GREEN BAY - Among the staples of organized team activities, minicamps and training camp is the competitive fire of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. At 32, Rodgers is known to argue with practice referees despite nonexistent stakes. He has yelled when throws aren’t perfect and yelled again when receivers make mistakes.
He wants every pass and every play to be perfect, even when the deck is purposely stacked against him as it was last season.
Having relieved himself of play-calling duties, coach Mike McCarthy dedicated a portion of his thinned-out schedule to sharing secrets with the Packers’ defense. He frequented the defensive meeting rooms, often spending a few minutes with each position group, and revealed valuable information that, he hoped, would challenge his star quarterback in practice.
“Obviously, he’s an offensive coach,” defensive back Micah Hyde said, “so he works with the offense and then comes to our room and lets us know, ‘Disguise this way because we might audible to this, and then you guys are in the perfect position to make plays.’ Just little stuff like that.”
Gamesmanship aside, McCarthy’s efforts to up the ante for Rodgers reflected the broader purpose of increasing his team’s overall football intelligence. Last season, the Packers instituted a process in which offensive coaches met with defensive players and defensive coaches met with offensive players. The goal was to build an understanding of why opponents do what they do, and then use that knowledge on the field.
The staff was so pleased with the results that crossover meetings became part of the weekly schedule during the off-season, players said. And several players speculated that the efforts likely would continue through 2016.
“One of the biggest things you talk about is just having smart football players,” said Scott McCurley, the assistant linebackers coach. “You can’t coach them through every scenario and you’re not out on the field anyway. The smarter a football player is — his football IQ, if you will — the better they’re going to give themselves a chance to have success.”
The cross-the-hall process began somewhat informally, and infrequently, during the early portion of last season, according to linebacker Joe Thomas. He recalled former tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot coming over to speak with the linebackers, and the session served as an open forum for questions rather than a rigidly planned lesson.
Thomas, who played in the dime defense last season, said he and his teammates wanted to know what a tight end looks for when he’s asked to block, or what types of clues the tight ends can glean from a linebacker’s body language. They asked for insight about how to view the field from a tight end’s vantage point, which they believed would help them cover one during a game.
“When you cross train, all you’re doing is now you’re expanding their knowledge of the game, the overall game, from different perspectives,” offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett said. “I think that was what (McCarthy) envisioned and I think we’re moving in the right direction. I think it’s been extremely helpful.
“We always talk about the detail of your assignment, and it’s the little things. The little things, in essence, kind of help our guys go from good to great.”
Slowly, the topics became more intricate. In the secondary, Hyde moved from discussions with quarterbacks about disguises to conversing with offensive linemen about run gaps. He sought feedback from the wide receivers — the players he covers daily in practice — in the form of peer-to-peer evaluations about why they chose to attack him a certain way. And then he tried to correct the things they identified as flaws.
Across the room, safety Chris Banjo grew fascinated with route combinations. He peppered the offensive coaches with questions about which types of routes to expect from various offensive alignments. He wanted to know if pass patterns originating from three-by-one formations — meaning three receivers to one side and one receiver on the other — held different tendencies than plays that began with a two-by-two configuration.
“Or third and long vs. third and short,” Banjo said, rattling off questions he would ask offensive coordinator Edgar Bennett. “What is your emphasis? Are you looking for matchups? Are you looking for zone (coverage) vs. man? What are you looking for? It just gets your gears going in terms of what to expect at your position, what you can help alert the defense to, or whatever it may be.
“When you’re kind of able to get in the mind of a tight end or a receiver, know what he’s doing in terms of maybe pushing you this way, setting you up that way, it can help you anticipate a little bit more. Then from there, you just play ball. We’re all here because of our instincts and how we play, so you never want to take that away.”
Banjo’s curiosity is in line with comments made by general manager Ted Thompson during the 2016 NFL draft. Thompson, who made seven selections this year, tabbed two players from Stanford and one each from Northwestern, California and Indiana. Together they form a cornucopia of schools that wed athletics and academics.
But while Thompson would not admit that brains were a driving factor in this year’s class, he did allow that football has become “a smart man’s game,” and five of his seven picks scored 23 or better on the 50-question Wonderlic intelligence test. When juxtaposed with McCarthy’s in-house efforts to raise the team’s IQ, a smart-guy trend is abundantly clear.
“Overall knowledge for the game, now you’re taking it to another level,” Bennett said. “The more you know, all you’re doing is kind of putting yourself in a position to succeed.”
Which brings us back to Rodgers, who, it can be argued, knows more about the game than any player on the team. That’s partly why McCarthy entered the defensive meeting rooms when he started this cross-the-hall process last season. Everyone can use a little hint when facing Rodgers.
“You try to make things difficult for A-Rod,” Banjo said. “It also helps us because if we can make things difficult for A-Rod as much as we can in practice, it’s definitely going to help us in the long run.”
Said Rodgers: “I think it’s really going to pay off.”