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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers primed for NFL elite

Jul. 25, 2010
 
Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers (12) during OTA practice June 9 at Ray Nitschke Field in Green Bay.
Green Bay Packers Aaron Rodgers (12) during OTA practice June 9 at Ray Nitschke Field in Green Bay. / File/Press-Gazette
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Packers by Position

Green Bay Press-Gazette reporter Pete Dougherty will be focusing on a different Packers position each day going into training camp. The schedule is as follows:
♦ Friday: Receivers/tight ends
♦ Saturday: Offensive line
Today: Quarterbacks
♦ Monday: Running backs
♦ Tuesday: Defensive line
♦ Wednesday: Linebackers
♦ Thursday: Defensive backs
♦ Friday: Special teams

More

The Green Bay Packers appear to have succeeded where almost all NFL franchises fail: They’ve immediately replaced a future Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback with another winning player.

The San Francisco 49ers pulled off the ultimate succession in 1993 when they replaced one future Hall of Famer, Joe Montana, with another, Steve Young. But that is the exception of exceptions in filling the game’s most important position.

Look only to the Chicago Bears, who haven’t had an elite quarterback since Sid Luckman retired in 1950. The Packers themselves went more than two decades from Bart Starr to Brett Favre, the same for the Pittsburgh Steelers between Terry Bradshaw and Ben Roethlisberger. Likewise, the New York Jets can only hope Mark Sanchez becomes their next Joe Namath, who last played for them in 1976.

More recently, the Miami Dolphins have had 14 different starting quarterbacks since Dan Marino retired in 1999; the Denver Broncos have drafted two quarterbacks in the first round over the past five years in their ongoing search to replace John Elway, who retired in 1998; and the Buffalo Bills, who have had only three winning seasons in the 14 years since Jim Kelly retired in 1996, remain so dire in need at quarterback that Packers cast-off Brian Brohm is competing for their starting job this year.

Compared to those teams, Dallas was swift in finding a good, if not great, Tony Romo to replace Troy Aikman six years after the latter’s retirement in 2000.

In that context, while it’s more than a little hasty to put Aaron Rodgers in the Hall of Fame, it’s nevertheless difficult to overstate what General Manager Ted Thompson’s drafting of him at No. 24 overall in 2005 could mean for the team’s prospects over, say, the next seven to 10 years.

“I’ve always thought (Rodgers) has great talent,” said Tom Clements, the Packers’ quarterbacks coach. “The mental aspect of the game he’s very sharp at. He wants to be a great player, so he works at it. He can continue to play at a high level for a long period of time.”

Rodgers is one of a handful of younger quarterbacks looking to break into the NFL’s elite, which starts with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, followed probably by Drew Brees.

After that, there’s a group of younger quarterbacks that includes Philip Rivers, Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Matt Schaub, Romo, Matt Ryan and Eli Manning, along with old-timers Favre (40 years old) and perhaps Donovan McNabb (33). The next couple of seasons should go a long way toward sorting out the best of that younger group.

Rodgers broke into that group last season, his second as a starter. He finished ranked fourth in the NFL in passer rating (103.2 points), fourth in passing yards (4,434), and with a 30-to-7 touchdown-to-interception differential that rated behind only Favre (33 to 7).

After three years as Favre’s understudy and then two seasons as a starter, Rodgers at age 27 is just entering the prime years for his position. He’s proven to be an accurate passer (64.2 completion percentage as a starter) whose arm is plenty strong enough to cut through blustery Lambeau Field. He’s more athletic than most scouts evaluated coming out of college — he ran for 316 yards last season — and plays as smart as his 36 score on the Wonderlic intelligence test would suggest.

His biggest flaw in 2009 was his holding onto the ball too long, which contributed to the Packers’ sacks epidemic in the first half of the season. The offensive line was a major culprit as well in allowing 41 sacks in the first nine games, but Rodgers ultimately decides when to throw the ball away, so he bears his share of responsibility for a nine-game pace that if maintained over 16 weeks would have been the second-most sacks (73) of any quarterback in NFL history.

The sacks avalanche abruptly abated with changes on the offensive, play calling and Rodgers’ decision making. He was sacked only 10 times over the last seven regular-season games, though Arizona then sacked him five times in the Packers’ shootout loss in the wild-card round of the playoffs.

Rodgers now will be looking to make the second half of last season the norm. During offseason quarterbacks school, he and Clements watched every offensive play from last year and studied each sack to determine whether he should have thrown the ball away, run or taken the loss.

“The other thing we looked at was all the scrambles he made that were positive plays for us,” Clements said. “So you don’t want him to throw it away too quickly and not get those scramble plays, because he was very effective. There’s a fine line between doing that and trying to make a decision. But there certainly were a handful of times where it was clear he could have gotten rid of the ball.”

Behind Rodgers, Matt Flynn returns for his third season as backup. The Packers appear content with his development under coach Mike McCarthy and Clements, as evidenced that they haven’t tried hard to replace him.

Flynn is a far more advanced player than the tentative rookie who in 2008 played two offensive series against Tampa Bay while Rodgers was sidelined with a shoulder injury. The offense was barely functional on those two possessions, in part because McCarthy felt his hands were tied as a play caller with the seventh-round draft pick at the helm.

Flynn now has much greater command of the offense and improved arm strength as well. The Packers, like almost all teams, would be in major trouble if they lost their starter for a long stretch of the season, but they feel much better about finishing out a game or going a week or two without Rodgers than two years ago or even last season.

“I think (Flynn) has gotten better this offseason too as far as mechanics, knowledge of the game,” Clements said. “That will be a big thing because we put a lot of responsibility on the quarterback position.”

The Packers appear ready to go a third straight season with only two quarterbacks on their 53-man roster. They signed Graham Harrell (6-feet, 215 pounds), a prolific passer in Texas Tech’s spread passing game in college, as their likely practice-squad quarterback.

As a rookie last year Harrell had a minicamp tryout with Cleveland but wasn’t invited to an NFL training camp and then went to the Canadian Football League, where he spent the season on the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ injured list. He’s poised and intuitive but lacks arm strength.

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