How Aaron Rodgers saved the Packers' season

January 19, 2017, 12:14 PM

— -- The news conference, if you want to call it that, was attended by three writers and a handful of camera operators on a brutal Sunday night deadline in late November. Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers emerged from the FedEx Field visitors locker room sometime near midnight, eyes fixed on the floor. In a blue cardigan and a white T-shirt, he looked sort of like a disappointed preppy dad; he looked uncharacteristically human.

The Packers had just lost their fourth straight game, 42-24 at Washington, and had officially sunk to irrelevance at 4-6 and third place in the NFC North. Rodgers had tried just about everything to turn this thing around. He'd even picked up a book, "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable." But the night of Nov. 20 had this feeling of finality, that their run of seven consecutive playoff appearances was about to end, and Rodgers had to sense it. Their postseason chances had winnowed to 8.8 percent.?

His news conference was 2 minutes and 38 seconds of awkwardness. It included five questions, the last of which was of the obligatory "Can the Packers salvage this season?" variety. "I'm very optimistic," Rodgers said. Before anyone could ask whether he'd lost his mind, he was gone.

Rodgers doesn't sleep much after games, and that night was no exception. His mind kept running through the plays he'd missed. He went home and talked to his girlfriend, actress Olivia Munn. She asked him what he thought about 4-6. "I really think we're going to turn this thing around," he told her. "I think we could win our next six and make the playoffs."

"Really?" she asked.

He went over his plan, and a couple of days later, Rodgers told the local news media the same thing. "I feel like we can run the table," he said.

In Eastern Wisconsin, winters are filled with inevitabilities: The earth will freeze, the beer will flow, and when Aaron Rodgers makes a bold statement, the tables will turn.

It might sound silly, that eight little words could alter a team's season and a quarterback's legacy. These are grown men, this is the NFL, and speeches are kind of like fairy tales. But the Packers won that next game at Philadelphia, then beat Houston and throttled the Seattle Seahawks. By the time they looked up, they'd won six straight and were in the playoffs, then it was seven, then eight straight games. Now they're in the NFC Championship Game after a breathtaking win at Dallas in which Rodgers threw a laser across his body, perfectly into the hands of a toe-dragging? Jared Cook on the sideline with three seconds to go to set up the game-winning field goal.

It wasn't a prediction, like Joe Namath's brash guarantee before Super Bowl III, but to Green Bay, it was just as big.

"Heck yeah," Cook said last week, days before the catch. "It's a bold statement for somebody to make in the type of game that we play. And we rallied behind him."

It helps, of course, that Rodgers has backed up his words and put together one of the most dominant eight-week runs in NFL history. No quarterback in recent memory has been more clutch, more accurate, more confident. That 35-yard pass to Cook came just two plays after Rodgers had been crushed on a blindside hit, his throwing arm wilting as he fell to the ground, yet Rodgers somehow managed to hang on to the ball. He had 35 seconds for the final scoring drive. And it was way too much time to give Rodgers. "Let's just get this done" is what Packers tackle Bryan Bulaga thinks he heard from Rodgers in those chaotic final seconds.

Rodgers has thrown 24 touchdowns to one interception since Nov. 13 and has a 117.9 passer rating in the past eight games. Two months ago, analysts picked apart his fundamentals in numerous "What's wrong with Aaron Rodgers?" pieces. Their thoughts? His mechanics were messed up. In mid-October, Rodgers was the 26th-rated passer in the NFL.

"At 4-6, he was still the same player," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "We weren't playing good, and sometimes he didn't do quite as good as he normally does."

Yes, two months can change careers and legacies. On Nov. 20, Packers fans were calling for McCarthy's head. The team plane arrived back in Green Bay sometime around 2 a.m., and the coach drove to his office and set up for the day's work. His depth chart might as well have been written in pencil. The defense, which had given up 153 points in the four-game skid, was decimated by injury; the running game was down to Ty Montgomery, a receiver converted to a running back. McCarthy's family hears the brunt of it when things are bad, and by late November, his mother started lighting more church candles.

When McCarthy heard what Rodgers said that night after the loss at Washington, that he was confident things would turn around, the coach loved it. It was exactly how he felt.

They'd soon get some key players back, and both Rodgers and McCarthy thought that if the team could hang on and get a shot of confidence, the Packers would be OK.

Enter Rodgers.

"I knew that 4-6 was going to be a big deal to our local media, to the national media, because we're a team that's expected to make the playoffs every year," Rodgers said. "I just wanted to reassure guys in the locker room that to me, everything was still in front of us. Sometimes, you need to kind of infuse confidence into a situation where to most people it would seem like there's a total lack of confidence and no light at the end of the tunnel.

"I knew what I was doing. I was hoping to take some of the pressure off of some of the guys and put it on myself. I knew I had to play better. And to me, when I said, 'run the table,' it was a wake-up for me as well that I've got to get my stuff together and I've got to play better because they're expecting me to play better than I'm playing right now."

Crazy thing is, Rodgers actually thought the offense looked pretty good at Washington. Had it not been for that game, he probably wouldn't have made the run-the-table comment.

It was the first game back for Jared Cook, who'd been out since Week 3 with an ankle injury. Now Cook, who was signed in the offseason, didn't exactly light it up in those first three games of the season. He was targeted just 11 times and caught six passes for 53 yards and zero touchdowns.

But the tight end, in his eighth season, can line up anywhere, giving the Packers' offense great flexibility and often forcing defenses to reveal their coverage. In Sunday's playoff game against the Cowboys, Cook caught six passes for 103 yards.

When Cook made his return at Washington in November, it was the first time, Rodgers said, that things started to click.

"I just felt a rhythm that I didn't have in the first nine games," Rodgers said. "There's a feeling that you get when you're in rhythm and you're making the throws on time and you're seeing the field and things begin to slow down for you.

"Now obviously, as a veteran player, you've kind of gotten through the initial stages of the slowdown where your mind doesn't race as much. ... But even as a veteran player within a season, you can have moments where you really get into a groove and it slows down even more and your thoughts are very calm and your reactions are very swift, and that's kind of the mindset that I was starting to feel I was getting into. And our offense was starting to get into it as well."

That next week at Philadelphia, on Monday Night Football, Rodgers was deadly accurate. He threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Davante Adams in the tightest of windows, with a defender draped all over him in the back of the end zone. Adams, who was momentarily blinded by the stadium lights, told reporters afterward that he couldn't see the ball until the last millisecond, and then it just landed in his lap.

Rodgers was 30-for-39 that night, and the Packers had their confidence boost. Somewhere on the West Coast, Brady Poppinga caught one of those games early in the streak and decided he couldn't bet against the Packers the rest of the way. Poppinga, an analyst/reporter for Fox Deportes, played with Rodgers for six seasons. He's seen Rodgers in this kind of zone only one other time, in the 2010 season -- the season Green Bay won Super Bowl XLV. In some ways, the teams are similar. Both dealt with a number of injuries, and both had to eke their way into the playoffs.

"A couple of passes he had early on at Dallas, right on top of the fingertips, millimeters from getting knocked down, threading the needle, reminded me of the Steelers [game in Super Bowl XLV]," Poppinga said. "His passes are precise, they're on time, and they're almost indefensible.

"I will never bet against him when he's like that. He's playing at a level where he can compensate for the shortcomings defensively, the almost nonexistence of a running game. He can compensate and put them into a position to win a Super Bowl."

"The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" is a business book. It's about the problems teams face as they try to "row together." Rodgers calls it a "phenomenal read for anybody in a leadership position."

"One [part] that especially talked to me about this team," Rodgers said, "was communication and conflict and being comfortable having issues with teammates and resolving them and moving forward in a positive way and not having that fear of conflict, which I think alienates and isolates individuals. Being comfortable talking to people and letting them talk to you about issues they have and being constructive and positive in your reaction to that."

Rodgers' leadership has been questioned in the past year. When things have gone wrong, there have been suggestions that Rodgers has disconnected himself from the team, sort of like Favre in his final years. Rodgers, the theory went, became so big, so much of an institution, that he couldn't relate to his peers.

In November, the week of the Redskins game, Bleacher Report published a lengthy profile on the quarterback titled, "Can Aaron Rodgers Be the Type of Leader the Packers Need?" Ex-Packers tight end Jermichael Finley was quoted heavily in the story. He told the website, "I just don't think he was a natural-born leader. He wasn't put on Earth to lead."

The story also said that Rodgers is estranged from his family, is aloof and is extremely rough on his receivers, frequently chewing them out. Finley said he wasn't a hands-on leader and was more concerned about his stats.

In an interview last week, Rodgers called leadership "a challenge."

"I enjoy that part of my role," he said.

He is the antithesis, really, of that State Farm commercial he does with Clay Matthews, the one in which he yells in the locker room, "Not here, not ever!" as his psyched-up teammates bounce around him. Rodgers would rather they watch him -- how hard he works, how competitive he is -- and follow. He will be there to give them a push, and when things get really bad, he'll do more.

When he wasn't in rhythm earlier this season, for example, he had a short meeting with the wide receivers. Many of them are young, in their early 20s. Some of them, at some point, were terrified of letting down Aaron Rodgers.

"He kind of took us aside and said, 'I'm not yelling at you guys just to yell. I'm yelling because I care. I believe in each and every one of you.' I think it meant a lot to all the guys,'" receiver Jeff Janis said.

"It's especially hard for younger guys because he's Aaron Rodgers, and he's won a Super Bowl. When he said that, it just reminds you that, man, he really is on my side. He doesn't want to see me fail. He wants me to be the best player I can be. It kind of [took] us aback a little bit. It was just nice to hear."

Of course, Rodgers can't relate to all 52 players in his locker room. He is a future Hall of Famer dating a woman who was in "X-Men: Apocalypse." But he buys jet skis and four-wheelers for his offensive linemen for Christmas, and when his team is in trouble, he somehow knows exactly what to say.

Rodgers did something similar to "run the table" two years ago, after Green Bay started 1-2 and the town was in a panic. He went on his then-weekly radio show, "Tuesdays with Aaron," and spelled out the word, "R-E-L-A-X." The Packers won 11 of their next 13 games, earned a first-round bye and beat Dallas in the divisional round before losing at Seattle in the NFC Championship Game.

"I don't think it gets recognized, the leadership and type of teammate he is," McCarthy said. "If there's ever a period of time that exemplifies it, it's right now."

There is a been-there-before stoicism about the Packers in the postseason, but after the Dallas game, they cut loose. McCarthy was so excited that he met the players at the doorway of the locker room and wrapped each in a bear hug. McCarthy's mom, by the way, is still lighting the candles because she's afraid she'll jinx them if she messes up the routine.

Rodgers was one of the last players off the field. He let out a giant "Woooooo!" on his way to the locker room.

The team celebrated, Rodgers got to do another postgame news conference, and then the Packers headed for the bus. General manager Ted Thompson lingered in the locker room. Thompson, who has always been one of Rodgers' biggest supporters, was asked whether Rodgers is playing the best football of his career, and Thompson said he didn't know.

"I don't know if I'm smart enough to be able to figure out if he's different," he said. "He's always been that leader since he got here; he's always been the one wanting to step on the gas and go get it. And he doesn't have any quit in him. I think the players on offense and even the defensive guys know that if they just give him a chance, we might be able to win a game that maybe we shouldn't. He has that kind of magic."

No one questions Rodgers' leadership now. Not after running after the table, not after Dallas. Before that final throw, Rodgers essentially drew up the play to Cook in the huddle. He was animated, gesturing as he yelled out directions to 10 teammates under the backdrop of 100,000 screaming fans.

"I said everybody kind of run over to the left, and get open -- not exactly in those words, but that was basically the gist of it," Rodgers later told the Dan Le Batard Show.

He was so into it that left tackle David Bakhtiari motioned to his quarterback to speed it up because they were running out of time.

And here, there were no communication issues, no bad vibes. A franchise quarterback was talking, and everyone listened.