Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers named Sporting News Athlete of the Year
By Matt Crossman, The Sporting News
~This is how close games become not close games: Aaron Rodgers gets on a roll. On Thanksgiving Day, the Packers entered halftime with a 7-0 lead over the Lions but had been (arguably) outplayed and (decisively) outgained. On the opening series of the second half, Rodgers engineered an easy touchdown drive.
The next score would be crucial. The Lions moved the ball, but the Packers picked off a Matthew Stafford pass. With the Packers taking over at their 35, the Lions needed a stop to stay in the game. The Packers needed a touchdown to put it away.
It took one whip of Rodgers’ arm to see which team would win that battle.
Rodgers faked a handoff, saw the safety bite, noticed wide receiver James Jones wide-open and fired the ball on a line to him. Jones caught it and sprinted into the end zone. Game—and threat to the Packers’ pursuit of perfection—over. It was the most important pass of the game, the highlight of the day for the Packers, yet afterward, Rodgers seemed, well, a little disappointed in it. “I underthrew it a little bit, but I didn’t want to overthrow it. He made a nice catch.”
Jones caught the ball in stride and ran for more than 30 more yards virtually untouched; how those two things could be true and the ball could still be called underthrown is a mystery to everyone except Rodgers. Maybe he didn’t like the throw because Jones had to move his hands to catch it. Whatever. The idea that Rodgers would dump on his own pass should scare the bejabbers out of the rest of the NFL. Rodgers is playing at such a high level that he critiques his game-changing touchdown passes.
It’s because of that pass, and hundreds more like it, that Rodgers is Sporting News’ 2011 athlete of the year. Nobody in any sport played at a higher level than Rodgers has the past year. He threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns in the Packers’ Super Bowl victory in February, and he has led Green Bay to a 13-0 start this season. He is a lock to win the MVP award and has led some analysts to say he is playing the quarterback position as well as anybody ever has.
In three-plus years as a starter, Rodgers has gone from good to unreal without stopping at great. Sporting News asked players and coaches on teams the Packers have beaten this year how he does it. A sampling of their answers:
“He’s got it all,” says Rams cornerback Justin King.
“Everything that you ask for out of your quarterback, he has,” says Falcons corner Dunta Robinson.
“He has the total package,” says Broncos defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.
“He’s got everything you want in a quarterback,” says Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher.
These answers are as mind-numbingly consistent as the man who provokes them. Probe a little deeper, though, and the answers start to vary. It’s his legs that make him stand out. No, it’s his arm. Nah, it’s how accurate his arm is when he’s using his legs. Forget that—dude is so smart, that’s what makes him special. Wait! You’ve got to hear about this guy’s vision. And on and on. Barely a body part goes unmentioned. Before long his pancreas will have an exhibit in Canton. This solidifies the idea that he’s the total package: From head to toe, he uses his whole body to carve up defenses.
FEET AND LEGS
“He’s very, very mobile,” says Bears defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. “When he breaks that pocket, boy, he is tough. He’s accurate. He’ll run, but he is extremely accurate outside that pocket.”
But he’s almost sneaky about it. Nobody would call him a dual-threat quarterback. But he can beat defenders with his legs if they force him to run, and he can beat them with his arm if they force him to pass. It’s a lose-lose situation for the defense. Consider this example against the Rams. The Packers had a second-and-goal at the Rams’ 7 late in the second quarter. Safety Craig Dahl and King had wide receiver Donald Driver double-covered right at the goal line; Driver was sandwiched between them.
Rodgers broke the pocket, and he was heading toward the goal line, though he was still behind the line of scrimmage. Dahl and King had a decision to make: stay with Driver or pursue Rodgers before he ran in for a TD. They both broke for Rodgers, who in an instant pulled up and whipped the ball to Driver for a touchdown.
Jones says he’ll sometimes make a bad break on a route, and when he gets to the huddle, Rodgers will point it out, leaving Jones wondering how in the world Rodgers even saw it.
Rodgers sees lots of things others don’t. For example, he sees an open player where there isn’t one; there’s no other way to explain the number of passes that get caught by blanketed receivers. It happens so often and in so many different ways it has become normal. What’s remarkable about this is that usually, a quarterback who tries to fit the ball into such small holes often has a high number of interceptions or at least a poor completion percentage. But through 13 games, Rodgers has thrown only six interceptions (and has 39 touchdown passes) and has completed 69.6 percent of his passes—not far off Drew Brees’ all-time single season NFL record of 70.6. “He’s like an under-control gunslinger,” King says.
But vision is only part of the story with Rodgers’ eyes. It’s not just what he sees but where he’s looking, a lesson Robinson learned this season. “He started on his right and was coming back over to our left. He wasn’t even looking at the receiver. He just turned and threw it to a spot, and the receiver ended up catching the ball,” he says. “I thought I definitely had a chance to intercept the ball, but it got there so fast that I didn’t get a chance to get a hand on it. I just had to make a tackle at the end of the play.”
The tackle left Robinson one up on Panthers safety Jordan Pugh, who was beaten on a similar ploy by Rodgers that turned into a key 49-yard touchdown by Greg Jennings. “Aaron came out of the play-action, threw his eyes opposite of where he was going,” says Panthers head coach Ron Rivera. “Then he brought them right back. So he cleared everybody out to this side, and because he looked over to this side, Jordan was still hung out there by himself.”
A defensive back who is alone against a Packers wide receiver might as well not be there at all.
SHOULDERS AND HIPS
Rodgers’ shoulders and hips work in tandem to create fakes that give his receivers space. “He uses (his shoulders) to manipulate the DBs into thinking he’s going in one direction with the ball before swiveling elsewhere or using them for hard pump fakes on double-move routes,” says Charles Davis, an analyst on Fox and the NFL Network.
A good example of an effective pump fake came against the Rams. Angled toward the left sideline, he faked once—not just with his arm but with his shoulders and hips, too—then threw to a wide-open Jordy Nelson. This pass actually was underthrown; had it been on target, Nelson would have sprinted uncontested into the end zone. He scored anyway but had to beat the two defenders who caught up to him as he waited for the pass. Which, again, should scare the bejabbers out of the rest of the NFL: Even Rodgers’ “bad” passes turn into 93-yard touchdowns.
Davis adds this: “He’s carrying his team on his (shoulders), easily, and happily, and he always kept those same shoulders up while waiting for his shot behind you know who.”
“The guy went to Cal,” says Rivera, who also went there. “So he’s a smart guy.”
Let’s hear from someone who doesn’t have an institutional bias: “He’s extremely intelligent, so it’s hard to fool him,” Allen says.
Rodgers doesn’t get rattled when teams try to rough him up, either; in fact, he seems to almost like it. After Lions end Kyle Vanden Bosch pummeled him a few times in the Thanksgiving Day game, Rodgers, wearing a sly grin, characterized Vanden Bosch’s trash talk as mild, almost as if he were disappointed Vanden Bosch wasn’t more abusive (vocally, that is).
Rodgers has unnatural patience, both in the pocket and in life. As Davis noted, he waited on the bench for three years behind Brett Favre before getting a chance to start, then weathered the preposterous controversy surrounding Favre’s departure with impressive grace. On and off the field, he is steady, and he rarely makes a bad decision. “For a guy who hasn’t started that many years for the Packers, he has a crazy amount of poise in the pocket,” says Bears linebacker Lance Briggs.
The best for last. None of these body parts would matter if Rodgers didn’t have an incredible arm, of course. His arm makes all the other parts work together.
Opponents, teammates and analysts marvel at the speed of his release, the velocity he gets on the ball and his ability to fit the ball into tight holes. There is no official stat for this, but he completes more passes to covered receivers than anybody in football. This is suggested to Nelson, and he breaks into a grin: “Are you saying we can’t get open?”
Well, no, that’s not exactly the point. The point is this: When a quarterback constantly completes passes to covered receivers, there’s not much a defense can do. Says Vikings coach Leslie Frazier: “There are a number of times we look at tape and you say, ‘What do you tell that defensive back in that situation?’ The ball is thrown where only the receiver can make that play.”
Here’s a suggestion: Grin and bear it, buddy, you just got beat by Sporting News’ athlete of the year.
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