And there was Aaron Rodgers. Stress free, all smiles, kicking back with two reporters at his locker, casually discussing everything unrelated to football.
"If you look at a lot of the greats in history," said Rodgers with the conviction of a college professor. "Guys like Tom Selleck. Guys like Chuck Norris. They all had mustaches. It's a feature of power. Facial power."
Such has been the care-free life of Aaron Rodgers. For three seasons, he has quietly held a clipboard in the background. Emphasis on quietly. As Brett Favre kept coming back and Rodgers' emotions kept fluctuating, the Jeff Tedford-disciple projected by some as the No. 1 overall pick never complained. When prompted, Rodgers admitted that he wanted to start, but scoffed at the possibility of a trade.
He wanted to start for the Packers. Nowhere else.
Now he is. And he's been asked about last year's Dallas game a few more times than facial scruff. The Packers' identity for the past 16 years has been stripped. An entire generation of fans – not just Packers' fans – grew up with Favre. Now, he's gone (forget the Los Angeles Times "reporting." Anyway, aren't the UCLA Bruins in the Final Four, the L.A. Lakers pushing for the No. 1 seed in the West and the Anaheim Ducks eyeing a Stanley Cup repeat? Let Favre drive his tractor, catch a largemouth and kick back).
Rodgers' game at Dallas – a methodical 18-of-26 dissection – has been the single, only case study circulating throughout the public domain. It's given a ray of hope to Packer fans still in mourning. But Rodgers' performance in that game was more like a brief, blink-of-an-eye snapshot of how far Rodgers has come in three seasons.
A review of his entire body of work shows that he is even better than the guy who nearly rallied the Packers from 17 down to beat Dallas at Texas Stadium. Mechanically, mentally and physically, Rodgers has grown exponentially in each season ... even if all people saw was a free-riding backup in a ball cap greeting Favre at the sideline after touchdowns.
Last summer, Favre missed the start of training camp after the death of his good friend and stepfather-in-law, Rocky Byrd. In a difficult spot, Rodgers was nearly perfect. He had obviously put in weeks of work during the offseason. His passes were crisper – it wasn't uncommon to see five completions in a row during 7-on-7s and 11-on-11s. His mobility drastically improved – the slow-footed Rodgers that fans got a glimpse of in a 35-0 beat-down against New England was replaced with someone who was anticipating rushers from the blindside (that rare mental stopwatch almost every young NFL quarterback lacks). Above all, Rodgers resonated a striking comfort within Green Bay's offense. Route miscommunications, antsy overthrows and pocket-jitteriness were non-existent. All with the Packers' first-team unit.
Favre returned a few days later, and Rodgers was sent back to the second-team shadows.
But Rodgers was used to this. Used to being forced toward small goals. Get noticed in practice. Get noticed in preseason games. Get noticed in regular season games.
In stage two of year three with the Packers, Rodgers was sharp. Yes, he faced backup defenses. But skeptics that use this argument often forget that Player A plays with backups himself. Often surrounded with inferior talent, Rodgers posted a 98.3 passer rating, fifth in the NFL. He threw for 382 yards, three touchdowns, zero interceptions and completed 62.7 percent of his passes. This came one year after Rodgers threw for 323 yards, three touchdowns and had a 101.1 passer rating in 2006.
Only four of Rodgers' 37 completions in the '07 exhibition season went for 20 yards or more (11 percent), and therein lies the biggest change between the Packers' offense last year and this coming season. Last season, a rejuvenated Favre's 20-yard pass percentage was 14 percent (49 of his 356 completions, including an NFL-high 16 passes of at least 40 yards).
Long balls defined last season. Greg Jennings' slant-turned-touchdown against San Diego, back-to-back game-closers at Denver and Kansas City and Donald Driver's 90-yard score in the NFC Championship Game are the most clear images fans probably have.
Expect much less fireworks this season.
But the Packers' offense is suited for Rodgers. Driver, Jennings and James Jones excelled on Favre's deep balls – particularly Jennings, who caught seven 40-plus balls (3rd in the NFL). But all three wideouts are natural underneath routes at the core. They're best when finding gaps and holes within zone defenses and using quick cuts and jukes to thwart man coverage. Straight-line speed isn't the trio's forte, despite last season's frequent bombs.
Rodgers is built for Mike McCarthy's offense, cohesion fortified through McCarthy's quarterbacks school.
Last season, Favre was an offensive coordinator on the field. He put in more film sessions than he ever had in 17 seasons, and it paid off. Rodgers is systemically equipped to run the controls of what McCarthy ultimately wants to do: run the ball, control the clock, pick apart defenses on short routes – all with a hint of mobility.