Packers veteran quarterback Aaron Rodgers is balancing tough love and patience with his rookie receivers
GREEN BAY – Before he reached the sideline Sunday at U.S. Bank Stadium, Romeo Doubs approached his quarterback, wondering what just happened.
The Green Bay Packers rookie receiver had run an in route on the first third down of his NFL career. Aaron Rodgers’ pass had sailed wide outside as Doubs broke toward the middle, an incompletion that seemed to indicate miscommunication with a new receiver, even if Rodgers knew he’d intentionally thrown the football away under pressure.
Doubs was as curious as anyone why Rodgers’ pass went the opposite direction. He crossed paths with his quarterback a few steps from the sideline, trying to understand the play.
“I went and asked him myself,” Doubs said, “what had happened up front. I was able to see the clips through the iPad after he told me he had pressure. It wasn’t a big deal. I just wanted to forget about what had happened after that play, and wait for the next drive.”
There will be plenty of next drives as the Packers incorporate a pair of rookie receivers into their offense, the most substantial projection this quarterback has undergone in years. Since the moment general manager Brian Gutekunst traded All-Pro receiver Davante Adams, Rodgers knew this season would be different. He got his first glimpse of how different during Sunday’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
With top receiver Allen Lazard inactive because of an ankle injury, the Packers relied heavily on Doubs and second-round rookie Christian Watson in their first career games. Watson played 46 snaps (66%), one fewer than veteran Sammy Watkins for most among Packers skill players. Doubs was on the field for 35 (57%), two fewer than Randall Cobb. In his 15 seasons as a starting quarterback, Rodgers has never been surrounded by rookie receivers so frequently early in a season.
Their playing time is only likely to increase, no matter how many growing pains there are along the way. Both rookies had their struggles Sunday – most glaringly Watson dropping a sure-75-yard touchdown on the offense’s opening play – but also showed their potential. Watson caught two of his four targets for 34 yards, including a 25-yard reception from backup quarterback Jordan Love on the game’s final play. Doubs caught four of his five targets for 37 yards, most among receivers. His 23-yard catch converted a second-and-19 early in the fourth quarter.
“I thought there were a lot of good things that they did," coach Matt LaFleur said, "and there’s certainly going to be learning lessons along the way. We know that. That’s kind of par for the course for most young players, but I’m confident those guys are going to continue to get better. There was a lot to like in terms of what they did. I thought the effort they showed and the willingness to block and just be in the right place at the right time. We’ve just got to continue to work with them.
"I don’t think anybody in that locker room has lost any confidence in either one of those guys. I think if anything, we’ve gained more confidence.”
The rookies will have to reach Rodgers' standard
There’s one person in the Packers locker room whose confidence is most important. It’s LaFleur’s playbook, but the Packers offense belongs to Rodgers. He’s the orchestrator, the engine, the person who ultimately decides which receivers get the football.
Rodgers, always observant, has tested the rookies every day since camp opened. In practice. In meetings. Even sharing meals in the team cafeteria. Each encounter is a chance for them to show how they’re absorbing information.
“The jump happens,” Rodgers said, “when you don’t become a robot anymore. You understand the why and the what. Why are we doing what we’re doing, and what are we trying to accomplish? It takes awhile for anybody. There’s been a few guys who kind of used training camp and the OTAs and have been a little ahead in the beginning. Some guys haven’t gotten it most of their first year. So we’ll see where they fall, but we have to be patient.
“They’re talented guys. We’ve just got to keep giving them opportunities, and when they get the chance to make plays, they’ve got to make the plays.”
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Rodgers isn’t changing how he plays to accommodate rookie receivers. His standard is the standard, forged through four career MVPs, including each of the past two seasons. It’s on Watson and Doubs to catch up as quickly as they can.
That doesn’t mean the two rookies lack support. On the sideline Sunday, Lazard talked Watson and Doubs through a play on their iPad. Lazard, who was inactive because of an ankle injury but practiced Wednesday, told Watson to shrug off his opening drop. “It’s a drop,” he said. “Who cares?” LaFleur said Watson’s ability to not let one big mistake linger was impressive.
The coach also praised Rodgers for balancing tough love with patience.
“I think he’s done a great job,” LaFleur said, “of demanding the urgency from those guys, yet putting an arm around them as well at the same time. Because we know there is going to be a learning curve. You can’t expect it otherwise.”
Sometimes tough love is necessary
Rodgers said it’s important to mold his communication style based on the environment. If a teammate is lethargic in practice, he’s more likely to “jump a guy’s ass” in hopes everyone receives the message. More often, he finds private moments to emphasize corrections that need to be made, whether that’s what his receiver is thinking as he breaks the huddle, what he sees at the line of scrimmage, adjustments needed at the start of a play.
The goal, he said, is for young players to not repeat mistakes. That’s when he knows they’re learning.
For Doubs, Rodgers’ approach has leaned heavily on tough love. The quarterback threw his rookie off the practice field after missing a block in camp. He also had a meeting with receivers after publicly pushing them to show more urgency. "I respond better to hard love," Doubs said. At the same time, he knows Rodgers cares about their development.
"There's a standard that I'm going to hold these guys to because I believe in them," Rodgers said, "but also there's a patience that comes with the inexperience. I think you learn how to balance that, but the direct conversations are the best ones. These are good kids. They really are. They want to please, they want to do the right thing, they care about it.
"I'm going to figure out a way to continue to get on the same frequency with them."