What Aaron Rodgers is doing at the line of scrimmage these days is so important to the Green Bay Packers’ offensive success that everyone involved can’t say enough about it.
That is, when they’re not trying to avoid saying anything about it.
For while the Packers quarterback gets nothing but praise for the adjustments he’s making – both in the passing game and in the run game – from his coaches, questions that attempt to delve into exactly what and how he’s doing it are treated either like it’s a matter of national security or open mic night at the Chuckle Hut. The goal: Make sure Monday night’s opponent, the Chicago Bears, won’t know too much about what Rodgers is up to.
“You mean, he’s changing plays out there?” quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo replied when asked about one specific play recently.
“There is a scheme question,” head coach Mike McCarthy replied when asked about the same play. “I really don’t want to get into the specifics of it, (but) it’s a real credit to him and really the line. They’re doing a heck of a job.”
The play in question came two weeks ago against the Cleveland Browns, as the Packers faced third-and-5 from the Cleveland 22-yard line. As Rodgers stepped to the line of scrimmage with McCarthy having called a pass play in his helmet headset, he surveyed the Browns’ defense and saw only five defenders near the line of scrimmage.
Now, Rodgers has been making decisions at the line of scrimmage since he took over as the Packers’ starting quarterback in 2008, with McCarthy, former offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, current offensive coordinator Tom Clements (his quarterbacks coach from 2006 through 2011) and McAdoo increasing his responsibility almost annually. Run/pass options – where McCarthy gives Rodgers one running play and one passing play to choose from and he picks based on the defensive look – have long been a staple of the offense. On those plays, Rodgers alerts the receivers if he’s going to the pass, while the offensive linemen simply run-block regardless.
But this was different. In this instance, Rodgers was changing the play entirely – something McCarthy has given him the freedom to do but he seldom does so dramatically.
“It was a called pass, and Aaron saw how they were deployed,” Clements said of the Browns’ defense. “He still could have gone through with the pass; it wasn’t a bad look for the pass. But it was an inviting look for the run, and he made the call and the line blocked it. And it was successful because of that.”
How out-of-the-box was Rodgers’ decision? According to the NFL’s official statistics, the Packers faced third-and-5 a combined 49 times during the 2010, 2011 and 2012 seasons. On those plays, the quarterback threw a pass on 39, and he scrambled on 10 – meaning that before Lacy’s run, the Packers had never handed off to a running back in that situation over the previous three years.
“I can’t give out a lot of details about that play. We’re trying to minimize our info that leaves the loose lips that sink ships occasionally ‘round here,” Rodgers said. “I will say this: I have a lot of confidence in our offensive line, and that’s a play that probably wouldn’t happen in years past. That’s a passing down, they’re playing man coverage, they’re bringing (a safety) down to help out probably on (wide receiver) Jordy (Nelson) inside.”
Sometimes, on such a play, Rodgers would pretend to change the play at the line of scrimmage – called a “dummy” call – and then run the play that had been called anyway. Not this time.
“When we have run/pass options there, it kind of depends on the (defensive) look, and there’s a lot of dummy calls that go into it. Luckily, there were a few guys who may not have gotten whether it was a dummy or not, but we had enough guys blocked inside for Eddie to have a gash there and get us a first down,” Rodgers said. “In that situation, you feel very confident with the angles we had up front that Eddie was going to be able to get the 5 yards.”
(Interestingly, one reason Rodgers can make the calls that he does is the fact that he doesn’t wear a mouthguard, which he said allows him to enunciate his calls better, which allows his teammates to more clearly understand what he’s saying.)
A week earlier at Baltimore, Rodgers made a similar decision. Leading 19-17 with 1 minute, 32 seconds left to play – after tight end Jermichael Finley absentmindedly went out of bounds at the end of his 52-yard catch-and-run – the Packers were facing third-and-2 from the Ravens’ 13-yard line. While Baltimore had used its last timeout, had the Packers failed to pick up the first down, they’d have sent kicker Mason Crosby out for a field-goal attempt. Even if he’d have made the chip-shot, the defending Super Bowl champs might’ve had enough time to pull off a miracle comeback and win the game with a touchdown.
The call McCarthy sent in was for Lacy to run right, behind Don Barclay and T.J. Lang. Rodgers changed it to a run to the left, behind David Bakhtiari and Josh Sitton. Lacy did the rest, gaining 4 yards and sliding to stay in bounds. Rodgers knelt out the remaining time in the victory formation.
“In that situation, you kind of have to trust your gut instinct,” Rodgers explained. “And there were a few of those plays (against the Ravens) where you have to trust what you see and what you feel, and I’ve done that for many years.”
One new thing the Packers coaches have Rodgers doing this year, though, is making decisions about running plays at the line. According to Clements, Rodgers breaks the huddle on many running plays with a menu of variations on that play. While there are a myriad of reasons why the Packers’ long-dormant running game ranks third in the NFL at 141.4 yards per game – scheme adjustments, Lacy’s effectiveness, improved blocking and communication up front and a greater commitment to the run from McCarthy as the play-caller – tasking Rodgers with making decisions on runs is also a factor, Clements said.
“We’ve always put a lot on the quarterback’s plate here because if a guy is able to handle it, you’d like to give him a lot of responsibility,” Clements said. “Aaron is a guy that I think takes pride in making correct adjustments to get us into a good plays. He’s been very effective with that. This year especially, we probably have a little bit more, put a little bit more on him in the run game.
“A lot of the runs we get, obviously we’re getting great running and great blocking, but he’s making some adjustments on his own or talking with the line on the sideline to get us in the proper play. It’s a fine line. We don’t want to overload him, we don’t want overload any of our players. But we have smart players and they’re able to make adjustments quickly.”
According to Clements, Rodgers makes at least 15 to 20 adjustments per game and is batting over .900 with his decisions on play-calls. (To which Rodgers replied, “Is that OPS or just average?”)
“When he makes the adjustment, it usually works out,” Clements said. “In a lot of our runs, we have a lot of options based on what the defenses does or what look they present. We might call a particular play, but we may have three or four options based on the defense, and so when you have all those options, the line has to talk to the quarterback, the quarterback has to listen, has to communicate to (everyone else). Because we have so many options, it requires more communication, and they’re doing a good job of it.
“It’s more on Aaron, and it’s more on the line because you’re calling a play in the huddle, and then you get up there and you see that maybe that play isn’t very good against the defensive front and another play is better. So you make the adjustment. Aaron has to recognize it, and then the line has to be able to adjust the blocking scheme to suit the call.”
Running backs coach Alex Van Pelt, a former quarterback who backed up Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly with the Buffalo Bills in the 1990s, said Rodgers is as good as it gets at making such decisions – and he’s doing it while losing key players (wide receiver Randall Cobb, tight end Jermichael Finley, wide receiver James Jones) to injury on a near-weekly basis.
“It’s amazing. This guy’s unbelievable,” Van Pelt said. “Not just in the pass game, but the run game. He’s been a key part of how the success of this run game has come about because of his ability to get us in the proper runs. He does a great job -- as well as anybody in the business – of making sure we have the right angles and the right blocking scheme for the front that’s presented. He does an awesome job with that.
“That alone, to me, is a huge, huge credit to him. To be ability to continue moving and having the offensive production we had last week without key figures … It’s a tribute to the guys that stepped up and stepped in, but for him to manage those guys, understand what they do well, what their weaknesses might be, and then get them within the 25-second clock into the route that helps them win and be successful, it’s amazing.”
According to McAdoo, what’s been happening on Sundays has been the direct result of all the study and preparation Rodgers does Monday through Saturday.
“Aaron puts a lot of time in. He puts a lot of time into film study of the current opponent, he has a lot of retention on things that he’s seen in the past that have either happened to him or happened to someone else, and he can apply those moving forward,” McAdoo said. “That helps in those types of situations. The key is keeping everybody on the same page, making sure we over-communicate, and he does a nice job with it.
“We’re fortunate to have Aaron. His arm talent and the plays he makes with his feet are pretty impressive at times, but the way that he can play the game between the ears is probably what separates him.”
For his part, the 29-year-old Rodgers says it’s all simply his job – but it’s more than that.
“It is a responsibility first. That’s the way I view it,” said Rodgers, who enters Monday night’s game having completed 167 of 249 passes (67.1 percent) for 2,191 yards with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions (108.0 rating) while doing what McCarthy says he’s in fact paid to do. “The guys are counting on me to make the plays I’m accustomed to making.
“There’s a reminder every year when new guys come in. The way they look at you, the way they talk to you, they’ve seen you play on TV, they’ve watched you as they were growing up. I'm not that old, but this is my sixth year starting and so a lot of the guys I’m playing with were in high school watching me as a young starter, or in college when we won the Super Bowl, so they’ve seen me play at a high level and they have expectations when they come in.
“I know my teammates are counting on me, and it’s a responsibility that I have to make sure I’m prepared to play every week. The organization is counting on me, the fans are counting on me, fantasy owners are counting on me” –pause, smirk – “and I want to play well every week. I don’t think about all those other things – that’s kind of a 3D view of my job. (But) when I’m out there, I think about the things I can control.
“When you step back, you realize you have an important role on this team and a responsibility to play your best every week.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.