Rookie quarterback Aaron Rodgers drops back to pass in the fourth quarter in a Dec. 19, 2005, game against the Ravens in Baltimore. File/Press-Gazette Media
Aaron Rodgers’ first extended regular-season playing time in the NFL was a disaster.
It came eight seasons ago, in December 2005, at the same M&T Bank Stadium where the Green Bay Packers will play the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday afternoon.
Rodgers played quarterback for the last play of the third quarter and the entire fourth quarter of the Packers’ 48-3 loss, four full series in all. Three of those series ended in Rodgers turnovers and the other in a punt.
After re-watching the video of that night (thanks to WBAY-TV sports director Chris Roth), what stands out most is how unsure Rodgers looked in the pocket. On several of his 24 snaps, Rodgers either bolted too soon or held the ball too long. He didn’t make any plays of note, and on one of his scrambles he threw into triple coverage and was intercepted in the end zone.
It wasn’t necessarily the pivotal night of Rodgers’ career, but it was an important failure.
“I remember sitting on the plane thinking I’ve got a long way to go,” Rodgers said Friday, thinking back on that night. “It didn’t damage my confidence. I was obviously disappointed. But it was a good perspective moment for me.”
At the time, the Packers still thought Rodgers was a promising player but had little idea whether he’d pan out. He’d shown the intelligence and arm talent to think he could win games by making good reads and accurate throws. But there would be no knowing until he was at the helm for several games or more.
As for him becoming more than a capable player, there weren’t yet signs he had the intangibles or “It” factor that separate upper-tier NFL quarterbacks from the rest. Could he make the special play out of nothing by instinctively escaping the pocket, finding a receiver downfield while being chased and snapping off awkward throws on a line? That all came later.
Though some successful players might experience epiphanies in the NFL, most almost surely learn more gradually, with perhaps a few important moments or games along the way. Anyone who’s followed his career knows a pivotal game for Rodgers was at Dallas in 2007 when he replaced an injured Brett Favre in the second quarter with the Packers trailing 27-10. He put up 17 points, a 104.8 passer rating and scrambled for another 30 yards in getting the Packers back into the game, though they eventually lost 37-27.
Still, to suggest that general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy knew they had Favre’s long-term successor by the end of that night would be overstatement. They selected Brian Brohm in the second round of the ’08 draft the following spring as a hedge against Rodgers’ shaky durability (ACL surgery in college, a broken foot in ’06 and pulled hamstring late in ’07) and fallback if Rodgers didn’t pan out a year or two down the road. But by that summer they knew Rodgers was ready to play and confident enough in his prospects to rebuff Favre when he changed his mind about retirement.
Yet, it’s worth remembering that Rodgers’ path to that promising performance in Dallas consisted of a 2˝-year apprenticeship that included two humbling and important experiences.
One was not being selected until No. 24 overall in the 2005 draft when going in it appeared he might even be the No. 1 pick overall. That was a huge motivator and likely sticks with him to this day.
The other was that December night in Baltimore when he was a cocky rookie in 2005.
Since the end of his rookie training camp, Rodgers primarily had been running the Packers’ scout team in practice, with only the bare minimum of snaps in the Packers’ offense. He’d played meaningful minutes in the preseason, but that was against mostly backups and players who ended up getting cut.
Then in Baltimore, the Ravens kept many of their starters on the field in the fourth quarter, and Rodgers discovered how far behind he was in the NFL game.
When asked to recall his time on the field for a few minutes on Friday, Rodgers recalled only a couple particulars without prodding, one of which illustrates how different a player he is today. On a second-and-goal from the 8, the Ravens produced minimal pressure with a four-man rush, but Rodgers broke the pocket anyway, to his left. He found essentially an empty left half of the field, and with pursuit closing fast, he threw the ball out of bounds.
Rodgers remembered watching the video the next day and seeing receiver Donald Driver break open on an option route to his right.
“If I’d just stuck to the front side with it, I probably could have hit Donald for a touchdown,” Rodgers said.
Watching that game video, it’s startling to see Rodgers turn the ball over three times in one quarter. Since becoming a starter in 2008, he’s averaged nine interceptions and 2.4 lost fumbles a season.
On his interception against the Ravens, a third-and-goal from the 13, Rodgers bolted the pocket early, scrambled to his right and casually threw to receiver Robert Ferguson, who was triple-covered in the end zone. Safety Chad Williams made the easy interception.
Rodgers remembered rolling right on the play but not what he did or didn’t see.
“Probably not much,” he said. “Obviously throw that one away if I had a chance now. I’d have to see the film to see what I could recall. It was fast. I was moving fast and didn’t have a whole lot of body control at that point in my career.”
Both of Rodgers’ fumbles that night came on unblocked blitzes.
On the first, outside linebacker Adalius Thomas blitzed from the backside, and neither halfback Noah Herron nor fullback William Henderson stayed in the backfield long enough to pick him up. Rodgers had both hands on the ball, but Thomas stripped away the left hand on the initial hit and then knocked the ball out of Rodgers’ right hand as he threw him down. Linebacker Bart Scott recovered.
On the second, Williams blitzed untouched from Rodgers’ backside while the line slid its protection to the front side. Rodgers never saw him and took the hit just as he started coiling to throw. Thomas returned the fumble 35 yards for a touchdown.
The obvious takeaway from that night would appear to be ball security. But Rodgers said that had been drilled into him in college at Cal by coach Jeff Tedford. Instead, Rodgers came away with the realization that he had to speed up his mind and body.
“I was just so worried about getting the plays right,” Rodgers said. “I was able later as I played to have a better understanding of my role and what I needed to do out there. I’d been taught great fundamentals of pocket awareness and ball security in the pocket in college. It was so fast for me on the field (that night), not much translated.”
That one-quarter failure shocked Rodgers into the realization that he was a long way from becoming Favre’s successor. Two weeks later, Thompson fired Mike Sherman as coach, and two weeks after that hired McCarthy, who put Rodgers through his quarterbacks school for the first time that spring.
“The fear of failure is healthy if you can harness it to make it drive you,” Rodgers said. “The fear of failure where you’re crippled into worrying so much about making mistakes, that’s a negative fear of failure that often young players can struggle with.”
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.