Mike Daniels played all of two snaps on offense last year as a novelty/fullback, but even he understands one undeniable fact about what happens on that side of the ball.
“We have two offenses: the offenses that the coaches call and Aaron’s offense,” the Green Bay Packers third-year defensive lineman said in an interview earlier this month on NFL Network. “Aaron’s an awesome player. I remember watching him [when I was] a rookie, he would throw the ball 70 yards joking around during OTAs. All the veterans would say, ‘He’s just getting warmed up. It’s OTAs. Wait until you see him during the season.’ They were right.”
After finding out last season what life without Rodgers is like – the team went 2-5-1, including 0-4-1 to start, after Rodgers fractured his left collarbone on the opening series against Chicago on Nov. 4 – Packers coach Mike McCarthy couldn’t be more excited about what his offense could accomplish this season with a healthy Rodgers, a few schematic changes, running back Eddie Lacy in his second NFL season and some unproven but intriguing potential pass-catchers behind Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson.
It all starts, though, with No. 12.
“We have a certain way you want to play on offense. You adjust each and every year,” McCarthy said. “Ours always starts with our quarterback, obviously with Aaron.”
In addition to wanting to go even more up-tempo – McCarthy told ESPN.com’s Rob Demovsky at the end of minicamp that his target is to average 75 offensive snaps per game after averaging more than 65 plays per game last year – there have also been subtle adjustments to the offense that will put even a greater onus on Rodgers as he works with a group of young wide receivers after Cobb and Nelson and an almost entirely unproven group at tight end.
“We’ve always talked about it in the spring trying to find ways to challenge him, and we’ve done some things in the system this year that are new for him, whether it be terminology or actual scheme,” said new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, who moved over from running backs coach after Ben McAdoo left to become the New York Giants’ offensive coordinator. “So it’s been a challenging spring for him; we’ve grabbed his attention. He’s very focused and very locked in all spring.”
For his part, Rodgers seemed to be in a terrific place both personally and professionally in spring, having turned 30 last December and appearing to have hit a sweet spot both in his football career and life in general.
“It’s been a great year, and it’s been fun,” he said. “I was talking a little tongue-in-cheek about the fact that you’re 30 and you’ve got it all figured out. I don’t truly believe that – yet – but I think you go through a lot in your 20s. You learn a lot about yourself, and your 30s is about achieving your goals and understanding what’s really important. And that’s what I’m trying to do this year by focusing on things I can control on and off the field and not letting things that maybe used to bother me more really get to me. Because the things that I can control, the things that are important, the people close to me in my life right now who are important, that’s what’s important. And the things I can’t control, I’m not going to let weigh me down anymore.”
Rodgers said he isn’t feeling any ill effects from the broken collarbone – the only concession he had to make during his offseason training was adjusting the amount of weightlifting he did with his upper body (especially the shoulder area) during the first part of his time off – but should he be forced to miss time again this season, the Packers enter training camp next week considerably more prepared for it than they were last year.
After entering camp last summer with Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman behind Rodgers, and then signing a washed-up Vince Young when Harrell and Coleman faltered early, the Packers wound up starting the regular season with journeyman Seneca Wallace as Rodgers’ primary backup and ex-University of Wisconsin starter Scott Tolzien on the practice squad after both were cut by San Francisco. After starting the season 5-2 before Rodgers went down against Chicago, only ex-backup Matt Flynn’s unexpected availability and the unexpected collapse of the Detroit Lions allowed the Packers to stay afloat until Rodgers returned for the regular-season finale at Chicago on Dec. 29, when he threw a game-winning, last-minute fourth-down touchdown pass to Cobb to send the Packers into the postseason.
That game had significance only because Flynn came on in relief of Tolzien against Minnesota on Nov. 24 and rallied the team from a 23-7 deficit to forge a 26-26 tie, and because he led the Packers to victory with second-half rallies against Atlanta and Dallas in December.
Still, there’s no guarantee that the Packers will keep both Flynn and Tolzien behind Rodgers, and Flynn goes into camp as the No. 2 but with Tolzien not far behind.
“I’m approaching it as, I’ve got to play well. I’ve got to earn my spot and make the team, just like I have every year,” Flynn said. “I’ve never gone into a camp where I wasn’t competing in some way or fashion. I’m competing to make the 53, man. But right now, I feel like I’m the No. 2, but they haven’t really told us anything.”
Although Tolzien didn’t win any of the three games he played in, there’s no question he benefitted from his first extended NFL regular-season action, throwing 90 passes and learning from both good and bad plays. He also benefitted from the offseason program and quarterback school, getting to learn the offense from the ground up instead of taking a crash course like he did last year.
“There’s no substitute for game reps. You make a mistake in practice versus making a mistake in a game when there’s 80,000 people watching, you truly learn the lesson in a game,” Tolzien said. “With that, though, you’re trying to turn the practices into game-like situations so that when the bullets are flying, you’re ready to go.
“It’s always a chase for more knowledge. I’m looking forward to training camp and kind of having a little bit of a foundation going into it this year.”
QUICK READ: QUARTERBACKS
Have the Packers found their long-term backup in Flynn?
From 2008 through 2011, the Packers watched Flynn develop from underdog seventh-round pick who beat out second-rounder Brian Brohm for the backup job to such a trustworthy and effective backup that the Seattle Seahawks paid him $14.5 million to be their starter. While Flynn’s career as a starter never took off – he lost out to then-rookie Russell Wilson, then was traded to Oakland, where he also lost the starting job – he essentially saved the Packers season by engineering second-half comebacks in a tie with Minnesota and one-point victories over Atlanta and Dallas last year. The Packers dragged their feet in re-signing him before giving him a one-year deal in April that included only a $75,000 signing bonus and a base salary of $730,000, and the coaches loved the improvement they saw from Tolzien during the offseason. Nevertheless, both head coach Mike McCarthy and Rodgers have a comfort level with Flynn, and the way he came through in the clutch last season cannot be dismissed.
On the rise
There’s a great story about the former Badgers starter from his days in San Francisco: After being cut as a rookie at the end of training camp in 2011, Tolzien was picked up by the 49ers the week of the regular-season opener. Forced to learn a completely different offense on the fly, he decided it made more sense to crash on a couch in the players’ lounge at the 49ers practice facility in Santa Clara than to get an apartment or buy a house. There he stayed for roughly two weeks, living out of a duffle bag while getting in extra studying with the time he saved not having to commute. While Tolzien didn’t take up residence at 1265 Lombardi Avenue this offseason, it was clear from his performance in OTAs and minicamp that he’d improved. That was especially evident during the final minicamp practice, when McCarthy gave Rodgers, Flynn and the rest of the veterans the day off. With the chance to be the No. 1 guy, Tolzien was terrific.
Player to watch
It seems like forever ago that Packers fans worried that the guy ascending to Brett Favre’s throne was too brittle to replace the NFL’s all-time ironman. After a broken foot in 2006 and a torn hamstring in 2007, there were many who wondered if Rodgers could stay healthy. He answered that in the affirmative, of course – before the collarbone injury, Rodgers had missed only one game as a starter due to injury, when he suffered his second concussion in 2010. He then returned and led the Packers to the Super Bowl XLV title. Thus, it was no surprise when he insisted this offseason that he would not be altering his playing style just because of the injury.
“I’m not changing the way I play. I’m going to keep playing the same way,” Rodgers said. “I’ve got to be instinctual, I’ve got to rely on my quick reactions, and I’ve got to play the way I’ve always played. At some point, if we’re talking in 10 years and I’m still trying to give this a go, I probably won’t be exactly the same player. But I’d like to think that as long as I have my legs, I’m going to play the exact same way because that’s what gives me those little advantages I can take and make plays with.”
After what he went through last year at quarterback – with Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman behind Rodgers during the offseason, Vince Young joining the competition in training camp, Seneca Wallace and Tolzien coming aboard the week of the opener and Flynn signing at midseason – there’s a feeling that if McCarthy had his druthers, he’d carry three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster just in the unlikely event that disaster would strike again. If that turns out to be the case, the Packers appear set. Rettig is an intriguing prospect because he endured such upheaval at Boston College that he never got to show what he was truly capable of, despite being a four-year starter. But if the team decides to only carry two quarterbacks on the 53, a proven Flynn vs. an improving Tolzien could be a whale of a battle in preseason.
Even with Rodgers basically missing half the season with his broken collarbone, the Packers still managed 65 pass plays of 20 yards or more last season, the fourth-most in the 32-team league. They also were fourth in the league in yards per play (5.96), accrued the second-most yards in a season in franchise history (6.404), ranked sixth in the NFL in passing yards (266.8 per game) and their 400.3 yards per game ranked third in the league. In short, despite missing one of the best quarterbacks in the league – and a number of pass-catching weapons – due to injury, the passing game was still a productive one statistically.
“I think the way I’ve been feeling the last two years, with changing some things off the field in the offseason with my eating patterns, my body’s been feeling really good. To the point of, I feel like I can really keep my legs underneath me for a long time and as long as I have my legs, I feel like I can play the position the way I want to play it. I’d love to be able to play this contract out and then do a few more [years]. I think that’d be a lot of fun. This is a great place to play and live and work, and this is what we do. This is what I’m talented at more than anything else in my life, and I want to keep doing it.” – Rodgers, on how much longer he wants to play.
Next: Running backs.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.