Saturday, April 5, 2008

Three Keys to Rodgers' Success

As the Packers look forward to the draft and training camp, the biggest story will likely be, whether we like it or not, the keys to the Packer offense finally being given to former first-round pick Aaron Rodgers. In his fourth season after being Ted Thompson’s first draft pick as Packer GM, he will get this chance to prove his worth as a competent quarterback for this team.

Of course, we all know the usual pattern for young, inexperienced quarterbacks who follow a legend. We all remember the long and storied careers of Don Horn, Jay Fieldler, Cliff Stoudt, Mark Malone, Quincy Carter, Brian Griese, and even Jeff Garcia. Even a seasoned veteran like Steve Young suffered for several seasons in the shadow of former legend Joe Montana. It’s not an easy task for anyone to follow a beloved quarterback.

And there will be some fans and many in the media who will look to place that pressure on a young Aaron Rodgers, who will be looking to prove there are a lot of benefits of holding a clipboard for a couple of seasons (instead of being thrown into the fray like his fellow draftmate, Alex Smith). The comparisons are inevitable and it will be ultimately up to Rodgers to quell the most fervent of criticism with his play.

That stated, I think that Rodgers has a great chance to avoid some of the extra pressures that players like Griese and Fiedler went through following the retirements of John Elway and Dan Marino. For one, I think after seeing these young players go through that type of impossible pressure, most Packer fans are smart enough to not try and place that electron microscope on him.

Secondly, most smart Packer fans don’t want another Favre, even if you loved the guy to death. Favre had his own extremely unorthodox approach to the game, with a gunslinger mentality and mechanics you would never teach to a young player. I remember in some of the previous drafts, folks touted players like Rex Grossman and J.P. Losman as “the next Favre”. Nothing made me happier than to see the Packers pass on these players, and their lack of success in the NFL doesn’t shock me. Favre is the very best in NFL history at playing the style that he did, and you don't want a "poor man's Favre" running your offense.

As perhaps one of the biggest Favre Acolytes over his career, I recognize the last thing we want is someone to try and be Brett Favre, and the best thing for the Packers and Aaron Rodgers is for him to be the player he can be. Instead of trying to be someone he's not, he needs to be working to his own strengths and allowing his head coach, Mike McCarthy, to adjust that offense around those strengths.

Perhaps one of McCarthy’s greatest assets has been his ability to take what he’s been given to work with and make any adjustments that he needed in order to achieve success. This was evident in 2006 when the zone blocking scheme wasn’t gelling, so he starting incorporating additional blockers and pulling guards in order to make that line successful. In 2007, he essentially gave up on the running game for the first half of the season, allowing the offense to play to its strengths in the pass. Once defenses were forced to overplay the pass, he reintroduced the running game with Ryan Grant, and the rest is history.

I have faith that McCarthy, despite his recent quotes that he plans to change very little in the playbook with Rodgers instead of Favre, will indeed make the changes and adjustments that are necessary. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Rodgers brings a lot more mobility to the position, and has a completely different type of spiral than what Favre had. Brett threw rockets that didn’t always look pretty. Rodgers has a sweet spiral that seems to glide into the hands of the receiver.

His nice spiral is just one of the many strengths that Rodgers is going to bring to his offense this year. It’s been interesting watching him mature over the years, going from perhaps a cocky young player (with a bit of a chip on his shoulder after falling in the draft) to a more mature, confident player that has been very patient watching Favre’s renaissance. This is to say nothing of the millions of dollars he has lost in the process, as much of his contract had built-in escalator clauses that would have amount to around $8.25 million had he become a starter earlier. As it stands, his contract says he will make around $2.2 million this year in bonus money as a starter.

Last year, Rodgers also showed improvement in his ability to go through his progressions and make a good throw when he knew he was short on time. In his first two seasons, he had a tendency to throw the ball low and into the turf when he got a little jittery. There’s no question that when Rodgers has time, he is very accurate in his throws, and has now shown he can do it with a little bit of pressure, too.

But, there is one thing that I still see being the one thing that can prevent Rodgers from being successful, and ironically, it is the one thing he may have least in common with the legend he replaces: Rodgers has to prove he isn’t injury-prone. No matter how good you are, how accurate you are, what a good teammate you are, it isn’t going to matter if you can’t stay healthy and on the field.

Following his only extended playing time in 2006, Rodgers suffered a broken foot and missed the rest of the season. In 2007, in the game after he almost led the Packers to an unlikely comeback against the Cowboys, he suffered a hamstring injury that required the team to sign retread Craig Nall to back up Favre. These both could have been freak injuries that we're not going to see as any type of pattern. For Rodgers’ sake, we all hope so, because Ted Thompson hasn’t shown any interest in signing any veteran talent to back him up this season.

This is a familiar criticism of Thompson, as he will allow very young and raw talent to play without veteran support. In 2006, the offensive line was allowed to play with mostly rookies and second-year men in the interior, and despite poor play, no veteran help was brought in. Last season, the Packers bypassed any free agents and went into the season with a stable of running backs made up of free agents and draft picks, as well as an unknown guy acquired from the Giants for a sixth-round pick.

It will remain to be seen if the same approach can work at quarterback, a position that it practically didn’t matter who was the #2 or #3 for the last fourteen years or so.

So, what will Rodgers need to do in order to reduce his injuries? Here are what I consider to be the biggest keys to his success.

Stay In The Pocket One of Rodgers’ most intriguing gifts is his mobility, but he is still easily chased out of the pocket and likes to scramble a touch too much. This is always exciting for football fans to see, and many have theorized that having a mobile quarterback adds a whole new dynamic to the offensive attack.

But, scrambling leads to big hits, and Rodgers isn’t the best at sensing where a hit is coming from. Certainly, Steve Young won a Super Bowl in 1994 as a rushing quarterback, scoring seven touchdowns himself that year. But, he also reined in his rushing yards from what he had in the past, only gaining 293 yards compared to the 500+ he had in 1992. Certainly, Young was the exception to the rule that most of the time, a rushing quarterback isn’t going to win you a championship.

Furthermore, as Young will attest, it will usually only serve to get your bell rung more times than what you need. His seven "official" concussions finally drove him out of the game, and this isn’t what Aaron Rodgers needs.

There have been successful quarterbacks who made rushing a key element of their game, like Jeff Garcia, Randall Cunningham, Michael Vick, and Dante Culpepper. But, in the playoffs, good defenses know how to shut those players down, contain them, and make them beat you with their arm. It's best that Rodgers do that first and foremost.

Learn To Move The Pocket If there is any lesson to be learned from sitting on the sideline and watching Brett Favre play game after game, it is going to be one of the least flashy, but most important skills he had. Brett Favre always knew instinctively where the rush was coming from, and despite not being mobile, always gave is the impression he was mobile because he was able to take a step this way or that, and run a pass rusher right back into a blocker.

But, from the limited times we’ve seen Aaron Rodgers, especially in his first two season, he has demonstrated the pressure awareness of a rock. Not only did this result in several fumbles in the 2006 Ravens game, it doesn’t bode well for keeping him healthy if this proves to be a chronic condition. While we only got a little bit of game film on him last year at Dallas, it seems like he’s made some progress in knowing where the pressure was coming from.

With what is still seen as an unproven interior offensive line, bookended by two aging tackles, there are no guarantees that Rodgers is going to get the perceived time that Favre got last year. In 2008, we’re going to get a very clear picture of how talented our offensive line is, and how good Rodgers is at making them look better by shifting the pocket around, allowing those linemen extra chops at rushers..

Develop a Killer Play-Action Motion In 2006, the Packer compensated for the lack of pass protection by running the offense in shotgun excessively, even in situations a shotgun would be rarely called for in a traditional West Coast Offense. I don’t think placing Aaron Rodgers in that kind of situation is the best for his development. He is going to be most successful as a pocket passer, and one of the best ways to buy that extra second is to develop an effective play-action pass.

Some of the best play-action quarterbacks in history, not coincidentally, also end up being listed among the best quarterbacks of all time. Sam Wyche, former coach of the Cincinnati Bengals, was once asked to give his opinion of the best play-action quarterbacks he’d ever seen. The ones he listed was Peyton Manning, Joe Montana, and Boomer Esiason, all prolific passers who could create another second by seemingly making that ball disappear.

Favre grew rather talented at the play-action in his later years, another uncelebrated asset he brought to a young team and a young offensive line that needed a little help. Aaron Rodgers is likely going to be asked to attempt over 30 passes a game, and in some cases, over 40. As Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton age, and Tony Moll and Adrian Barbre (or whomever) slowly grow into their roles to replace them, Rodgers is going to need that extra second, that extra moment of hesitation by defensive linemen ready to tee off on the quarterback.

Of course, the most effective way to insure the play-action is effective is to have a legitimate running threat, and that is something all of those legendary play-action quarterbacks had with them, too. Ryan Grant’s dream half-season has to prove to be a consistent threat in order for Rodgers to have his time to shine.

So, there you have it: my three keys for Rodgers’ success as quarterback of the Green Bay Packers. He opens a whole new era for the Packers at quarterback, ending an era that seems as long as the Cretaceous Period. With his success, comes success for the Packers as they look to capitalize on their unexpected success of the 2007 season. Here’s hoping the best for Rodgers, who seems to be a good guy and one that you want to see succeed.

No comments: