- Covered Packers for Green Bay Press-Gazette from 1997-2013
- Two-time Wisconsin Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association
GREEN BAY, Wis. — When did you first know Aaron Rodgers was going to be great?
Maybe you said it back in 2005, when the Green Bay Packers drafted him at No. 24 overall. But really, isn’t Ted Thompson — the former general manager who made the pick — the only one who can legitimately make that claim?
Even in 2007, when Rodgers relieved an injured Brett Favre in a Thursday night game at Dallas and threw his first NFL touchdown pass, it would have been merely a guess.
If you said it in 2008, Rodgers’ first year as a starter after sitting behind Favre for three years, you might be believable if only because there were moments of greatness — the game against the Atlanta Falcons, when two days earlier he couldn’t throw 10 yards because of a shoulder injury yet put up 313 yards and three touchdowns, for one — but even that was another loss in a 6-10 transition season.
If 2009 convinced you, fine. Rodgers threw for 4,434 yards and 30 touchdowns on the way to his first Pro Bowl and his first playoff appearance.
But if 2010 was your second season in the NFL and you were charged with blocking for Rodgers, this is when you might have realized it: the night of Jan. 15, 2011. On that date, in a 48-21 rout of the Atlanta Falcons in an NFC divisional-round playoff game at the Georgia Dome, everyone — including then-Packers guard T.J. Lang — could safely say Rodgers went from good to great.
“The Atlanta game was like a ‘holy crap’ moment,” said Lang, who joined the Packers the previous year. “They were the No. 1 seed and we went in there and Aaron was just in the zone. There was no way we were losing. Looking back on it that was probably, in my first two years, the one game that stood out where it was like, ‘This is a bad motherf—er.’ To go into Atlanta as the sixth seed going against the one, and you walk out of there and you’re like, ‘This is going to be a fun time playing for this f—ing guy.'”
The same couldn’t be said if you were the opposing starting quarterback that day, although he was impressed nonetheless.
“He’s played great football throughout his career, but that was about as good as he’s ever played in that stretch through the playoffs,” Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan said. “It was painful to watch, of course, because we were going against him, but also very impressive to see him play that way.”
Ryan holds the edge in head-to-head meetings with Rodgers, including playoffs. Monday night’s game at Lambeau Field is the 10th between the two as NFL starters. Ryan has won five of the nine, including the 2016 NFC Championship Game (with current Packers coach Matt LaFleur as Ryan’s quarterbacks coach with the Falcons). Their teams have averaged a combined 57.4 points per game in the nine meetings. According to ESPN Stats & Information, there have been 66 instances of starting quarterbacks facing off at least 10 times in the Super Bowl era and none has averaged more points per game than Rodgers-Ryan.
‘We knew what we had’
Rodgers’ numbers on that day — 31-of-36 passing for 366 yards and three touchdowns without an interception — don’t tell the half of it.
“I was on punt return, so I was always ready and watching what our defense was doing on third down,” then-Falcons receiver Brian Finneran recalled. “That’s the thing that jumped out at me most. I felt like we had situations, I don’t know how many times, but it seemed like three, four, five times where we had him dead to rights for sacks and his athleticism and pocket awareness was just lights-out.
“Whether he spun out or juked a guy or got rid of the ball just before he got hammered, it was just one of those games where we couldn’t quite to get to him. We had moments where we got home, and it seemed like he just eluded everyone and made us pay.”
The short version of that night is this: The game was tied 14-14 with 2:20 left in the first half. At halftime, Green Bay led 28-14 thanks to an improbable James Jones touchdown catch with 42 seconds left in the second quarter and a pick-six by Tramon Williams on the final play of the half. The Packers scored again to open the second half, on a 7-yard touchdown scramble by Rodgers, and it was 35-14.
The long version is the story behind Jones’ touchdown. A week earlier in the wild-card win at Philadelphia, Jones told Rodgers that Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel was overplaying the hitch route so they should try a hitch-and-go. Sure enough, Samuel bit, but Jones dropped what would’ve been a 37-yard touchdown pass right before halftime. A week later, Jones found Falcons cornerback Brent Grimes sitting on the hitch route, too, so he went back to Rodgers.
“I said, ’12, Brent Grimes is sitting all over my hitch, let’s run a hitch-and-go,'” Jones said. “He looked at me like, ‘Last time you told me this, you dropped the dang ball. Now you’re coming back to me in the next game talking about throwing you a hitch-and-go.’ He didn’t tell me that, but that’s the look he gave me.
“And I’m like, ‘Hitch-and-go.’ He looked at me and he said, ‘JJ, go get the ball.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘I got you.’ And we ran the hitch-and-go and when I saw the ball in the air, I knew I had to make this play. In my mind, if I don’t make this play, I might not see another ball from Aaron Rodgers this whole playoffs. I went up and made the play and got plenty more balls throughout the playoffs.”
But Jones didn’t need to witness that game from Rodgers to realize his greatness.
“In your guys’ eyes, yes, that’s probably when you did, because he was unbelievable,” Jones said. “He was flawless in that game. But we knew it. We knew what we had. You got off the bus and you saw it in everybody’s walk that whoever we were playing, they were in trouble. We had it clicking so good and the swag we had getting off the bus knowing we had Aaron Rodgers, everybody we’re playing is in trouble.”
Jones arrived in Green Bay in 2007 — two years after Rodgers — as a third-round draft pick. That’s when he says he knew.
“Aaron was a backup my rookie year when Brett was still there, and Al Harris and Charles Woodson would always come up to us and say, ‘That boy right there is unbelievable,'” Jones said. “They saw it immediately. So we all knew it. Some of his best throws we had already seen in practice, so anything he does in the game there’s just no surprise to me.”
Lang didn’t see Rodgers until 2009, but that’s when he says he knew.
“I hadn’t been around him for as long as the other guys had, but he’d do s— in practice where you were like ‘How the f— did he do that?'” Lang said. “But sure, if it was that Atlanta game for everyone else, I get it. He was an absolute f—ing machine where you get into one of those grooves and you can’t do anything wrong.”
A Rodgers rebirth
Finneran recently stumbled upon the video from that game — the final game of his 10-year NFL career.
He had never watched it.
“I was so sick afterwards, it took me 10 frigging years to watch it,” Finneran said. “I wasn’t sure if we were going to have football this year, and that thing popped up underneath the TV cupboard and I said, ‘I think it’s about time I watched it.’ I think I had a few drinks in me.
“It was just as I remembered: Rodgers was just lights-out. His flick-of-the-wrist throws, his throws on the run. I felt like he took on that persona of Brett Favre that night but with more respect for the football.”
What amazes Finneran, he said, is he sees much the same in Rodgers 10 years later and in his second season with LaFleur as his coach. He also sees a parallel between Ryan in 2016 and Rodgers today. That year, Ryan was in his second season with Kyle Shanahan as his offensive coordinator and LaFleur as his quarterbacks coach. The 2015 season was a tough transition for Ryan. In the 2016 season, he won the MVP and led the Falcons to the Super Bowl.
“Matt [Ryan] was kind of lost in 2015 in terms of trying to figure out what they wanted to do with Kyle,” Finneran said. “And I felt like last year was a little bit similar with Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers. They were feeling each other out and trying to get it going. Although they had a bunch of success with wins and losses, you felt early on with the conversations that were happening in the media that there might be a little bit of friction.
“I remember thinking about when Matt Ryan was on the sideline in the middle of a game in 2015 and he’s on the bench and you can see he looks over to someone and said, ‘Once I get this offense down pat, we’re going to be unstoppable.’ And I thought the same thing about Rodgers and LaFleur. They had the most quiet 13-3 season ever last year. It was a new offensive system. Wait ’til they figure it out and get super comfortable.”
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