GREEN BAY - The trash talk started early this offseason. Light barbs flying both ways. Just as you’d expect from a Cal quarterback and Stanford linebacker sharing the same locker room.
As Blake Martinez told it, Aaron Rodgers initiated the heckling after the Green Bay Packers' first practice of organized team activities. The two-time MVP quarterback bumped his rookie teammate as he passed. A heinous remark about Martinez’s alma mater followed.
“I was like, ‘Dude, are we going to do this Cal-Stanford thing forever?’” Martinez said, chuckling Wednesday after the Packers' second of three minicamp practices. “He was like, ‘Aahhh,’ and started laughing.”
Behind the banter, Martinez has a purpose for sticking to Rodgers like a shadow.
When he arrived in Green Bay, Martinez admitted, there were nerves. He was star struck. Just as you’d expect from a rookie sharing his locker room with Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers.
“All these great players,” he said.
Butterflies subsided, and Martinez saw opportunity. Learn from Rodgers, he thought. Benefit from his years of NFL experience.
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So Martinez has pestered his quarterback nonstop this offseason. The fourth-round inside linebacker is a kid in school, sitting in the front row with his hand raised. If Martinez looks this direction before the snap, he’ll ask Rodgers, what is a quarterback thinking? If he takes two steps that direct, what then? How can a linebacker, like a seasoned poker pro, avoid any presnap tells revealing the Packers' defense?
Martinez knows he’s running a risk of asking too many questions. He knows there are times he probably should let his quarterback be. So far, he said, Rodgers has been happy to teach.
“Little tips and cues,” Martinez said, “that he has for me from things he’s gone against. He told me little things he learned from playing against (former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian) Urlacher that he gave me tips on. Little coverage tips, and those types of things. It’s been a lot of help just being out there and, all of a sudden, if I make one step to the left, he’s like, ‘It’s coverage!’ and he’s yelling it out loud, and we’re like, ‘Oh, crap!’ The next time, I’m like, ‘Now I need to show something else to him to make sure that he doesn’t see that defense.
“I might get to the point where he’s like, ‘OK, stop talking to me,’ but I’m at least going to take that risk and go at it, take it to the breaking point in asking questions and doing those things.”
This is Martinez’s personality. He went to Stanford, you know. The Harvard of the West has no shortage of highly intellectual students. Martinez was no different.
Strategy, Martinez suggested, might be his favorite hobby. Video games. Board games. Computer games. Anything that requires tactical acumen.
He’s an avid Settlers of Catan player. He always has time for Risk. Most days, his preference is Dota. And if you don’t know what Dota is, well, Martinez is happy to tell you.
There’s “a Super Bowl for it,” Martinez said of the multiplayer online battle arena game. He attended last year with some college buddies. They jammed themselves inside KeyArena in downtown Seattle. The prize pool was $18 million, he remembers. This year, the cash prize increased to $20 million.
Enough dough to tempt anyone, even a professional football player.
“I’ll go watch it,” Martinez said, “but, yeah, I’m sticking to football for now.”
He carries his love for stratagem to the football field. No wonder Packers coach Mike McCarthy already has been impressed with his new linebacker. McCarthy often is reserved in his praise for rookies.
For Martinez, he made an exception.
“He looks very comfortable,” McCarthy said. “I think he’s done a really nice job transitioning from the base defense to the sub defense, his command, the echoing of the calls. He’s very bright. Quick. And he definitely is a very instinctive player. He’s off to a very good start.”
It’s how quickly Martinez recognizes plays that has impressed McCarthy the most, the coach said.
Quick recognition doesn’t come by accident. Especially for a rookie. Martinez said he always has a study partner. In Green Bay, third-round rookie outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell fills that role.
They study two, three hours each night. The cycle is continuous. Martinez will jot notes from practice, then carry his notebook into the film room. On film, he’ll verify coaching tips from previous reps. Then he’ll implement any corrections the next day.
Martinez vowed his study habits won’t diminish after this week’s minicamp. Vacation? No, he said. Martinez expects “this whole first year” to be a continuous grind.
So while teammates take it easy over the next five weeks leading up to training camp, Martinez will work. He already has informed his father, Marc, of an important job he’ll fill this summer. At home, Martinez needs a study partner.
While Marc isn’t a football coach — “he said he didn’t have enough patience,” Martinez said — he’ll do just fine in a temporary role. He’s already told Dad to have a whiteboard.
“He’s going to have fun with it,” Martinez said. “He wants to learn all about it. It will be cool.”
Martinez said he wants the 30,000-foot view of his new defense. At the kitchen table, in the backyard, he and Dad will examine every personnel package. Every position. Over and over.
His approach will be like a quarterback studying the offense, which is fitting. In defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ system, linebackers are signal callers. They’re responsible for presnap communication, checking into new plays.
It’s a lot for rookies to digest. Which is why they rarely play early in Capers' defense. Any chance of immediate playing time requires complete knowledge of the playbook, Martinez knows.
“Every single play,” he said, ‘I’m trying to figure out, ‘OK, what is the D-line doing? What are they doing on certain stunts, certain things like that? What the corner’s doing on certain plays. Do I know if I have help out there?’ And all those little things that are going to help me that much more, where I can see everything and I don’t have to look backwards and see, ‘OK, is the safety there?’ I know he’s going to be there on this play.”
Maybe Martinez will be the exception.
The Packers need him to handle coverage assignments in nickel and dime, subpackage defenses that consume approximately 75 percent of snaps. Martinez said there are few differences between the Packers' dime package and how Stanford played with six defensive backs, which explains why McCarthy has been impressed with Martinez’s quick transition to the subpackage.
Martinez has also benefited from almost exclusively taking first-team reps in practice, something that wouldn’t happen without fellow inside linebacker Sam Barrington recovering from the foot injury that forced him to miss 15 games last fall. He may be a rookie, but the Packers didn’t hesitate before giving Martinez a heavy workload this offseason.
“It’s kind of one of those things that I was actually happy about,” Martinez said of his first-team reps. “You kind of at first go, ‘Oh.’ Like, you’re in there with the ones. I was like, ‘All right, works for me,’ and I’m kind of using it to my advantage.”
A healthy portion of first-team reps this offseason should only help Martinez’ transition as a rookie. So should his mind for strategy. Any questions, he can always ask his MVP quarterback two lockers away.