How Aaron Rodgers defined Pack's year with 'R-E-L-A-X'
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Within three days of Aaron Rodgers telling Green Bay Packers fans to "R-E-L-A-X" about the team's 1-2 start, his older brother's apparel company was working up designs for a T-shirt bearing the star quarterback's face and those five reassuring letters.
Eleven wins, a first-team all-pro nod and several thousand units sold later, what started off as an unscripted rebuttal to theories about the Packers' struggles on Rodgers' weekly radio show is as much ingrained in the story of their season as all the touchdown passes and victories that followed.
"I didn't think it'd take off like this," Rodgers told a crowd of reporters at his locker Wednesday. "But it's kind of my personality. I'd like to think that being relaxed and laid back is a positive trait as far as my leadership and kind of my demeanor."
Rodgers could've dusted off his catchphrase Wednesday, when he missed another practice while receiving treatment on the injured calf that has bothered him the past few weeks. He opted for a more direct answer about his availability for Green Bay's playoff opener against the Dallas Cowboys — "I'm going Sunday" — and saying his recovery is on schedule.
There were reminders elsewhere, though – namely the "RELAX" sign sitting atop a cabinet in the Packers' equipment room. Legend says it appeared soon after a fan sent Rodgers something similar made out of seashells, affirming the phrase's status as an unofficial rallying cry.
"It's a big deal," Rodgers' older brother, Luke, told USA TODAY Sports. "They went on that crazy winning streak, and people really bought into that being their message."
The whole thing started Sept. 23, two days after the Packers offense netted just 223 yards in a 19-7 road loss to the Detroit Lions. They'd already lost the nationally televised opener to the Seahawks in Seattle and fallen behind 21-3 before rallying to beat the lowly New York Jets.
Never mind that those three teams all finished in the top six in yards allowed defensively. Fans were concocting doomsday theories, including two centered on Rodgers: that he was still bothered by a 2013 collarbone injury and that he was distracted by his relationship with actress Olivia Munn.
Jason Wilde, a longtime Packers beat reporter who also hosts Rodgers' radio show on 540 ESPN out of Milwaukee, raised both suggestions during their weekly recording. Rodgers called the theories "so idiotic it's not even worth responding" — but then spelled out his response "for everybody out there in Packerland" when Wilde pressed him about the offense getting out of its funk.
"If he goes to Chicago and plays like crap, this is not the catchphrase of the 2014 NFL season," said Wilde, whose radio station printed its own R-E-L-A-X shirt. "He knew that, and he was great in Chicago, and that started a run of 12 great weeks of football."
Rodgers completed 22 of 28 passes for 302 yards and four touchdowns that Sunday as the Packers crushed the Bears 38-17 at Soldier Field. By the time they returned home for a Thursday night game and trounced the Minnesota Vikings 42-10, the dynamic of their season had changed.
The Packers won 11 of their last 13 games. Rodgers, 31, finished the season with 38 TD passes and just five interceptions, capping it with a gutsy return after tweaking the calf in a Week 17 rematch with the Lions to wrap up the NFC North title and a first-round playoff bye.
"He's been the same person, still that laser focus," receiver Randall Cobb said. "What you love about it is how calm he is with having that focus, too. You can see it in his eyes at the line of scrimmage. You can see it in his eyes in the huddle."
That's Aaron Rodgers — cool whether he's slinking away from an oncoming pass rush or broadcasting a message he surely knew on some level would transfer pressure from his teammates to his own shoulders, even if the degree to which doubt crept into the locker room is debatable.
"But as fans, I understand," receiver Jordy Nelson said. "They have no control over what happens. So the only thing they can do is panic and ride the highs and the lows and live and die with everything that happens."
Rodgers still has the same collarbone. He's still dating Munn. So apparently neither of those things could hold him back from a season that not only has the Packers thinking about a Super Bowl run, but likely will net Rodgers his second NFL MVP award as well.
Asked Wednesday about the T-shirts, Rodgers deadpanned: "Well, I can tell you I've seen zero of that money" — something that will change when the NFL Players Association, which has a licensing agreement with his brother's company, Pro Merch, hands out royalty checks.
More important is it was the right message at the right time, at least for the fans who can think of their five-letter motto if Rodgers' calf keeps him off the field all the way up until Sunday and P-A-N-I-C threatens to set in.
"What I think is neat, as someone who loves the story and loves chronicling the journey as my job, is that it's such a neat piece of their story," Wilde said.
"If they win the Super Bowl, it will have been a very signature phrase that defines this team that started out struggling."
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