Packers QB coach Frank Cignetti must win over Aaron Rodgers

Tom Silverstein
Packers News
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Packers quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti talks to the media on Jan. 24, 2018, at Lambeau Field.

GREEN BAY - Of all the recent hires Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy made, the guy who faces the toughest assignment is quarterbacks coach Frank Cignetti.

Preposterous, some might say, given Cignetti’s probability for success in making sure two-time MVP Aaron Rodgers plays well.

But Cignetti is like a high school substitute assigned to an advanced placement class three-quarters of the way through the school year. Good luck figuring out how to do something your way.

“I don’t look at it as a challenge,” Cignetti said after the Packers announced his hiring Jan. 24. “I look at it as a great opportunity.

“Coaching is teaching. So, the bottom line is to maximize potential, to try to get the quarterback in a position to be as successful as possible, teach the fundamentals, teach the techniques. Make sure everything is understood in terms of running game, protection phase, the pass game, the pass game grades.”

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Cignetti, 52, spent the past two seasons working with New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning, so he’s not new to coaching a legend. But Cignetti was teaching a different curriculum to Manning; he and coach Ben McAdoo were putting in a version of McCarthy’s offense, which was new to him.

In Green Bay, Rodgers has been along every step of the way in the installation and refinement of the McCarthy system and probably could tell Cignetti more about it than the other way around. Cignetti will have to dig deep to find ways to reach Rodgers.

“I love to coach,” Cignetti said. “I believe part of being a successful coach is building trustful relationships. And I look forward to that.”

Rodgers has sought a say in who will coach him, but McCarthy has chosen not to consult him — an issue Rodgers raised publicly Thursday.

Back in 2012, when then-quarterbacks coach Tom Clements was bumped up to offensive coordinator, Rodgers made it known on his radio show that he would prefer to be coached by someone who had played quarterback.

Unfazed by his quarterback’s comments, McCarthy promoted McAdoo from tight ends coach to quarterbacks coach. By the time McAdoo left for the Giants in 2014, Rodgers said he would vouch for McAdoo to anybody who sought his opinion.

Once again this offseason, Rodgers wanted to be apprised of quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt’s departure and then the hiring of his replacement. Once again, McCarthy made his choices independently.

“My quarterback coach didn’t get retained," Rodgers told ESPN's "Golic and Wingo" show Thursday while making the rounds at Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. “I thought that was an interesting change, really without consulting me.

“There’s a close connection between quarterback and quarterback coach, and that was an interesting decision.”

Like he will need to do with Rodgers, Cignetti had to win over Manning, a two-time Super Bowl winner, when he became McAdoo’s quarterbacks coach in 2016.

Manning’s two seasons under McAdoo and Cignetti were uneven even though the Giants made the playoffs in ’16, losing to the Packers in a wild-card game at Lambeau Field. This past season, McAdoo benched Manning and was fired soon after, along with general manager Jerry Reese.

The Manning benching put tremendous heat on McAdoo, and to some extent Cignetti, an ally of McAdoo’s. Manning never lashed out publicly against either of the two and generally has taken the high road when it comes to the benching.

“Let me say this, it was a great year in terms of the quarterback classroom,” Cignetti said when asked about the turmoil. “I’ve been very fortunate, very blessed to be around guys like Eli Manning, Geno Smith and Davis Webb.

“The experience we had in that room from when the offseason started to the season ended, we might not have gotten our desired results in terms of wins and losses, but what we got done in that quarterback room was awesome.”

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After the season, the Giants allowed their assistant coaches under contract to interview for other jobs and McCarthy finalized a deal with Cignetti on Jan. 10. It is a reunion for the two Pittsburgh natives, who were graduate assistants at the University of Pittsburgh in 1989 and colleagues in New Orleans.

McCarthy was the offensive coordinator with the Saints for two seasons (2000-01) and the 49ers for one (2005). Cignetti and newly appointed pass game coordinator Jim Hostler were assistants in both places and on the ground floor of McCarthy’s scheme development.

“We’re very fortunate in this profession,” Cignetti said. “Coach Hostler and I go way back. We were college teammates, we coached in college together for a while. We coached in New Orleans together. We coached in San Francisco together and now we’re reunited here in Green Bay.

“Mike McCarthy was one of our mentors.”

Sandwiched around a year with the 49ers (’07), Cignetti was in the college ranks, serving as offensive coordinator at Fresno State (’02-05), North Carolina (’06), California (’08), Pittsburgh (’09-10) and Rutgers (’11).

In 2012, he went back to the NFL for good, accepting a job as quarterbacks coach with the St. Louis Rams. Two years later, he was promoted to offensive coordinator after the Rams struck out in their search for a prominent name.

He lasted 12 games before being fired.

During his stretch with the Rams, some of the quarterbacks Cignetti worked with were Sam Bradford, Nick Foles and Case Keenum, the latter two the starting quarterbacks in this year's NFC Championship game.

“When we first got there, it was Sam Bradford,” Cignetti said. “Then obviously Sam had the injuries. We had Sam Bradford, we had Kellen Clemens, we had Austin Davis, we had Shawn Hill, we had Nick Foles and we had Case Keenum.

“We built great relationships and I’m so proud of what Nick and Case accomplished this season. Very happy for them, very proud.”

Cignetti won’t see Rodgers until April, so the relationship remains on the ground floor for now. But eventually they will work together and part of Cignetti’s job also will be to develop Brett Hundley and Joe Callahan.

It’s possible McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin will spend more time with Rodgers next season, freeing Cignetti to coach Hundley and Callahan. McCarthy and Philbin still were working on roles and meeting schedules as of last week.

“He (McCarthy) has put together a great offensive staff,” Cignetti said. “I can see coach Philbin is going to provide great leadership for everybody. It’s just a great opportunity.”

Aaron Nagler of USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin contributed.

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