New playcaller, same expectations for Rodgers
The Chicago Bears couldn't give away Jay Cutler's contract, the Detroit Lions want Matthew Stafford to take more chances and the Minnesota Vikings hope Teddy Bridgewater might finally be the answer at quarterback.
Meanwhile, the story remains the same in Green Bay where the NFL MVP reigns. Aaron Rodgers, the thorn in the NFC North's side for the past seven years, is still on top of his game with more control than ever in the Packers' offense.
Rodgers has held the keys to coach Mike McCarthy's offense for a while now, and gains more latitude at the line of scrimmage with each passing year. The partnership has given the Packers one of the NFL's most potent offenses.
Now, they're hoping a new formula triggers familiar results. In February, McCarthy made the somewhat surprising decision to hand play-calling duties to longtime assistant Tom Clements.
Clements has been on McCarthy's staff since his first season as head coach in 2006 and oversaw Rodgers' rise from Brett Favre's backup to the NFL's most efficient passer, first as quarterbacks coach and then as offensive coordinator since 2012.
"I don't think it's vastly different," Clements said of the changes. "Things go in cycles. You just have to, obviously we have an outstanding offensive staff, we'll put good plans together. You try to play the game during the course of the week so you know what to do when those things happen in the game."
There are minimal offensive changes other than who's calling the plays. The Packers re-signed receiver Randall Cobb and right tackle Bryan Bulaga to long-term deals in March, and return all 11 starters.
Rodgers earned his second MVP award with one of his finest seasons, throwing for 4,381 yards with 38 touchdowns and five interceptions. His 112.2 passer rating was the second-highest of his career and extended his NFL record in the category to 106.0 for his career.
His ability to extend plays also led to him registering an NFL-best 115.7 passer rating when given more than 2.6 seconds to throw the ball, according to Pro Football Focus. His 51.8 completion percentage on passes of more than 20 yards was second only to Matt Ryan, who had five interceptions to Rodgers' one.
In ESPN.com's second annual rankings, 35 NFL personnel and coaches picked Rodgers and New England's Tom Brady as the NFL's two unanimous top-tier quarterbacks. The most common sentiment was defensive coordinators simply don't want to match wits with him.
Rodgers' mastery of the offense and growing responsibility in the offense is what makes teammates and coaches believe McCarthy bequeathing play-calling duties to Clements won't have a severe ripple effect.
"He's pretty active in all the games," said quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt of Rodgers' autonomy at the line of scrimmage. "He's a coordinator on the field."
"I think he's in a position in his career where he's got great comfort level with the system, with Tom and with his coaches. I think it'll be a seamless transition, I do."
One key for Rodgers going forward will be his health. He missed the second half of 2013 with a broken collarbone and was hampered in the Packers' final four games last season with a torn calf muscle sustained Week 15 against Tampa Bay.
His accuracy was through the roof in that final month (91-for-131, 69.5 percent), but his limited mobility restricted his scrambling and ability to extend plays. He registered six carries in the final four games after averaging nearly three rushes per game in the first 14 contests.
It led to the insertion of a pistol formation that could stay in the playbook this season, but Rodgers' confinement to the pocket was paramount in the NFC title game against Seattle where he recorded his second-lowest passer rating of the year (55.8) in the 28-22 overtime defeat.
It took most of the offseason for Rodgers' calf to heal, but he looked no worse for wear in a handful of organized team activities and minicamp practices.
"Just knocking the rust off a little bit," said Van Pelt of Rodgers' goal in the offseason program. "He'll find the little things that challenge him and apply that. Maybe one day it's I'm going to use all hard count and get somebody to jump five times today. Whatever, he's going to get something out of it every day.
"Just because he's here, he's still going to grow as a player. Just differently from maybe a young guy who's trying to find it out."
The backup situation behind Rodgers looks a bit different than past years. They doubled Scott Tolzien's salary with a one-year, $1.35 million contract in March instead of bringing back veteran Matt Flynn, who went on to sign with New England.
The former Wisconsin starter spent last season refining his throwing mechanics as the No. 3 quarterback and appears to be well ahead of fifth-round pick Brett Hundley and former UW-Whitewater quarterback Matt Blanchard in the battle for the No. 2 job.
Tolzien didn't want to get into the specific modifications he made, but it seems to be working. He was more decisive and appeared to have more zip on his passes. Tolzien also was efficient in running the two-minute offense with both the first- and second-team units.
"I was really impressed by his ability to change his throwing mechanics in one year," Van Pelt said. "His velocity is up. His release is quicker. His feet are way better. He's more in rhythm. The things that as a coach you coach the fundamentals and to have him apply them, use them and grow from them, I think that's impressive on his part to be able to put that work in to do something that's so hard to change the mechanic in your throwing motion."
The Packers feel like they got a steal with Hundley in the fifth round, but the former UCLA quarterback faces a steep transition going from the Bruins' spread offense to the NFL.
Hundley, a junior entry, has worked extensively with Van Pelt on his footwork and mechanics, but he still looked raw and unrefined running the two-minute offense during the offseason program. He finished minicamp alternating second- and third-team reps with Blanchard.
"Brett obviously has played a lot of football. I liked his college tape," Van Pelt said. "He's going to be a guy, like Scott, will need some work and he'll have to put the work in. He's going to have to change some things he does in his throwing motion, some of his footwork, as well."
Blanchard, 26, signed with the Packers in April and you can see why the Packers decided to take a closer look. He missed all of last season after suffering a concussion with Carolina in the preseason, but he represented himself well when given the opportunity.
The Packers brought four quarterbacks in training camp last year, but few reps trickled down to undrafted rookie Chase Rettig behind Rodgers, Tolzien and Flynn, and he was released at the first cutdown. It will be important for Blanchard to take advantage of whatever is thrown his way early.
"He's a guy that has a great skill-set, he's a big athletic guy who can throw the ball," Van Pelt said. "He's been impressive. He's been able to adapt into our quarterback school, and you're starting to see now that he's got the athleticism and the feet and the arm strength. Like I said, I've been impressed with Matt. I think Matt's made some big jumps in the spring."
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