Friday, August 1, 2008

Will Aaron Rodgers Have Our Support?

A thread by Big Dave at PackerChatters asked a pretty good question today: how much can Aaron Rodgers expect from the fan base following this entire Favre debacle? I mean, with all the pressure that was already on him, how can we expect him to do anything right after seeing the Packers essentially take out the mortgage on him, eschewing their only man who has started a game for them for the last decade and a half?

It's a good question, and one that is going to need an answer by the time the season is done.

So, where are we with this kid? If you listen to some folks, he's the trusted guy who is going to lead us to the promised land. If you listen to others, he's a sad victim who we need to treat gingerly to preserve his ego. If you listen to the other crowd, he's a china doll who is doomed not because of who he will be compared to, but because he's Thompson's "pet".

It's times like these when fans polarize that you need to block all that stuff out, and just take what we have at face value. What I see is a kid who is handling this as well as anyone could. He's been calm, cool, and other than his one little outburst to SI, saying the right things.

In fact, you might even say that his "get on board or shut up" comment did a lot for him in terms of how he's handling this storm. He may have learned a lesson just in time.

But, in terms of support as he may go through his struggles this season? Well, he's going to be subject to praise and criticism, idolizers and haters, and have a legion of defenders warding off a legion of gloom and doom. Just like any other lightning rod the Packers have had in recent years.

If you've gotten this far, you're probably interested in what my opinion is. If not, you can stop here, because here it comes.

As a guy who has been labeled a Thompson Critic and a Favre fan, it is usually assumed that I must then be down on Aaron Rodgers. That's a pretty bad presumption. I realize that while I certainly have given Ted Thompson his share of criticism, I also give accolades when he deserves it.

Certainly, while I decried it at the time, the hiring of Mike McCarthy was a great move for the organization, probably the most important and successful decision he has made. McCarthy is not only a solid coach, he brought balance to the GM/coaching role that got so messed up under Mike Sherman's dual handling of the positions.

Heck, I thought my first boss was a complete moron, but he did make one move that showed his deep wisdom and intelligence. He hired me.

And while some like to criticize Thompson for selecting Rodgers, I was celebrating at pick 24 when it was announced. Finally, we got the "quarterback of the future", the successor to groom behind Favre. However, I knew that, even though some fans were calling for Rodgers to get playing time right away as Favre struggled in 2005, he was just fine on the bench.

Rodgers, in my opinion, came in with a chip on his shoulder, and it was clear that in his play he was jumpy and had no pressure awareness. His counterpart in that draft, Alex Smith, despite being a #1 overall pick, has struggled greatly in his time as an immediate starter.

With the ragtag offensive line we had, a shaky Ahman Green in the backfield, and receivers named "Taco", there's no doubt that Rodgers was better off sitting on the bench and letting the game slow down for him. But I never lost hope that he was going to grow into the guy who would be the next QB for the Packers. I alluded to this in an article I wrote back in 2006:
In the summer of 2005, I brought my young son to his first training camp. We sat and watched them go through drills, peering through the chain-link fence on bleachers. We took a break, got an ice cream treat, wandered through the Atrium, and then returned to watch the end of practice.

I pointed the man out and told my son, “See that man? His name is Aaron, and he’s going to be the next quarterback for the Packers. Someday, you’ll see his #12 jersey throwing the ball instead of #4.”
As we went through the new McCarthy regime of 2006, calls were still being made out to get Rodgers on the field. Favre was having a better season than 2005, but some fans seemed panicked, fretting we needed to see what Rodgers could do, so we knew what we had with him.

I alluded to this in November of 2006, when the Packers started turning around their season and Favre was playing better. Some of those rooting for a losing season so that there was reason to get Rodgers more reps were disappointed.
Reality: Favre is passing at a rate that will challenge the all-time record for most attempts in a season, surpassing his gaudy total even in 2005. Luckily, he’s playing under control and minimizing mistakes. But, do you honestly think this would be the game plan with Rodgers in there? Would Rodgers be attempting 40+ passes a game? As I predicted, Favre is getting the lion’s share of focus while the team around him gels, leaving Rodgers ready to step into much more solid footing.
And it was true, although I really believed at the time Favre wouldn't return for 2007. Rodgers was in no position as a young second-year player to step into a situation as a starter in 2006. In his play, you could still see the lack of pressure awareness, his happy feet, and propensity to scramble and open himself up to hits downfield. The game still hadn't slowed down for him, and because the offense around him was still barely gelling, he would have been in a poor situation.

I've said it before...Favre coming back those years probably saved Rodgers' career.

When Favre announced his return for 2007, I again rationalized the benefit for both Rodgers and the Packers based on the lack of a running game the previous season and the lack of development of the offensive line. Greg Jennings had hit a rookie wall and Bubba Franks was more like a liability than an asset.

If I truly believed that Aaron Rodgers was ready, I would be supporting him as a starter. But at this point, I don't think Rodgers has what it takes to be a starter in this environment.

Now, don't take that as some Rodgers-Bashing-Hating statement. I do think he can develop and be a solid game manager, but not without a solid running game (ours finished 23rd in the league in ypg and scoring), not without solid reliable receivers (Packer receivers led the league in dropped passes, and had the second-highest drops per attempt in the league), and not without solid red-zone targets (Bubba Franks finished with a career-low receptions (25) and no touchdowns for the first time in his career). Now, factoring in an offensive line that needed extra blockers in for protection purposes (according to former offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski) and Rodgers' lack of pressure awareness and labored reads would lead me to believe that he would get hurt in his first significant playing time of the season.

Oh, wait. He did.

Of course, Favre coming back was great for the Packers. He had a fantastic year, and in the Dallas game, we got a preview of an Aaron Rodgers that was light years ahead of the jumpy, throw-it-into-the-ground kid he was the previous two seasons. It really set the stage for what I saw as 2008 being Rodgers' coming out party.

You heard it right...he's as ready as he'll ever be this year. While I teared up at Brett's retirement announcement, I also knew that the day had come that I had predicted. Brett was the segue, the lightning rod that kept Thompson's plan from too much criticism and Rodgers from too many hits. It was his choice to be the quarterback through these lean years, and we all knew once Thompson had the team around the quarterback position that he wanted, it would be Favre's time to go.

And, despite the drama of the last month, it appears that it will stay that way. But why is this the right time?

A couple of interesting statistical innuendo jumped out at me. The first one I just discussed in a recent article, in which I looked at the years of experience of the so-called "Icon Followers".

On a historical scale, even though Rodgers is following a "legendary" quarterback, his experience in the league is paramount. I did a quick study of the quarterbacks that followed other legendary quarterbacks (specifically, Marino, Elway, Unitas, Montana, Bradshaw, Namath, Aikman, Starr, Tarkenton, and Young). Of all those who followed the legends, guess the number that had as many or more years of experience than Rodgers ?

Only one: Steve Young for Joe Montana.

The one thing that stands out for me is that it really didn't matter when Rodgers took over at quarterback...had it been 2005 or 2008, he was still going to be following an iconic quarterback and subject to the same pressures of comparison. But, it was clear (to me, at least) that he wasn't ready for that in 2005 or 2006, and probably not even to start the season last year, when the running game was non-existent.

Entering his fourth year, you can see the line that is drawn between Steve Young and the Brian Grieses, Quincy Carters, and Jay Fiedlers in the history of following iconic quarterbacks. And in Aaron Rodgers, you can see the difference in how he handles himself on the field and off.

I just sit back and picture second-year players Griese and Carter, their heads on a swivel, playing a game that hadn't slowed down for them yet, under the intense microscope of the ghosts that preceded them. I'm glad that Rodgers didn't have to go through that.

The other statistical tidbit that I've been well aware of, especially when some of Favre's critics assaulted his age, is the fact that many of the recent great quarterbacks retired at age 38 and still had somewhat productive seasons at that age. Fran Tarkenton, John Elway, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, and Steve Young all retired at the same age as Favre, and all had at least average seasons to finish out.

It's those quarterbacks who tried to play at age 39 that really ran into a wall, like Johnny Unitas, Ken Stabler, and Rich Gannon, who all wish they could have that year back. Only Warren Moon seemed to have any level of success past age 38, and that's not enough of a measuring stick to think that Favre would, too.

To me, it seemed like fate. At the same time Rodgers appeared to hit the magical years of experience to have success following an icon, the icon himself seemed to hit the end of his productive years.

Let me also add this: I don't think the Packers are going to have as much success as they did last season. I also don't believe that Favre could duplicate his 2007 season, either, which makes this a good season to pass the ball on and allow Rodgers to build his resume' on the field with a solid receiving corp, an okay offensive line, and hopefully, a decent backfield threat in Ryan Grant and/or Brandon Jackson.

In that sense, I think Rodgers is deserving of more than a season to produce at a high level, but in all reality, he should be able to show us the full potential he has this season. I mentioned over the offseason the three things I think he has to do in order to have success as a Green Bay Packer in 2008, which included staying in the pocket, learning to move the pocket around instead of scrambling, and developing a killer play-action move.

He has a a nice spiral and is quite accurate when he has time. The biggest thing for him is to not only have the players around him to give him that time, but for him to learn that habits that give him that extra second that lets his receivers get open. And, of course, to avoid injury.

So, after all that, do I plan to support Aaron Rodgers this season, even if he struggles?

I plan to support him as much as I can support any Packer player. The biggest things is for fans to separate Rodgers from Favre and Thompson. He should not be judged harshly by those fans who have been clamoring for Favre and will see Rodgers as "Thompson's boy". Rodgers deserves the chance to prove himself, and should be given the chance to show improvement in his play with experience.

But likewise, those that have glorified Thompson and reviled Favre can't give him more breaks than he should, either. He's under enough pressure now that Thompson has declared him the starter with no real NFL experience. We can't give him free passes just as we can't embellish every mistake.

I had a laugh at Tom Pelissero in the GBPG blog on the first day of training camp. Pelissero, who has been notably pro-Thompson and anti-Favre over the offseason, had this to say:

Aaron Rodgers threw the first interception of training camp in team drills this morning, although the blame must fall on receiver Bret Swain. Rodgers threw a slant pass intended for Swain, who wasn’t looking for the ball, allowing Al Harris to make a spinning interception.

* If Ruvell Martin was the practice MVP (see: post below), anti-MVP honors for the practice are split between Brett Swain and Tory Humphrey. Each player had a drop; Swain also was responsible for Rodgers' interception and mishandled a Brohm pass, and Humphrey had a false start.

I just tried to imagine myself making the same type of statement a couple years ago, substituting Ferguson for Swain and Favre for Rodgers, and thinking what kind of reaction I would have gotten from those who were bound, set, and determined to make sure every interception was completely Favre's fault and you couldn't blame it on the rest of the team.

And this is where I have to stop myself and realize that just because others have a double standard, I can't allow myself to do that. I can't say "If Favre couldn't use it as an excuse, neither can Rodgers." Favre has been such a polarizing figure over the past five years or so, it is completely unfair for either side to use Rodgers as a debate point over old arguments.

That is our challenge as embittered, polarized fans. All of us have to realize that regardless of our feelings towards Brett or Ted, that Rodgers' success is the Packers' success. The better he does, the better it is for the team.

We also have to realize that, possibly, Rodgers' failure to mature as a player or to stay healthy is also going to affect the success of our team.

And like any other player on this team, I will support and root for Rodgers' success, cut him slack when he deserves it, and criticize his play when he needs it. But, I know that this kid is in the best position he is going to ever be in right now, and he is being paid millions of dollars to rise above the drama and put himself in a position to be successful.

That success, by the way, may translate to tens of millions of dollars for him in a couple of years. Aaron Rodgers has been groomed for this moment for three years and hopefully has a team around him that can facilitate that success.

This is his moment to shine. And I am looking forward to watching it.


Anonymous said...

Nice to know that your breath still smells like Favre's crotch.

Anoniman said...

Rodgers is a grown man, if he can't live with a couple of boo's than it's better for everybody to send him home immediately.

Even Favre had his share of boo's so don't make from Rodgers emotional cripple and defend him.

LosAngelis said...

And you know, anoniaman, that is a lot what I'm saying. He needs expectations, not excuses.

It goes both ways. There are some that are going to over-criticize him because of Thompson/Favre, and some that will over-defend him.

He's gonna get boos and cheers, depending on how he does, and should be judged on little more than his own performance.