Aaron Rodgers' gratitude for Mike McCarthy grows over time: 'I’ll always be tied with him'

Ryan Wood
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers just wanted a damn birthday party.

Nothing else was going right back in 2018. The Green Bay Packers were poised to miss the playoffs for a second straight season. Rock bottom came on his birthday, a home loss to a terrible Arizona Cardinals team that would finish 3-13, selecting quarterback Kyler Murray first overall in the following spring’s draft.

It was the Packers' third straight defeat. The wheels had officially fallen off, not just for their 2018 season, but coach Mike McCarthy’s 13-year tenure as head coach. At home, Rodgers had several friends waiting to celebrate his 35th birthday.

Standing in the crowd a couple of hours after the game, the quarterback learned McCarthy was fired.

“That was a really strange night for sure,” Rodgers said. “When something like that happens, and it’s so jarring, there’s a state of shock that happens that I think kind of stuck with me for a while.”

Former Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers will reunite on opposite sides of the field on Sunday.

McCarthy will return to Lambeau Field for the first time since that game Sunday when the Packers host his new team, the ascending Dallas Cowboys. So much has happened since that strange night almost four years ago. Rodgers, before this season, resurrected his career with a pair of MVP awards. McCarthy took a year off coaching, stumbled in his first season at Dallas, found himself potentially on the hot seat entering this season, but has positioned the Cowboys as an NFC contender.

Perhaps no change is as great as how Rodgers’ relationship with his former coach is perceived now. Though never directly expressed by either party, the conflict between Rodgers and McCarthy universally recognized from the outside in 2018 has subsided. In its place, Rodgers and McCarthy express nothing but appreciation for each other.

McCarthy indicated earlier this week he hopes to receive “a very positive reception” from Packers fans before Sunday’s game. Rodgers made clear his former coach should get nothing less.

“I think that’s probably normal in any relationship you have, when you’re able to take time away and you have that separation,” Rodgers said, “it’s natural to look back and have a greater sense of appreciation and gratitude for that time. I think comparison is definitely the enemy of joy. So you never want to compare this to that. I don’t think that’s fair to anybody involved, but I think it’s normal to think about the things that you really loved about that relationship or that style or that program, and just contemplate how special some of those moments were. How the journey was really the most important thing, and the ups and downs.

“Thankful for the incredible moments – the highs that we had, there were many of them – and thankful for the low moments, too. Because it gives you perspective on life. Life is not all about the beautiful ups. It’s the downs that you learn the most lessons on, I think.”

Aaron Rodgers would rather focus on positives from Mike McCarthy's tenure

At his locker Wednesday, Rodgers started his weekly meeting with the media listing all the highs he remembers from his 12 seasons with McCarthy.

Rodgers said getting his ring size measured the night before Super Bowl XLV will “always be a special memory” for the confidence it instilled with his team. Rodgers started meeting with McCarthy after every Thursday practice in 2009, conversations that could last 30 minutes or four hours, but the quarterback remembers as “always fun.” Back then, the NFL offseason was longer, more grueling than it is now. Rodgers said McCarthy’s spring practices made him a better player.

Then there was Christmas Day in 2013. Rodgers had missed seven straight games with a broken collarbone, but the Packers clung to playoff contention entering their finale at Chicago. In the afternoon, Rodgers asked McCarthy if he could come over to his house after festivities wound down with the coach’s family.

Over beers, the two decided it was time for Rodgers to return. Rodgers threw a fourth-down touchdown pass to Randall Cobb late against the Bears, sealing the NFC North with one of the most famous plays of the quarterback’s career.

“That was a really memorable conversation,” Rodgers said. “Obviously it’s Christmas, and that has a whole myriad of emotions that brings into it. But that time – and that conversation – is always one that stands out.”

Over his 13 seasons, nothing was more reliable than McCarthy defending his quarterback. It started in the summer of 2008, before Rodgers’ first season as starter, when the coach held firm against Brett Favre that it was time to make a quarterback change. McCarthy never said an ill word against Rodgers in an interview, even after the rare games Rodgers played poorly. If Rodgers appeared to undermine his coach, McCarthy never reciprocated.

That continued this week. Rodgers, definitively, is not having an MVP season. The Packers offense has sunk to one of the worst in the NFL, and Rodgers’ inability to connect with his receivers is at the forefront.

“I think Aaron has been playing at an MVP level since, probably, since ’09,” McCarthy said. “That’s the way I view it. I had a chance to play a lot this week. His footwork, his ball mechanics, his ball placement is off the charts. I still see him playing at a high level. Obviously, he’s paying with a number of different players, but I’ve been very, very impressed.”

Mike McCarthy's firing was a 'shock' to Aaron Rodgers

If there was mending, the process started not long after McCarthy’s firing. Rodgers remembers driving to Lambeau Field around 7:30 a.m. the next day. At the intersection of Lombardi Avenue and Ridge Road, he looked over and saw McCarthy sitting in his truck.

That’s when the reality struck him. After more than a decade, the only NFL coach he’d ever known was no longer his coach. “It was a really weird feeling,” Rodgers said. Joe Philbin, the interim coach to close 2018, brought McCarthy into the locker room for a team meeting after he was fired. Rodgers said their exchange was therapeutic.

“There was definitely shock and numbness around it,” Rodgers said, “because things had been status-quo forever. He’d been the head coach, I’d been the quarterback, and that all changed in a matter of minutes. It was a hard year on everybody.”

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Rodgers and McCarthy said they’ve continued their communication since the coach’s career resumed in Dallas. In the past year, Rodgers said, their exchanges have increased. They’ll finally get a chance to see each other in person Sunday, sharing a few words and perhaps a hug before kickoff at Lambeau Field.

Then their two teams will go their separate ways, the Cowboys likely to the playoffs this season, the Packers into an uncertain future. No matter where their paths go, Rodgers knows their legacies always will be linked.

“I’ll always be tied with him,” Rodgers said, “because of the connection that we had and the years we spent together. Obviously my longest-tenured coach, longest-tenured play caller. Thankful for those years, and thankful maybe a little bit more as the years go by.”

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