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First in a series.

Packers two-a-days: Quarterbacks
 
By JASON WILDE

GREEN BAY – In 15 regular-season starts, Aaron Rodgers ranked third in the NFL in passer rating (101.2), seventh in passing yards (3,922), sixth in completion percentage (65.7), second in completions of more than 25 yards (40), 10th in interception percentage (2.3 percent, with 11 INTs in 475 attempts), tied for sixth in touchdown passes (28) and first in passer rating against the blitz (104.5). He also led the Green Bay Packers to the Super Bowl XLV title and was the game’s MVP, completing 24 of 39 passes for 304 with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 111.5 passer rating.

But none of that means anything now – and it certainly doesn’t mean the Packers seventh-year quarterback doesn’t have room for improvement in 2011.

“I felt like my last eight games that I played were about as good as I could play, but I felt like I started a lot slower than I wanted to,” Rodgers said during an offseason interview. “I felt great in training camp, had a good training camp, had a good preseason, but I didn’t feel like I played as well as I should have starting the season. Now, there was obviously a lot of factors in that, but I felt like I should have played better starting the season. That said, the last 12 games I played (including playoffs) were the way I feel like I should play every week.”

As good as Rodgers was in the playoffs – he completed 68.2 percent of his passes for 1,094 yards with nine touchdowns and only two interceptions (109.8 rating) – there’s no denying that he was far from dominant out of the gate last season. While the Packers went 5-3 in their first eight games, Rodgers’ passer rating was 85.3, ranking 16th in the NFL. At that point, he’d already thrown nine interceptions (after throwing only seven during the entire 2009 season)

But in the final 11 games that he started – Rodgers was knocked out of a Dec. 12 loss at Detroit with a concussion after throwing 11 passes and missed the team’s loss at New England the following week – Rodgers was phenomenal, throwing just four interceptions against 25 touchdowns and registering a passer rating of 100 or better in eight of those 11 games. His best game, given how much was on the line, was the Packers’ NFC Divisional Playoff victory at Atlanta on Jan. 15, when he was 31 for 36 for 366 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions for a passer rating of 136.8.

“That was about as clean of a game that I could play. Mentally making the right decisions. Physically throwing the football as well as I wanted to. Getting out of some sacks that I was surprised I got out of,” Rodgers said. “I’ve had a couple of games like that. The Giants game I really felt like the first game back from my second concussion there later in the season was a special game for me, not only because I was able to come back on the field, but play as well as I did (25 for 37, 404 yards, four touchdowns, 139.9 rating).

“So I look at the Giants game in that situation as an equal performance to the Falcons game because we had to win that game and I felt I played about as well as I could have against the Giants. The Atlanta game was just one of those special nights. We had great feelings going in that we were capable of that performance. Now maybe not those numbers, 31 out of 36 or whatever, but we were confident we were going to be able to move the ball against them because they did exactly what they did on film.”

One of the challenges for Rodgers will be to get off to a faster start in 2011 season despite not having any offseason quarterback school, OTAs or minicamp because of the lockout, which ended Monday when the NFL Players Association was set to vote in favor of the agreement and began the process of re-certifying as a union. The Packers open preseason play Aug. 13 at Cleveland and regular-season action on Sept. 8 against New Orleans at Lambeau Field.

Last offseason, quarterbacks coach Tom Clements focused on getting Rodgers to take fewer sacks. After being sacked an NFL-high 50 times in 16 games in 2009, Rodgers was sacked 31 times in 15 games last season, as Clements’ emphasis appeared to pay off.

According to Clements, that will always be an emphasis with Rodgers because of his ability to make plays with his feet and the constant temptation to keep a play alive when it’s best to live for another day.

“I think he’s improved in that area. But when we looked at it in the offseason, even when he took some sacks on plays where maybe he could’ve thrown the ball away, you have to balance that against what he did when he scrambled,” Clements said in a pre-lockout interview. “You don’t want to take away that scrambling component because he’s so good at it. We don’t like sacks, but it’s acceptable at certain times.

“We drill it and we emphasize it in practice, even in seven-on-seven when we don’t have a rush. If the play breaks down, we don’t just stand there and throw it away. We move out of the pocket and scramble and get some work throwing on the run, get some work with the receivers working to get open. And then, in the course of a game, it’s a feel thing. That’s an added dimension that’s very beneficial to an offense.”

Which area Clements will emphasize during training camp with Rodgers remains to be seen, but the quarterback knows his coach will have plenty for him to improve upon.

“I think we’re always looking at ways to improve, (and) not only our offense. I’m looking at ways to improve every offseason,” Rodgers said. “I’m fortunate enough to be coached by one of the best coaches in the game and one of the best coaches I’ve ever been around in Tom Clements. We’re daily looking at ways to improve. Tom does a great job at never being complacent with the way I’m playing and we scrutinize every little part of the game; everything from every step in the drop to my play fakes to my keeps off of a run. So, I’m fortunate enough to be coached by him and it helps to have been in the system for a while but there are always ways to improve.”

QUICK READ: QUARTERBACKS

Depth Chart
No.
Name
Pos.
Ht.
Wt.
Age
Exp.
College
12
Aaron Rodgers
QB
6-2
225
27
 7
California
10
Matt Flynn
QB
6-2
225
26
 4
LSU
6
Graham Harrell
QB
6-2
215
26
 1
Texas Tech
 
Burning Question
What does Rodgers do for an encore?

NFL awards are voted on before the playoffs begin, which would explain why Rodgers not only wasn’t selected to the Pro Bowl (Philadelphia’s Michael Vick, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and New Orleans’ Drew Brees were the NFC’s three quarterbacks chosen) but didn’t garner any MVP votes (New England’s Tom Brady was a unanimous selection, getting all 50 votes). But had the balloting been done after the playoffs, Rodgers would have certainly been viewed differently by the voters. As he enters his fourth year as a starter, Rodgers is in his prime at age 27, and as long as he stays healthy, he has to be the odds-on favorite to win his first league MVP award.

On the rise
Flynn.

While Flynn wasn’t very good in relief in a 7-3 loss at Detroit on Dec. 12 (15 for 26, 177 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, two sacks, 62.5 rating), he looked like a legitimate starter at New England the next week (24 for 37, 251 yards, three touchdowns, one interception, 100.2 rating). In turn, there were plenty of folks that thought Flynn would follow in the Packers backup quarterback tradition of Mark Brunell, Matt Hasselbeck and Aaron Brooks, all of whom went on to varying degrees of success as starters elsewhere after backing up in Green Bay. But the lockout scuttled any chance of an offseason or draft-day deal, and with Flynn headed into the final year of his contract, it appears the Packers will have a safety net should Rodgers, who sustained two concussions last season, be unable to finish or start any games.

Stock falling
Harrell.

In fairness to Harrell, it’s through no fault of his own that he falls into this category. While there were plenty of casualties during the lockout – rookie draft picks, undrafted free agents, players entering their second seasons – Harrell might have lost the most with the entire offseason being wiped out. Having signed during OTAs last spring, he would have taken part in his first quarterback school, where both Rodgers and Flynn have honed their fundamentals and set themselves up for vast improvement. Harrell desperately needed that experience to prepare him for camp and give the Packers faith in him as a backup.

The most interesting man (not in the world, but at the position)
Flynn.

Flynn has made no secret of his desire to someday be an NFL starter. “I haven’t put a lot of thought into it because of the lockout, but my goal is to eventually be a starter in the NFL. That’s my goal,” Flynn said in May. “But I love being a Packer, and I love being here. It’s something that I’m not putting a whole lot of thought into it right now.” Flynn has probably thought about the opportunity more than he lets on, but a year from now, it figures to be a reality, given how well he played against the Patriots and how difficult it would be for the Packers to re-sign him as a free agent after the season. The question is whether a quarterback-desperate team would make a play for Flynn during the preseason or at the trade deadline. The guess here is that, given Rodgers’ two concussions and the toughened post-concussion guidelines being enacted, the peace of mind Flynn provides is extremely valuable to a team looking to repeat as Super Bowl champs.

Key competition
Third quarterback.

The Packers opted not to pick a quarterback during the April draft, but they could sign one once the lockout officially ends and the long-delayed undrafted free agent signing period commences. Harrell, who was incredibly productive in Texas Tech’s gimmicky offense in college, intrigued the coaching staff enough to make the practice squad, found his way onto the 53-man roster after Rodgers’ second concussion and stayed there even after Rodgers was cleared. With a deep roster that could use an extra spot at another position, it seems likely that the team’s third quarterback will start the season on the practice squad yet again. That said, the team needs to cultivate a legitimate backup to Rodgers for when Flynn departs.

Noteworthy

Rodgers enters 2011 as the most efficient passer in the history of the NFL, with a career passer rating of 98.4, having eclipsed one of heroes of his youth, ex-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young, who has now become a friend and mentor. Even before Rodgers won Super Bowl XLV, Young spoke highly of what Rodgers had done following Brett Favre, just as he did following Joe Montana. “You can win MVPs, you can win passing titles and efficiency records and do all that," Young said. "I did all that. I almost got run out of town until I won the Super Bowl. When you win the Super Bowl, you attach to the fans in a way that can't really replicate and Brett Favre can't touch." Of the top 10 in career passer rating, all but three are active quarterbacks: Philip Rivers (97.2), Young (96.8), Tony Romo (95.5), Tom Brady (95.2), Peyton Manning (94.9), Kurt Warner (93.7), Ben Roethlisberger (92.5), Montana (92.3), Drew Brees (91.7).

Quoteworthy

“I don’t know if I want to, I don’t want him to leave after this season. But Tom’s done a great job, I think, preparing quarterbacks. I think a great example of that is the way Matt (Flynn) played against New England. Matt’s a very talented player, but I think Tom has really just improved all of our games. He’s a great teacher of the game. He understands that less is more, I think, especially on gamedays. He’s got one or two things every time I come off the field. He’s always very even-keeled. There’s not any arguments on the sidelines or confrontations. He understands that there’s going to be mistakes on the field. But he understands how to manage, help manage, our personalities during the game. And then off the field, he doesn’t let you be complacent. We spend a lot of time together in the offseason, just crawling through film…a self-scout of ourselves and just trying to find ways to improve.” -- Rodgers, on quarterbacks coach Tom Clements.

Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.

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