Shawne Merriman, Bills. He only played a very limited amount, but that’s all he needed to do to leave an impression. If Merriman is healthy, look out.

ILB—Bobby Carpenter, Lions. This former first round pick has been a tackle machine.

S—Jim Leonhard, Jets. Coming back from a broken leg, he picked off two preseason passes.

CB--Brent Grimes, Falcons. The Pro Bowler has made a lot of plays on the ball, and could be taking his game to a higher level.

One Man Yelp: Football Outsiders Almanac 2011

I always look forward to reading the insights of Aaron Schatz in his yearly Football Outsiders Almanac. He and his team of researcher/writers come up with some unconventional statistical ways of evaluating performances and identifying trends. His latest effort did not disappoint.

Here are some of my favorite tidbits from the book.

*Jamaal Charles’ 2010 season was one for the ages. His 6.38 average per carry was the best single-year mark by nearly a quarter yard—of any back with at least 100 carries since the late 70s. But his chances of getting near that average again are not good, based on the history of what other backs have done. Only one running back has averaged 5.5 yards per carry or better in two straight years. Charles, interestingly, has struggled in the preseason.

*The Patriots used two tight ends an NFL-high 57 percent of the time last year. No other offense was above 40 percent. This is a great example of how Bill Belichick adjusts to his personnel better than the large majority of coaches. In 2010, he had Aaron Hernandez and Rob Gronkowski. The year before, when he had Ben Watson and Chris Baker, the Patriots used two tights on 34 percent of plays.

*Even though Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt is a former tight end, his team ignores the position more than any other. They went without a tight end on 36 percent of offensive plays in 2010, and no other team as above 25 percent.

*The average age of the Steelers defensive starters is 31.5. Only Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley are under the age of 30 if Ziggy Hood is a reserve. This likely will be the oldest defense of the century by more than one year.

*Chris Long had a better year than a lot of us realized. The second pick of the 2008 draft had an NFL-best 42.5 quarterback hurries to go along with his 8.5 sacks.

*The Packers used an empty backfield on a league-high 11 percent of their plays last year. Now that the Packers have some depth at the running back position with James Starks having established himself and Ryan Grant coming back from injury, it will be interesting to see if they reverse that trend.

*Scott Linehan loves the shotgun. The Lions used it on 64 percent of their snaps last year, which was the highest rate in the league and possibly the highest rate in history. The Lions averaged 5.7 yards per pass play in the gun and 4.2 yards per pass play when the QB was under center.

Hot Reads

*Nice move by the Rooneys to change Kevin Colbert’s Steelers title to general manager. Even if his role remains the same, Colbert deserves the recognition. Ditto Rich McKay, who was promoted to president/CEO of the Falcons by Arthur Blank.

*Professionally, it hurt to see a top notch journalist go too soon when Tom Kowalski left us last week. Personally, it hurt to lose a friend. Those of us who knew him or read him should be thankful he touched our lives.

*Class moves, Detroit Lions.

*Jack Del Rio also did a good thing for a good guy.  Get well quick, Allen Wilson.

*If the NFL really wanted to make game day stadiums more family friendly, it would take away your hops and barley.  NFP’s Andrew Brandt, who writes about The Busine$$ of Sports, could tell us why there is no possibility of that happening.

*Fred Taylor retired before we ever appreciated him as he deserved to be appreciated.

*Jeremy Shockey never has been reputed to be a particularly physical tight end. Turns out he can hit so hard, he can knock the pork out of you.

Dan Pompei covers pro football for the Chicago Tribune. Follow him at Twitter@danpompei.

Comments

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Da News?
Sep 04, 2011
08:40 AM

Steelers will still own The Ravens,Eagles will be good but not better than The Packers & Saints,Out with Olgertree In with Brandon Tate& The Chargers will Finally .......(Predications)

Tako
Sep 04, 2011
08:48 AM

Packers reversing the empty backfield trend, I wouldn't bet on it. They get Finley back, resigned Jones and drafted Cobb. No doubt, they will line up 5 wide with Jennings, Driver, Nelson, Jones and Finley. You got to put the best players on the field.

Packer Pete
Sep 04, 2011
10:10 AM

The question in Green Bay with the trade of FB Quinn Johnson is what will become of the inverted wishbone the Packers often ran in short yardage situations? John Kuhn would take one fullback spot behind the guard and Johnson the second fullback spot mirrored behind the other guard with the halfback behind the QB. It was an interesting look that worked fairly well running short yardage, and the Packers evolved to passing from this formation last year. It was a signature look for McCarthy. The initial chatter this morning is that the second FB spot may now be taken by BJ "The Freezer" Raji, who got into one goal line play last season. As McCarthy only lines up in this formation twice a game or so, maybe Raji will be the man.

Michael RA
Sep 04, 2011
10:17 AM

Yes, I would add DE Demarcus Dobbs : 49ers to your list the UDFA looked great in the preseason Had 2 sacks and numerous pressures. Made the 53 man roster.

Packer Pete
Sep 04, 2011
10:34 AM

Of course alcohol won't be banned because of the money it brings the NFL. I haven't had too much problem in Green Bay except for a game a couple years ago when four younger fans, mid 20s, sat behind us, drunk and exceedingly profane. Seven bucks a beer is likely a better control on drinking than almost any other alternative fix.

Anyone who thinks banning alcohol will result in more family attendance hasn't looked at the ticket prices lately. I was given two tickets to the final preseason game and the face value was $79. Aren't many families around here that can afford to bring two or three kids to a game at those prices.

The biggest problem with the stadium experience is its increasing "soullessness." The TV breaks are endless and greatly interrupt the flow of the game for the in-stadium fan. (The second quarter of the Packer - Chief preseason game took an entire hour to play!) The music during breaks is godawful. Endless commercials are run on the scoreboards instead of local player clips or other game highlights. Concession prices are beyond gouging. Compare that to my at-home LA-Z-Boy experience. The beer is 50 cents, a whole back of pretzels is $3. My seat is very comfortable and my bathroom is mine alone, and doesn't stink. I can see the game clearly on the big screen, and I can replay any single play as many times as I want, and then I can scan past the commercials. I can watch other games during commercial breaks. The only drawback is that on TV, I can't see how the secondary is lined up presnap unless the TV director elects to show me. I lke to guess the coverages and where the ball will go.

I do like to attend one Packer game a year (about all I can scrounge tickets to.) I enjoy the stadium experience, but that in-stadium experience has lost much of its luster, and in-home viewing seems just as attractive. Maybe I've just become an old fart.

Slim
Sep 04, 2011
10:46 AM

I wonder if a two TE set with the inverted wishbone backfield is a possibility. If it is, the second FB could be a third TE.

Bob Raymond
Sep 04, 2011
01:43 PM

Ricky Williams has always been a good player and a good guy, his affinity for the ganja notwithstanding.

I ask again what I asked on draft day...how the hell did Carimi fall to the bottom of the first round? I bet the Cowboys spend the next decade kicking themselves in the ass for choosing Smith instead.

Insofar as the Texans being in love with Danieal Manning: this is the same organization that spent two offseasons raving about the talent and development of Dorin Dickerson...then cut him in favor of a mediocre alternative. In fact, almost everything that Kubiak says is later contradicted by fact. He is the largest obstacle to that team being successful.

Be cautious of Merriman's impressive preseason. The problem with the guys who were heavily into steroids is that they are extremely prone to injury.

The reason New England uses the two tight end offense so often is the same reason that Belichik is the sport's best coach. Great coaches design their systems to complement their personnel. Lesser coaches impose their favorite systems regardless of the available personnel (see Henning, Dan and Phillips, Wade).

acestud
Sep 04, 2011
04:13 PM

I have to say Packer Pete that must be the reason(you being an old fart) I agree prices are high but i am a Gold package season ticket holder from the middle of Iowa and have been since '92. I want to say that my family (wife and 2 boys and their girlfriends) enjoy the experience every time we go and we can't wait to go back. We are really looking forward to going after the new expansion it is just going to be louder and more intense than ever. Also i don't know what you consider old but I'm 52 the wife is 53 and my kids are in their 20's and we can't wait for the next time we get to go to Lambeau. GO PACK GO!!

Sirscorps
Sep 04, 2011
04:37 PM

@ Packer Pete-

GB will be using TE's Taylor & Crabtree @ FB along w/Kuhn. I haven't read anything that talked about B.J. playing FB. Sure, he'll probably get a few opportunities @ the most but that's it. GB didn't keep 5 TE's for nothing.
I agree w/you on the "corporate" feel of the games though, I HATE it. I live less than 5 minutes from Lambeau Field & I couldn't care less if I went to a GB game. There's WAAAAY too many adverts & distractions & the music sucks. Just hearing how loud & obnoxious the new sound system is on tv makes me cringe & makes me want to go to a GB game even less. What a bunch of b.s. stadiums are these days. All of this junk is done just to make it seem like the fans are getting their money's worth even though they aren't. People go to a game to watch the game, not get A.D.D. & have sensory overload. Prices are outrageous anyway.

I think that Matt Stafford will have a very good year.

This will be the season where everyone FINALLY notices that maybe Mark "Dirty" Sanchez does not have what it takes to be a very good QB. Sanchez is the most over-rated starter in the entire league. Sure, New York has won games & have made the post season but how much of that was because of Sanchez's play & how much of that was due to the defense & run game? How many starting QB's even complete less than 56% of their passes in 2 consecutive seasons & still have the hype that this guy has or even continue to start??? Matt Flynn has done more to impress me than Sanchez has.

I like what i've seen from Miami's Daniel Thomas, he'll be a good one.

I think that Beanie Wells will have a breakout year. Sometimes backs need a few seasons to get going (i.e. O.J. Simpson, Thomas Jones, Garrison Hearst, Ahman Green, Priest Holmes, ricky Williams...).

Packer Pete
Sep 04, 2011
07:56 PM

Sirscorp, regarding the use of tight ends as "fullbacks," I don't ever recall a Packer tight end lined up in the backfield in a three point stance and lead blocking on a running play last season. Quite often McCarthy's scheme involves motioning a tight end into the backfield behind the guard, but in an upright stance with Rodgers in the shotgun on a pass play. The TE picks up any blitzers or releases through the middle as an outlet. If Kuhn is out, Quarles or any other TE is not going to be in a three point stance behind Rodgers on a third and 1 running play. I don't know that Raji will do it, but I"l be quite surprised if McCarthy uses a TE.

Johnny Z
Sep 05, 2011
08:33 AM

Maybe they will line up a linebacker. Good odds one of the ten used to play fullback.

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