GREEN BAY - Organized team activities were only two days old, but already the Green Bay Packers locker room had a different vibe when quarterback Aaron Rodgers returned from practice last week.
For almost a decade, Rodgers’ trusty fullback was just a short stroll across the locker room. John Kuhn — a “dear friend,” Rodgers called him — was a steady presence on the field. A confidant off it.
After Rodgers, no one knew the Packers' offense better than Kuhn. No one was relied on to fill more leadership duties either. Kuhn’s absence might not be permanent. Second-year fullback Aaron Ripkowski will have to prove he’s ready to step into the Packers' lead-blocker role, in addition to special teams.
For now, at least, Rodgers is without his security blanket in the backfield.
“It’s tough when you lose guys like that,” Rodgers said, “or you show back up in the locker room and they’re not there. That’s part of getting older in the league. You look at the last three or four years. A.J. Hawk, I sat next to him for nine years in the meeting room. His locker was just a couple down from here. James Jones came back to us last year and was our leading receiver. Obviously he’s not here, after a year hiatus before that. And John.
“Those are three of my closest friends as teammates over the years. You’d love to see guys like that be around because you know they can help us win.”
There’s another reason beyond wins and losses, something more fundamentally human. In any social setting, familiarity breeds comfort. Relationships build over time. When those relationships are gone, it takes work to build new ones.
On the surface, little has changed for Rodgers. He’s still the longest-tenured player on the Packers' roster. He’s entering his fourth season in that seat. If not for the ageless Julius Peppers, he’d be the longest-tenured NFL player inside Lambeau Field.
Yet every season removed from his rookie year — Rodgers is at a dozen now — shifts the landscape even more. There are fewer and fewer players around Rodgers to share the leadership, veterans constantly replaced with new faces.
“Happens every year,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “I think it’s very obvious with our team. Our team is 20 percent rookies every year, if you look at the past 10 years. You look at our team today, it’s different this year interacting with some new faces and giving guys directives and so forth. I think that’s been pretty much a common path of just the way we do business here.”
When the Packers made their run to the NFC championship game two seasons ago, eight players had been with the team since Rodgers’ first season as starting quarterback in 2008. They filled all manner of roles. There was receiver Jordy Nelson and left guard Josh Sitton. There was Hawk and cornerback Tramon Williams. There was kicker Mason Crosby and special teams ace Jarrett Bush.
Now, that number has dwindled to three: Nelson, Sitton and Crosby.
Nelson is returning from missing a year because of a torn ACL, and Rodgers said there will have to be an adjustment time with his No. 1 receiver. Sitton is entering the final season of his contract, and his future with the team is unknown. Other than Rodgers, Crosby is the only other player who has been with the Packers for a decade.
When players enter the organization now, they don’t see a quarterback who had to sit three years behind Brett Favre. A quarterback who had to earn his way through those first couple seasons.
No, newcomers see a two-time MVP, a Super Bowl MVP, a future Hall of Famer. A quarterback who already has legendary status playing for one of the NFL’s most fabled franchises.
Trevor Davis, the fifth-round rookie receiver, gushed about the chance to play with Rodgers while speaking with reporters after rookie orientation last month. There would be some butterflies the first time they met, he admitted. Davis was 17 years old, a high school senior, when Rodgers led the Packers to a Super Bowl XLV championship.
Now they’re teammates? Rodgers knows it can be a lot to digest.
“He’s one of those guys,” Rodgers said, “you have to move toward them. You have to initiate conversations with them.”
There have been more of those icebreakers in recent years. More small talk. More introductions. When Rodgers looked around the locker room last week, he was struck with a new realization.
“There’s a lot of ‘90s babies in here,” he said. “It’s weird.”
Rodgers, born in 1983, came at the tail end of Generation X. He’s sharing a locker room full of millennials. So it will be an unusual offseason ahead. A lot of work to do, on and off the field.
There isn’t time for younger players to feel anxious in their new surroundings, Rodgers knows. Not for a team expected to compete for a Super Bowl title this fall. The Packers' increasingly younger roster is another reminder of Rodgers’ football mortality. He will turn 33 in December, nearing the latter stages of his prime.
Rodgers, always one to be over-prepared, has a game plan for this, too. He knows it’s the elder statesman’s job to make teammates relaxed, keep them loose. With less help, he’s ready to add locker room icebreaker to his job description.
“You just have to be intentional,” Rodgers said, “about spending time with them and talking to them. The thing you learn as you get older in the league is, there’s some apprehension in them coming up to you. They might not feel comfortable asking those questions right away, so you have to have an ice-breaker. Whether it’s a joke or a nickname or a funny anecdote that you read about them and found out about them from (public relations staffer Tom Fanning) or from the program or from a story from college that somebody knew. You’ve just got to be intentional about it and find time to talk to those guys.
“The more comfortable they feel with you, the more comfortable they’re going to be in asking questions. And the more questions that they ask when it’s the appropriate time, the more we can start to get on the same page.”
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IF YOU GO
What: Packers' final two open OTAs (weather permitting).
When: 11:30 a.m. Thursday and Monday.
Where: Ray Nitschke Field.
Note: The sessions will be moved inside the Don Hutson Center and closed to the public in the event of inclement weather.