Believe it: Rodgers keeps getting better
He’s a 31-year-old quarterback, a two-time MVP. Eleven seasons into his career, eight as the Green Bay Packers’ starter, Aaron Rodgers isn’t supposed to surprise anyone. Not anymore. He’s been there, done that. Won a Super Bowl. Broken records. Broken more records. If he never played another snap, Rodgers may already be a hall of famer.
Yet, he keeps raising his ceiling. Keeps impressing, if not surprising. He’s not expected to find new ways to get better, not with all he’s accomplished already, but that’s what he’s doing through the first three games of this season.
The best early-season stretch of Rodgers’ career culminated with 333 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions against the Kansas City Chiefs, leading the Packers to a 38-28 win Monday night at Lambeau Field. The win pushed the Packers to 3-0 for the first time since 2011, and only the second time in the past decade.
“He’s special, man,” receiver James Jones said. “He’s special every day, and he’s going to continue to be special. That’s why he makes the most money. He’s supposed to be special every day. It don’t surprise me no more. That’s what he does. He’s a special QB. We’re all witnesses to something special right now.”
It’s too early to predict Rodgers is at the beginning of his finest season. No one knows that better than him. While the numbers he’s put up this September dwarf anything he’s done through an opening month in the past, there’s a long way to go.
Still, Rodgers’ efficiency has been unprecedented. With five touchdowns Monday, he has 10 through the first three games. It’s the most he’s ever thrown without an interception to start a season. His 73.6 completion percentage would be the highest of his career — by more than 5 percentage points.
The best football of his career? It’s a lofty standard. Rodgers wasn’t going there with his postgame comments, but he wasn’t ruling it out either.
“I need to,” Rodgers said. “I need to bring it every week. It’s three games in, though. You’ve got to slow down a little bit. Thankful for the three wins, and would like to keep it going like this throughout the season. Consistency is very important in our business, and if you’re making good decisions and taking care of the football, you’re going to give your team a chance to win.”
Jones, in his eighth season as Rodgers’ teammate, said he isn’t surprised with what his quarterback is doing on the field. He sees it every day in practice, Jones said. Rodgers is a perfectionist, never expecting less. He has the same approach in games.
Rodgers expects to score every time a defensive penalty provides a “free” play. With perhaps an exception or two, Rodgers has chucked the football downfield to take a shot at a big gain every time he’s spotted a yellow flag on the field. It’s carried over from week to week, becoming a “unique” part of the Packers offense, coach Mike McCarthy said.
McCarthy said his quarterback’s ability to maximize defensive mistakes is rare. Rodgers has always had the powerful, accurate arm, explosive athleticism running the football, creativity outside the pocket. Now, his mind may be his sharpest tool.
“His ability to really process information is as good as I’ve ever been around,” McCarthy said. “I’ve been blessed to be around great quarterbacks. His ability to see not only what’s going on their sideline, watching their communication, their non-verbal communication, their verbal communication, picking up tendencies throughout the game, able to apply it to future plays and future situations, is very unique.
“I think it speaks volumes to him in his preparation, knowledge, experience. He’s playing at a great level.”
This year, a slow start could’ve been easily excused. The Packers had a brutal preseason, with injuries forcing McCarthy to deviate from his usual script. Rodgers exited the Packers’ second preseason game before halftime, and he didn’t return until the team’s regular-season opener.
A quarterback’s supporting cast is vital, and Rodgers’ has been in tatters. Jordy Nelson, the Packers’ top receiver, is out for the season. Davante Adams entered Monday night with a sprained ankle, and the second-year receiver quickly exited. Running back Eddie Lacy had limited carries with his own sprained ankle.
With right tackle Bryan Bulaga missing the past two games because of a knee injury, backup Don Barclay has had to block elite pass rushers like the Chiefs’ Justin Houston and the Seattle Seahawks’ Bruce Irvin and Cliff Avril.
“We’ve had some adversity,” McCarthy said.
None of it has slowed Rodgers through the first three weeks.
It was fitting Rodgers had his best game of the season on this night, against this opponent. On the other sideline, there was Alex Smith. That Alex Smith. The No. 1 quarterback in the 2005 NFL draft. The player picked 23 spots ahead of Rodgers.
A decade later, the storyline is stale. Rodgers bristled this week when asked if he harbors any bitterness from the past. He and Smith remain connected and always will, because while one quarterback became a two-time MVP and Super Bowl champion, the other turned into a middling starter.
On the same field, their disparity was stark once again. While Rodgers dominated, Smith completed 24-of-40 for 290 yards, one touchdown and one interception. It was no surprise the biggest swing Monday night came on consecutive plays in the third quarter involving both quarterbacks.
Smith, trying to avoid a safety, ran away from pressure in his own end zone. His frantic pass was intercepted by Packers cornerback Sam Shields at the 19-yard line, returned to the 4. One play later, Rodgers completed a touchdown pass to Randall Cobb that gave the Packers a 31-7 cushion.
As usual, the difference Monday night was Rodgers at quarterback. Now, Rodgers gets another week without having to look hard for motivation. The Packers have a trip to the San Francisco 49ers on deck. Those 49ers. Entering a matchup against the team that passed him over, Rodgers has never played better.
“What’s really great about him,” fullback John Kuhn said, “is he’s done all these things, he’s won MVPs, and gone out there and showed us what perfection looks like – or the pursuit of perfection before – but it’s not enough for him. He’s still hungry, and he still works every single day to try to find different ways to be explosive. I think that’s what you’re seeing right now is a guy who’s completely tuned in, he’s completely focused on the little things that make good plays great.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood