With Aaron Rodgers on a roll, Packers fueled for more fireworks
First in a nine-part Packers by Position series.
GREEN BAY - Two years ago on a cool November night in Denver, quarterback Aaron Rodgers labored through a performance that ranks among the worst games of his career, a list that is rather short relative to many quarterbacks around the league.
The Green Bay Packers arrived at Sports Authority Field with a perfect 6-0 record and the refreshment of an early bye week. The Broncos were undefeated as well, and three months later they would be crowned Super Bowl champions thanks in large part to the brashness of their defense, a unit with four Pro Bowlers and two alternates.
Put simply, the Packers’ offense wilted on national television as Rodgers completed 14 of 22 passes for 77 yards, the lowest total of his career for a game that didn’t end in injury. From there the spool unraveled: a 16-game malaise for Rodgers that bridged the second half of 2015 and the first half of last season. The Packers were 9-13 in their next 22 games counting playoffs.
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It’s difficult to reconcile that version of Rodgers with the one that finished 2016 on an unfathomable tear. From the moment he told reporters the Packers could run the table — a phrase that will be as synonymous with his career as R-E-L-A-X — Rodgers played magisterial football. He averaged 277.8 yards and 2.5 touchdowns per game in the six-game winning streak to close the regular season. He completed 71 percent of his passes and posted an average passer rating of 121. He did not throw an interception.
All of those numbers are light years beyond his career averages, and Rodgers’ career averages are already among the best in history. He finished the regular season with a league-best 40 touchdown passes as Green Bay won its last six regular-season games and first two playoff games.
“We were 4-6 at one point and we weren’t playing very well and he had a heck of a stretch down the (end of the) season,” quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt said during organized team activities in May. “So nothing is guaranteed, every year is different. But you would like to think (so), that we’d like to keep it rolling.”
Internally, there is nothing to suggest Rodgers is on the verge of slowing down. He returned to Green Bay in what he described as the best shape he’s been in for the annual offseason program, and changes in his diet have paid dividends in recent years. More empirically, quarterbacks around the league are having success on the verge of 40 years old — see: Brady, Tom; Brees, Drew; Palmer, Carson — and by that standard Rodgers is a relative youngster at 33. (He will be 34 in December.)
Around him, the Packers are primed for another explosive season offensively. Rodgers nearly had two 1,000-yard receivers last year in Jordy Nelson and Davante Adams — Adams fell 3 yards short — and general manager Ted Thompson ingratiated himself to fans by signing tight ends Martellus Bennett, the best unrestricted free agent available at that position, and street free agent Lance Kendricks, who played at Wisconsin.
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Slot receiver Randall Cobb also returns for his seventh season after back-to-back disappointing years, and promising youngster Geronimo Allison will push for more playing time this fall. The Packers also drafted two wide receivers in DeAngelo Yancey of Purdue and Malachi Dupre of Louisiana State.
Put it together and there’s a good chance Rodgers will keep it rolling.
Aaron Rodgers (Ht.: 6-2; Wt.: 215; Age: 33; Acquired: D1-’05; College: California)
Rodgers finished fifth in MVP voting last season behind QB Derek Carr, RB Ezekiel Elliott, QB Tom Brady and QB Matt Ryan, the eventual winner. He made up ground with a torrid stretch from late November through the dramatic playoff win over the Dallas Cowboys in which he attempted 318 passes without an interception. He threw 24 touchdowns during that streak, second only to Brady’s 26 touchdowns without an interception in 2010. Rodgers will be a very popular MVP choice again this season.
Brett Hundley (Ht.: 6-3; Wt.: 228; Age: 23; Acquired: D5-'15; College: UCLA)
It feels like ages ago when Hundley blazed through the exhibition season with ease as a rookie fifth-round pick. He completed 45 of 65 passes (69.2 percent) for a league-best 630 yards in the summer of 2015, and the 7-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio sparked immediate trade talks among Packers fans. In other words, Hundley was certain to blossom into a nice piece of trade bait for Thompson, who already has his starting quarterback for the foreseeable future.
Jump forward to the summer of 2017 and Hundley is still fighting to realize the potential he flashed two seasons ago. Last year’s training camp was supposed to be the summer of Hundley, with Rodgers playing few, if any, snaps during exhibition games. But a nagging ankle problem sidelined Hundley for the majority of camp, and the summer of Hundley transformed into the summer of Joe Callahan.
Now 24, Hundley is entering what could be his final season with the Packers, especially if he plays well this summer. This is the third year of Hundley’s four-year rookie contract, and any potential trade would take place prior to the start of next season. July, August and September will determine his worth to the Packers — and, more importantly, everyone else.
“Good young player, a lot of talent,” Van Pelt said. “A lot of ability in his body. He’s catching up mentally now. He should have a fine camp moving forward, that’s what I totally expect.
“I’d take great pride if he went on and became a starter somewhere. We obviously work hard to train our quarterbacks in how we think is the right way. For him to have a chance, whether it be here or anywhere else, to be successful at this level, I’d take that as a pat on the back.”
Joe Callahan (Ht.: 6-1; Wt.: 216; Age: 23; Acquired: FA-'16; College: Wesley (Del.)
Callahan made the team as an undrafted free agent from Wesley, a Division III school in Delaware, and remained on the active roster until mid-October. At that point, Thompson released Callahan and defensive tackle Brian Price to create roster spots for two players returning from suspension: nose tackle Mike Pennel and cornerback Demetri Goodson.
It was a gamble by the Packers, whose coaching staff crossed its fingers that Callahan would remain unclaimed on waivers. They hoped to re-sign Callahan to the practice squad immediately.
But the New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns each took a turn with the Packers’ diamond in the rough. Callahan spent a week in New Orleans and a month in Cleveland before he ultimately was released. The Packers pounced as soon as he cleared waivers, adding him to the practice squad in early December.
Callahan earned a promotion to the active roster as Rodgers worked through a bothersome calf problem in mid-December. He remained on the 53-man roster for the rest of the season, even as the Packers lacked healthy bodies on the defensive side of the ball. When asked about Callahan’s roster spot last season, coach Mike McCarthy said repeatedly that the undrafted rookie had earned it.
“He’s growing,” Van Pelt said. “His footwork has gotten a lot better, understanding of the offense has gotten better in his second year. Just continue to do that and then show it in the preseason when he gets to play.”
Taysom Hill (Ht.: 6-2; Wt.: 225; Age: 26; Acquired: FA-’17; College: Brigham Young)
In signing Hill, an undrafted free agent from BYU, the Packers continued their recent trend of searching for athleticism with the fourth and final quarterback spot on their 90-man roster. A year ago they snagged former North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams, who ran for 2,458 yards in a four-year collegiate career, and now they’ve secured Hill, a player whose pre-draft testing numbers were eye-popping.
Hill ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds at his pro day earlier this year. He posted a vertical leap of 38½ inches and a broad jump of 10 feet, 2 inches. For reference, former Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, a first-round pick by the Carolina Panthers, was clocked at 4.48 seconds, had a vertical leap of 37½ and a broad jump of 10 feet, 1 inch at this year’s NFL scouting combine.
Hill’s biggest problem in college was durability. He had a season-ending knee injury in 2012; a broken fibula and ankle damage in 2014; a season-ending Lisfranc foot injury in 2015; and a torn triceps tendon in the regular finale of his senior year.
“I refused multiple calls when the draft was over,” Hill said in May. “Green Bay was at the top of my list. I sat down with (Alex) Van Pelt for about an hour. I think he’d be a really good guy to play for. … I’m very confident in my ability to throw the football. That’s not a concern of mine. … I’ve caught a lot of grief because I’ve had a number of injuries because I’m a mobile guy and I do run around a little bit. My answer was I’ll always do what it takes to win games. I’ll lay it all on the line.”