A look inside the process of how Packers wide receivers build trust with Aaron Rodgers
GREEN BAY – Behind the dark green tarps surrounding Clarke Hinkle Field, Aaron Rodgers turns his shoulders and gestures. The wide receiver down the line of scrimmage sees the hand motion. Not only must he have seen it — he has to know what to do with the signal. Is it real? Is it a decoy? He'd better know.
Inside the offensive meeting room within Lambeau Field, Rodgers highlights a route concept. It’s the tight end he’s speaking about, and he walks through what he’s seeing, what he wants accomplished on the play. But it’s not just about the tight end. The receivers had better be listening.
These are lessons, taught from the beginning of team activities in the spring through the regular season. And the tests are coming.
Perhaps it’s that same day. Maybe Rodgers will circle back on them in a week. Or six. Tests must be passed, or a wide receiver isn’t getting many reps with the starting quarterback, let alone an official pass on game day.
Rodgers is often asked about his trust in receivers, and it can feel like an ethereal concept. He makes it anything but. There’s no way to get it unless it’s hard-earned.
Film review. It’s important but mundane. Study the opponent, meet, break it down. Rodgers has the control and he pauses the video after the snap.
“Do they score?”
It’s yes or no, but also a quick accountability check. Did you study? Do you know it?
That’s an easy one. Everyone should start with a 100 percent. The tests grow in difficulty.
Each week, Rodgers and the offense review his hand signals for the game. And it’s more than just a finger twirl or pantomiming smoking — it can be their entire offensive language. One play might have three signals. And some may have meanings modified so as not to telegraph their intent to the defense.
They must be memorized, immediately. On the field, a miscommunication could lead to an incompletion or worse: a busted connection that ends up with a turnover.
So, the day before a game, the entire offense meets to go over the signals. Every position group on the offense has to know them, but receivers get Rodgers’ extra attention. He calls veterans and rookies up to the front of the room and quizzes them. And if you aren’t quite up to speed, well — there is little mercy.
Former Packers receiver Brett Swain knows that all too well.
“Aaron would pick on me,” laughed Swain, who was drafted in 2008 when Rodgers became the Packers’ starter. “Usually you change a person from week-to-week. This week Donald (Driver) would go. This week Jordy (Nelson) would go. The next week James (Jones) would go. We got to a point where week in, week out, Brett would go. Until I knew every single hand signal. It got to a point where there was no way I was going to miss it. As a young receiver, you miss those little things.”
There are other tests. Graduate level.
Take the self-review of a single Packers play as an example. Rodgers runs it on screen and explains what he sees. The message, in the moment, may be to tight end Jimmy Graham. But Graham isn’t the one being taught.
“If I’m talking to Jimmy about something, if you don’t write it down, you better lock it away,” Rodgers said in an interview with the Journal Sentinel. “Because if you make the same mistake, I’m going to be disappointed because I just covered that with somebody else.”
There’s more. Routes are designed for a reason — each not only has its own life, but they play off one another. If a receiver runs his pattern incorrectly, be it by its speed, its depth, its sharpness, it can affect others. And in turn, the quarterback’s vision and then his decision making. The defense reacts to all of that, opening throwing lanes that may not seem like they should be there.
Rodgers notes all of this.
And that’s it.
He may not speak about that particular play again for weeks. Many weeks. But he remembers. And when that same situation presents itself again — whenever that may be — he expects everyone to be just as ready to exploit it as he is.
The self-review isn’t just isolated on game days, either. The current group of rookie Packers receivers said Rodgers watches every single practice repetition, whether it be with him or his backups. He watches their release and the route. He watches how they react if a position coach praises, corrects or admonishes. From the stars to undrafted free agents, he treats them all equally in this regard.
“Because when the bullets are live, he’s making sure that you’re prepared for it,” Packers rookie Marquez Valdes-Scantling said. “That’s the biggest thing for his trust.”
This process isn’t random, either.
“There’s a method to this,” Rodgers said.
It’s all designed to help get everyone thinking about offense in the same way, and Rodgers learned at the University of California in 2003 that testing was a technique he particularly enjoyed to do so.
Then-California coach Jeff Tedford painted each offensive and defensive position on the faces of checkers pieces, called a play and adjusted the defensive pieces accordingly. Across from him, Rodgers was quizzed on what the offensive concepts were, how he would adjust protections, identify reads.
“A guy like him, he flourishes on those type of things,” said Tedford, now the coach at Fresno State.
Such tests forced Rodgers to explain not just the “why” of the offense, but to show why he thought the way he did. It was a foundational piece in what would become professional doctrine.
“It’s really my personality,” Rodgers said. “I love to be challenged. I love to compete. And I love to be tested on my knowledge in certain situations. And that’s what I love to do to those guys.”
The practice field
Myles White lined up down the line of scrimmage, his eyes locked on Rodgers.
The undrafted free agent rookie in 2013 was dialed in, ready. Or he thought he was. Rodgers flashed him a hand signal — an adjustment — and White broke off the line. It didn’t take long before he realized his quarterback wanted to see if he would bite on a dummy signal.
“Of course I did,” White said with a laugh. “Being in Green Bay, you have to lock in and hone in on those details. Or you just won’t play. Or you won’t have the success that you want.”
This is one of Rodgers’ favorite tests, in a walkthrough or practice session. He’s had it in his arsenal for over a decade, but it’s tried and true. Some fun can be had when Rodgers catches one of his guys off guard, but it doesn’t mean the expectation changes: Don’t make the mistake a second time. Because the re-test is coming.
“You have to bring them along at the right pace and then continue to stay on them and test them,” Rodgers said. “Because I want my guys always ready.”
This is important for the Packers’ system, one Rodgers has called an adjustment offense. He works off not just his encyclopedic knowledge of the scheme but also what he knows of the defense. At the line, there is a recalibration. For receivers dozens of yards away, understanding and then executing those signals can be the difference between victory and defeat.
“Everything is so defined by like, inches and centimeters, man. It’s so crazy,” said Jarrett Boykin, who played in Green Bay from 2012-14. “The margin of error is so small that you can’t make those type of mistakes.”
And those centimeters can be the difference between being on the field, or on the street.
“There’s that extra competitiveness to be, like, hey, I either gotta get this now or I won’t be here,” White said.
To get it requires discipline, and constant focus.
Remember the lesson in the meeting room, where Rodgers reviewed a play involving Graham? In a practice setting, the scout team defense might present Rodgers that same look, and he knows he can find a different read for a big play. So that receiver better have recalled it as well because the ball is on its way.
Or Rodgers will take it up a notch, changing the coverage that the scout team is running just to see if his receivers diagnose it and then run the proper route off that change.
“It’s absolutely hard,” White said. “I wish I could downplay it and say it was easy, but it’s not.”
If there is an “easy” part of building trust on the practice field for a receiver, it’s by doing the thing they do best: catch the ball.
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What’s more, the ball can come from any kind of unplanned place on the field or arm angle, so Rodgers needs to know the ball won’t hit the ground. As such, he can’t let this fundamental skill go untested. Geronimo Allison learned this by watching in 2016, seeing Rodgers nearly drill Trevor Davis in the face with a one-step screen pass. Davis barely got his hands up, and Allison learned then that with Rodgers one step means one step.
“One, you know your material,” Allison said of the steps a receiver has to go through with Rodgers. “Two, you know how to get there in a timely manner and be there when you’re supposed to be there and three you know how to finish and make a play.”
Altogether, this is difficult.
It’s meant to be.
Some do get it sooner, like Nelson in 2008. Rookies that year, Swain recalls how seamlessly Nelson fit not just into the playbook, but also Rodgers’ understanding of it and demands within it. Swain laughs. He wasn’t as fortunate. He said he left some meetings totally confused as to what was happening. Yet Rodgers helped work him through it because he saw Swain push himself to get on his level.
Through the last decade, receivers say Rodgers will guide them in whatever way they may need it. They said he’s accessible and willing to teach. Doing it right is expected but it doesn’t mean mistakes are unforgiven — as long as he sees real effort to improve being exerted.
“It’s patience at times. It’s tough love at times,” Rodgers said. “That’s what being a leader is all about. You have to see how guys respond initially and lock that away. The key to being a great leader is understanding how your players respond to coaching, to criticism and to positive things.”
If a receiver can build his stock through the classroom and then the practice field, there’s a final hurdle.
If a receiver is active on a game day, they’ve almost earned that confidence.
“It’s a process, but it happens twice,” Rodgers said. “It happens in practice when you make a check kind of outside of their initial thought process and they respond positively, and then a second time when you do it in a live situation.
“And when you do that, you basically lock away in my mind, for the foreseeable future, that you are worthy to be trusted. And if you’re worthy to be trusted, you’re probably going to have the ball come your way.”
For the receivers, there are additional elements to succeeding in the live situation.
One comes within the confines of the total plays on offense. Can Valdes-Scantling learn from a tongue-lashing after not finishing his route? Has Allison been precise enough so that Rodgers knows on third-and-8 he is at the proper depth to catch a 12-yard first down?
And don’t forget about those signals. Those tests were administered for a reason.
“Aaron can play really fast at the line of scrimmage,” said Swain who now coaches high school football and runs his own training facility in Carlsbad, California.
“But if you have this nonverbal communication going on, then boom, the ball is snapped and everything happens and you’re on the same page — it’s like poetry in motion. Aaron is able to get you that ball in that instant, because he sees it. He sees it so clearly.”
The other element of live-situation trust for a receiver can come in the minutes after, and days between, games.
An example: When asked specifically about Randall Cobb’s game-winning, 75-yard catch-and-run against the Chicago Bears in the season opener Sept. 9, Rodgers made sure to mention the route Allison ran that cleared the field. Three days later, Rodgers spoke unprompted about Allison’s route.
Valdes-Scantling got the message.
“He sees everything. He sees every … single … thing,” Valdes-Scantling said. “He’ll come back two weeks from now and he’ll remember ‘G-Mo’ was doing this and he was open on this play and he’ll throw him that ball when he least expects it. That’s something that comes with trust.”
Rodgers is not careless with his words, and not everything is said in meetings or on the field. Sometimes, it’s in front of the cameras and digital recorders.
“I’m glad that (Valdes-Scantling) locked that away, 'cause it could have been a teaching moment for Geronimo but he needs to be listening to that,” Rodgers said. “I’m not forgetting that. I know what happened on this particular play.
“And when it happens with you, if you make the right adjustment, that’s big, big trust points in a game.”
In his 14-year career Rodgers has completed passes to 65 receivers, 32 of which have caught touchdowns. Some caught just a single pass, like Tony Fisher and Kevin Dorsey. Some, like tight end Jared Cook, came and went in a year — but Cook has been immortalized for a third-and-20 completion in a playoff victory in Dallas.
Some like Nelson, Jones, Cobb and Davante Adams have played years with Rodgers. As time passed, rarely were there questions as to whether they were on the same page.
There used to be, though. At some point, everyone had to pass the tests.
“This is how I’m thinking, so start to get on the same page with me because that, ultimately, the end game of that, is getting the ball in the game,” Rodgers said. “So if you start thinking the way I’m thinking and be alert for the things I’m thinking about and anticipate the checks that I’m going to, that’s how you gain trust.
“You gain trust, the ball’s coming your way.”