GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers wasn’t exactly sure what his coach meant, but the Green Bay Packers quarterback didn’t disagree with the assessment, either.
“He’s in a good place,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy had just said of Rodgers, who is prepping for his ninth NFL season and sixth as the team’s starting quarterback. “I really like the camp he’s having.”
Mind, body, soul, wallet – it definitely is good to be Aaron Rodgers. Set to turn 30 in December, Rodgers believes he is in tip-top shape, his intellect and grasp of the offense have never been sharper, his role as the team’s leader is unquestioned and as the NFL’s highest-paid player after his five-year, $110 million contract extension in April, his employment future is set.
But what constitutes being in a good place?
“I don’t know that. That’s tough to determine,” Rodgers said as he stood at his locker Wednesday, after practice and after McCarthy’s comment. “I feel like I’m where I should be.”
Rodgers then spoke of being the team’s longest-tenured player (a title he assumed after wide receiver Donald Driver’s retirement), of how he’s seeing the game (“I’m playing fast, but my mind is slow, which is where you want to be”), and of how he’s enjoying taking fewer snaps this camp as backups Graham Harrell, Vince Young and B.J. Coleman battle while he’s on a pitch count.
Later, though, Rodgers spoke of the real reason he feels good – the “vibe” he’s getting from his team.
“I’m having a blast, I really am. I love this group of guys,” Rodgers explained. “I think it’s a young group. It feels young, there’s an influx of energy. We’ve seen a lot of guys fighting for positions, but a lot of guys stepping up and letting more of their personality out. I think when you can get to that comfort zone where you’re playing really fast and playing well but also able to be yourself, it’s just fun for everybody else. It’s contagious.”
Whether that vibe translates into greater success remains to be seen. After going from 8-6 with two weeks left in the 2010 regular season to making the playoffs as a wild card and winning Super Bowl XLV, the Packers have put together back-to-back NFC North division titles, going 15-1 in 2011 and 11-5 last season. But after dispiriting losses in the NFC Divisional Playoff round each year, those seasons ultimately felt empty to Rodgers.
According to offensive coordinator Tom Clements, Rodgers’ quarterbacks coach from 2006 through 2011 and the person who knows him best in the building, that is fueling him.
“I think he’s been a little more focused. If things aren’t right with a particular play – the running back, the line, a receiver – he talks to them and tries to get everyone on the same page,” Clements said. “He knows that the last couple years we had good seasons but they didn’t end the way we’d want them to. And he’s taking the approach that he’s going to do everything he can to get us to where we want to go.”
To get there, Rodgers acknowledged Wednesday that it might mean his own personal numbers will drop. After winning the NFL MVP award in 2011, his numbers were down slightly last year. While his quarterback rating was still the NFL’s best (108.0), it did drop from his NFL-record 122.5 rating the year before. His touchdown passes dropped by six in one more regular-season start (39, down from 45) and his interception total went up (eight, from six). He still finished with more than 4,000 yards passing (4,295, eighth in the NFL), but his yards per attempt dipped from an NFL-high 9.25 yards in 2011 to only 7.78 last season.
Although Rodgers and the passing game figure to remain the focus, if the Packers’ hopes of a more robust running game are realized, Rodgers could be more efficient in a more balanced offense. DuJuan Harris, who ended last season as the starter, and rookie second-round pick Eddie Lacy are the leading candidates to start at running back, but veteran James Starks has had a good camp and rookie fourth-round pick Johnathan Franklin looks like a viable third-down option.
“You know, one word we’ve talked about (this year) is sacrifice, sacrificing for the good of the team and putting the needs of the team in front of the needs of the self,” Rodgers said. ‘You look at the guys we’ve got in the backfield this year, it’s probably the best running group we’ve had in my nine years as a whole. That could mean the (passing game) numbers might go down a little bit. But the most important thing, as we stress to the guys on offense, is about winning and playing well. If we can have a balanced attack this year, I think that means sustained, consistent play, and that’s what we’re looking for.”
Rodgers has also had a lighter workload in camp this summer, and it’s not only because of the competition for the backup job. McCarthy, Clements and quarterbacks coach Ben McAdoo decided that in his ninth season, Rodgers needed to be monitored more closely in terms of throws and snaps.
“We wanted to save a little bit of wear and tear on him and give some reps to other guys to be able to make a good evaluation,” Clements said. “Probably last year and the year before, especially in the spring when we did a lot of no huddle, he got a ton of reps. So he’s getting enough reps to stay sharp and then he takes all the 2-minute and the no-huddle and that’s good to get him where he needs to be.”
Said Rodgers: “It’s been a lot lighter, and I’ve appreciated it. Last year there were times where we took 60 out of 70 snaps in a practice, and that’s tough for anybody, whether you’re in Year 1 or Year 8. Now in (Year) 9, they’ve done a good job (of) putting their heads together and taking off some of the load on my arm, so my arm’s been able to stay very fresh. My legs feel have felt really good. I came in in really good shape, probably the best shape I’ve been in since … maybe five years ago. So that feels good, it takes some load off my legs. I love football so I want to make sure I’m putting my best foot forward for these guys and lead them in the right way.”
And that might be another area where Rodgers won’t have to carry the load entirely. While the quarterback position and his longest-tenured status require him to provide leadership, Rodgers believes there are plenty of young, emerging leaders around him.
“You see other guys stepping up – (safety) Morgan Burnett, (guards) T.J. (Lang) and Josh (Sitton), (defensive tackle) B.J. Raji – I’m just one of those guys who has an important role on this team,” Rodgers said. “As we all do, you’ve got to know your role and execute it well. And I’m trying to do that.”
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.