Rodgers clears first hurdle with smile

A week after being booed on Family Night, Aaron Rodgers puts together a strong performance in the preseason opener against Cincinnati.

Over and over, the record skipped through each successive stress-filled, overcrowded press conference.

Game action. That's all Aaron Rodgers needs, Mike McCarthy has harped. Actual NFL snaps in an NFL atmosphere to validate three years worth of practices. But more so, to validate the management's banishment of a three-time MVP.

As hyped as a preseason game could possibly get — under the "Monday Night Football" glow with Favre Fever fresh in everyone's minds — Rodgers was nearly perfect. It was validation as high as a preseason game can allow. He completed 9-of-14 passes for 117 yards with one touchdown. His lone interception bounced off Chris Francies' chest, and two of his incompletions were home-run drops.

The script was action-packed, and Rodgers delivered.

"I understand the attention around his performance tonight," McCarthy said. "I saw Aaron just like he is every day. I thought he went out there and played with energy. ... I understand the microscope is on him, but those are outside, external forces we can't pay attention to."

But some of those outside forces were worth paying attention to.

The boo birds squawking at practice were gone, and the standing ovation that greeted his name over the public-address system was mirrored with a visual.

"It feels great to be able to look up in the stands and see the support and the signs," Rodgers said with a smile.

A smorgasbord of game-action triumphs and overcome crises is the quickest and easiest way to campaign for votes.

On Monday night, Cincinnati (and his own team) presented Rodgers with a buffet of as many ups and downs as you could jam into one quarter. It had the feel of a 30-minute sitcom — starting with a blooper, ending with relieved smiles and laughs.

On Rodgers' buzz kill of a first snap, all of his teammates began running the play a second before he received the snap from Jason Spitz. Whoops. And on his last play, Rodgers zipped a hard, high slant to James Jones, who made a Houdini-like escape from a double-crunch sandwich by Deltha O'Neal and Marvin White to waltz in for a helmetless 30-yard touchdown.

In-between, Rodgers threaded a deep third-and-17 needle to Donald Driver, only to have the pass dropped. He had a play-action bomb scrape off Jones' fingertips, a couple of antsy overthrows and was sacked twice. But Rodgers gained a rhythm in the intermediate passing game and put 10 points on the board.

"Mentally, we made a few mistakes early on," Rodgers said. "We're real confident that we can score. ... I think we moved the ball pretty well. We just need to execute better in certain situations."

Rodgers drove the offense inside the Cincinnati 30-yard line on three of his four possessions, resulting in one touchdown, one chip-shot field goal and one interception. It was the kind of mixed bag McCarthy could have asked for in Rodgers' on-the-job training. Rebounding from other players' mistakes is part of the quarterback job description.

When one reporter asked McCarthy about Rodgers' ability to quickly brush off frustration and come back with big plays, he just smiled.

"I think you're writing a helluva article," he quipped.

Rodgers made two key pre-snap audibles, changing plays at the line to Brandon Jackson draws that netted 16 and 22 yards. Practices can simulate only so much. Facing a different defense that presents different fronts was essential for Rodgers — even if it's just the preseason.

The reality of escaping from Brett Favre's shadow and becoming the shot-caller to make such decisions is something that hit home on Monday night for Rodgers. He tried hard to hold back his excitement after the game, tilting a wide grin underneath the brim of his cap. It was obvious a good portion of the weight on his shoulders was released.

Verification to the public — a "Monday Night Football" public — is a powerful confidence-builder. Rodgers joked that he couldn't get the cameras out of his face during pregame warm-ups.

"This was a big week for me," Rodgers smirked. "I was looking forward to this one."

Rodgers admitted he didn't sleep much Sunday night. But rejuvenated after a four-hour nap, he had a near-flawless one-quarter cameo, affirmed publicly what he and McCarthy knew and then sat back. For three quarters, he glanced around at the dozens of signs.

"Brett Who?"

"In Rodgers We Trust"

"Welcome to Mr. Rodgers' Neighborhood"

One week removed from disturbing boos amidst a 7-for-20 performance on Family Night, this first-person bandwagon effect was a source of relief — affirmation of a successful first date. No spilled drinks. No failed one-liners. Just a great night on the town that warrants plenty of future dates. 

"It was great to see those signs. ... I've always felt we had the best fans in the NFL and that they'd support our team," he said, later adding, "It's nice to know that when you win that coin toss, you're the one running out of the tunnel as the starting quarterback."

Monday's game didn't tangibly count for anything. But it was a baby step toward validation.

Tyler Dunne is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com and Packer Report magazine. E-mail him at tydunne07@yahoo.com.


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