For two summers now, Aaron Rodgers has enrolled in a second quarterbacks school.
The first has been with the Green Bay Packers, whose quarterbacks coach, Tom Clements, runs an annual session from March through early May as part of the offseason workout program.
The second has been after the final minicamp in late June, when Rodgers returns to his offseason home in San Diego and works out several days a week with a group of NFL and college players. There, the tutor is New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who was voted Super Bowl MVP in February after leading the NFL in passer rating in the regular season.
Brees wasn’t around as much for this year’s workouts because he was on a Super Bowl MVP “world tour,” as Rodgers called it, appearing on national TV talk shows, throwing out the first ball at a New York Yankees game and the like. But he was there part-time as a role model even though Rodgers has become a top NFL quarterback in his own right.
“The thing (Brees’ 2009 season) reinforces is that hard work pays off, because nobody works harder than that guy,” Rodgers said after the Packers’ morning practice on Sunday. “I’m just trying to keep up with him when we’re out there, because he busts his butt. He puts in his time. He’s like the leader among leaders in that group.”
Rodgers, 26, is entering his third season as the Packers’ starting quarterback. After going to the Pro Bowl last season, he's looking to move into the top echelon of quarterbacks, which consists of Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Brees.
“You have to win a Super Bowl if you want to be mentioned with those three, because that’s what they all have in common,” Rodgers said.
Rodgers said the five weeks he spends in San Diego before the start of training camp are like a vacation after going through quarterbacks school and then offseason practices. Unlike when he’s in Green Bay, there are no meetings or film sessions, so it provides him with time to get away from the game mentally.
But it nevertheless includes regular workouts with a group of NFL and college players who live in that area, including quarterback A.J. Feeley of the St. Louis Rams, quarterback Kevin O’Connell of the New York Jets, cornerback Charles Tillman of the Chicago Bears, linebacker Shawne Merriman of the San Diego Chargers, tight end Justin Peelle of the Atlanta Falcons, tight end Kellen Winslow of the Tampa Bay Bucs, linebacker Ben Leber of the Minnesota Vikings and halfback Darren Sproles of the Chargers.
The players work out at a local gym and then two or three days a week some go to a nearby school to run pass routes.
“It was fun to be able to work out with a guy like (Brees) for me going into last year,” Rodgers said. “Just going into my second year starting, Drew had been a Pro Bowler, had a lot of success, almost broke the single-season passing yards record, put up huge numbers. I was like, ‘All right, I’ve got to see how he does this.’ Now I’m a Pro Bowler and he’s a Super Bowl champion, so it’s the same kind of deal. Just continue to watch the things he does, because I want to get to that level.”
There weren’t any discernible differences between Rodgers in the first two days of training camp this year from late last season — his physique and throwing look the same.
But right tackle Mark Tauscher, who’s entering his 11th season in the NFL, says he sees a player with even better command of the offense.
“It’s something he’s continued to evolve,” Tauscher said. “He’s more confident. It’s never been something he’s lacked, he just knows he put up big numbers and had a great season last year, and he’s going to build off that.”
Part of the Packers’ quarterbacks school every year is honing fundamental skills, but aside from that, Rodgers wouldn’t talk about areas he and Clements emphasized for improvement.
The two went over videotape of every snap by Rodgers last season, so they no doubt looked hard at the difference from the first half of the season, when Rodgers was sacked 41 times in nine games, to the second half, when he was sacked only nine times in the last seven games (backup Matt Flynn also was sacked once in the regular-season finale at Arizona).
By late last year, the Packers were attributing the reduction to several factors: Tauscher and Chad Clifton being healthy enough to start at the tackles, coach Mike McCarthy adjusting his play calling for more quick-read throws and Rodgers getting the ball out quicker.
Rodgers on Sunday said tight end Jermichael Finley also played a major role in reducing the sacks. Finley returned from a knee injury for the final seven games and immediately took on a new and key role in the Packers’ offense, which took some of the aggressiveness out of defenses because they had to account for another playmaker.
“It seems to make it a little more difficult to be aggressive and rush more than four guys, because they’re worried about putting (Finley) one-on-one with a guy,” Rodgers said. “Then we can split Donald (Driver) and Greg (Jennings) to the other side and it gives teams a matchup issue.”
Rodgers is well aware of his increased profile in the NFL after going to the Pro Bowl last year with a passer rating of 103.2 points, which ranked third in the NFC and fourth in the league. The Packers finished No. 7 in the NFL in scoring and project to be better this season with Finley as a starter from the first day and an offensive line that doesn’t figure to hemorrhage sacks like it did through nine games last season.
He also knows ESPN The Magazine recently recommended him as the No. 1 pick for fantasy football players.
“That’s the No. 1 comment I get from people, about fantasy, more than any other comment,” Rodgers said. “Some sort of fantasy remark like, ‘Hey, thanks for the money you won me,’ or ‘thanks for the points,’ or ‘I should have drafted you,’ or ‘I shouldn’t have drafted you as high as I drafted you,’ or ‘I needed more points against the Bears last year.’ Any number of comments like that.”