Since early in Aaron Rodgers' tenure as the Green Bay Packers' starter, three quarterbacks have stood above the rest in the NFL for their skill in the cat-and-mouse game with defenses at the line of scrimmage: Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees.
Rodgers, at age 30, is bidding to join that group while operating in a scheme that coach Mike McCarthy has been designing for him for seven years.
Before Rodgers sustained a broken collarbone last year, the Packers thought he was becoming elite at calling audibles and making pre-snap reads. This year, McCarthy plans to have him run more no-huddle offense and take more responsibility changing plays at the line than ever.
"(Rodgers) runs our offense as well as any offense is run in the league," Alex Van Pelt, the Packers' new quarterbacks coach, said this offseason. "Put him right up there at the top of the list with those guys."
The Packers are not the only ones who think so.
This offseason, Mike Sando of ESPN.com conducted a poll of 26 NFL front-office executives and coaches to grade each starting quarterback on a 1-to-5 scale, with the average score determining each player's ranking. Manning, Brady, Brees and Rodgers tied for first.
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More to the point, even if the incomparable Manning's knowledge of the game is considered the best, one of the defensive coordinators Sando quoted anonymously pointed to Rodgers' pre-snap reads as on par at least with Brees, who is 35 and entering his 13th season as a starter.
"You can't fool (Rodgers)," the coach said. "We watched some cutups on him and he was ridiculous. He sees everything. They'd have a blitz on and he'd throw it and he knows what the blitz is. I don't know how he knows it. He throws into this tight window that nobody would throw into. Brees is the same way."
Rodgers' status as a premier quarterback hasn't been in question for a few years. He has the highest passer rating in NFL history (104.9; Manning is second at 97.2), a 58-29 record (.667 winning percentage) and a Super Bowl win.
Besides the rankings Sando compiled, Rodgers finished No. 3 (behind Manning and Brady) in former NFL quarterback Ron Jaworski's quarterback rankings released Monday on ESPN.com. And Rodgers was fourth among quarterbacks in the players' poll that NFL Network conducted this offseason.
But if there were any doubt, last season underscored Rodgers' value to the Packers. In the eight games they played while he was out with a broken collarbone, including against Chicago when he was injured in the first quarter, they went 2-5-1.
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Still trying to grow
Keeping him healthy is everything, though the Packers don't want to take away too much from his playmaking outside the pocket, which is a quality that sets him apart from the less-mobile Manning, Brady and Brees.
"I'm going to keep playing the same way," Rodgers told ESPNMilwaukee.com this offseason. "I've got to be instinctual, I've got to rely on my quick reactions, and I've got to play the way I've always played.
"At some point, if we're talking in 10 years and I'm still trying to give this a go, I probably won't be exactly the same player. But I'd like to think that as long as I have my legs, I'm going to play the exact same way, because that's what gives me those little advantages."
Van Pelt will be Rodgers' third quarterbacks coach since he became a starter in 2008. Van Pelt was promoted from coaching running backs when Ben McAdoo left in the offseason to become the New York Giants' offensive coordinator. Offensive coordinator Tom Clements had coached quarterbacks before McAdoo.
Van Pelt, 44, has the advantage of having played the position — he was a nine-year backup for the Bills — and has coached the position previously, for Buffalo and Tampa Bay from 2008-11 (in '09 he also was the Bills' offensive coordinator). Van Pelt says one of his main jobs is keeping Rodgers from getting bored while going through the installations of McCarthy's offense for the umpteenth time.
"No matter Aaron Rodgers or Michael Jordan, you get better every year when you talk about athletes at the top of the game," Van Pelt said. "Any slide, most of those guys aren't going to be happy about that. So the competitive nature, that seems to be in all the great ones, never really allows that. So just continue to help him grow, try to stimulate and challenge him every day."
Rodgers is close to the age when the Packers started monitoring Brett Favre's throwing in training camp to avoid arm problems. Rodgers no longer needs the maximum number of snaps in training camp to get ready for the season, but Van Pelt says he doesn't yet need a daily pitch count either.
"(The backups) will get more," Van Pelt said. "But he's the Energizer bunny when it comes to his arm."
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That Packers' backup position is in better shape this year with Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien than last year at this time, when Graham Harrell and B.J. Coleman were vying for the No. 2 job.
In April, the Packers signed Flynn to an inexpensive one-year deal that included a $75,000 signing bonus and the NFL veterans minimum for a seventh-year pro of $730,000. He's the front-runner to win the job, though Tolzien could make this a position battle worth watching in training camp. The Packers haven't kept three quarterbacks on their opening-day roster since Rodgers' first season as a starter, so the loser stands a decent chance of getting cut.
Flynn, 29, isn't a viable starter in the NFL after failing in Seattle and then Oakland the past two years, but he showed last season that he can keep the Packers' offense functioning because he's comfortable in the scheme and the coaching staff knows his strengths and weaknesses well. He didn't sign with the Packers last season until Nov. 12, but even after 1½ seasons away from the team, he went 2-2-1 in games he finished while Rodgers was out.
"He knows how to play within the system very well," Van Pelt said, "and he's very good playing to his strengths, knowing, 'Maybe I don't have the throw to make that Aaron can make, so I'm not going to read it the same, I'm going to play it a little differently.' "
The Packers are anxious to see Tolzien, 26, after an offseason in their quarterbacks school. He came to them last year as a practice-squad signee after getting released by San Francisco on final cuts, and had worked almost exclusively as a scout-team quarterback when he had to replace injured Seneca Wallace in the first quarter against Philadelpha on Nov. 10.
Tolzien lost both games he finished, was pulled in the second of his two starts in favor of Flynn and put up a 66.8 passer rating (one touchdown, five interceptions). He has a stronger arm than Flynn, probably isn't as athletic and at every stop in his career has drawn raves for his work ethic.
"He was thrown into a tough situation and made the best of it, and he will only grow and get better because of it, especially with an offseason to the system to digest it," Van Pelt said. "I don't think there was anything about Scott that he couldn't win a game for us other than he was thrown into the mix as a late addition on the club. Third-string quarterback starting in the Giants game, that's a tough thing for anybody."
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