Football

Rodgers' fall led to Pack's rise

Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers prepared for practice Friday in Dallas. The Packers will try to win their first Super Bowl since the 1996 season, when Brett Favre was quarterback.
Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers prepared for practice Friday in Dallas. The Packers will try to win their first Super Bowl since the 1996 season, when Brett Favre was quarterback. ASSOCIATED PRESS

ARLINGTON, Texas — Gil Brandt first got the word Friday afternoon, fewer than 24 hours before the 2005 NFL Draft.

Aaron Rodgers, Brandt heard from a coach on an AFC West team, was going to slip. Badly.

So it was that Brandt, who as an NFL insider squired Rodgers and Utah quarterback Alex Smith around New York City, pulled the Cal quarterback aside and gave him the potential bad news.

"I got a call (saying) that Rodgers is flawed," Brandt said this week. "He's gonna go in the 20s. So I told him, 'They're telling me you're falling down. If you want to change (plans) and not go to the draft, you could.' He said he was fine."

And he was. Eventually.

Five years after he was bypassed by the San Francisco 49ers, who took Smith with the No. 1 pick, and scooped up at No. 24 by the Green Bay Packers, who had a pretty decent quarterback on their roster named Brett Favre, Rodgers has survived that slight. The same as he overcame Favre's covert snubbing and a trying, three-year apprenticeship on the Packers' practice squad.

And now he's arrived.

Not only has he quarterbacked the Packers to the brink of their first Super Bowl victory since the 1996 season, he has burst upon the scene so dramatically that — with all due respect to Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees — a win here Sunday could make him the new face of the NFL.

"I don't know," Rodgers hemmed. "That's not really why I play the game. That's slightly uncomfortable for me because I take seriously my role as a role model."

Rodgers is similar to Ben Roethlisberger, his Pittsburgh Steelers counterpart, in that both are big, surprisingly mobile quarterbacks with terrific, down-the-field arm strength and uncanny accuracy. Both can extend plays by escaping from the pocket.

Off the field, Rodgers is everything Roethlisberger hasn't been.

He had the media in his palm Tuesday. He's got a great sense of humor, even placating a female reporter who wanted to know his preference between Glee and Modern Family and his celebrity crush (Taylor Swift).

"I heard I look like (Swift's boyfriend) Jake Gyllenhaal anyway," he snapped playfully.

He openly talks about his God-centered life, about giving back to the game, about not holding any grudges — although he did kid his head coach, Mike McCarthy, who ironically enough was a scout for the 49ers team that drafted Smith over Rodgers.

"He has since apologized," Rodgers said.

Ted Thompson, the Packers' general manager, hasn't needed to, although he took a world of criticism for drafting a quarterback when the team already had Favre. Today, Thompson's looking like the smartest man in the room because Rodgers, Philip Rivers and Matt Ryan are poised as the best in-their-prime QBs in the league. As a two-time Super Bowl winner, Roethlisberger is much more accomplished than Rodgers, but the latter is ahead of the rest.

"He's an awfully good quarterback," said Dom Capers, the Packers' defensive coordinator. "In my 25 years in the league, he's as good as I've ever been around."

Said Brandt: "This is a guy who's got a great feel for his teammates. A lot like Brady. Every month in the off-season, Aaron would have guys over to his house. They'll have a Chinese night. Next month might be steak night. He's really a team guy."

So much so that he stayed connected to his team by doing his championship-belt pose after big plays. "If it took me doing something goofy or some silly celebration to keep people motivated, that's OK with me," he said. "It stuck."

Swarmed by the media, Rodgers took everything in stride, even persistent questions about his much-dissected relationship with Favre, who did little to mentor the younger quarterback.

Rodgers didn't open any old wounds. Asked to describe their relationship, Rodgers said, "I mean, we're competitors." Enough said.

When queried about the last time the two had talked, Rodgers said, "The last time we played. This is getting pretty personal," before adding that he derives no satisfaction in succeeding Favre and making the Packers a potential champion in short order.

Why shouldn't Rodgers roll with the punches? This is a guy whose overprotective father didn't allow him to play football until the ninth grade, and who had nowhere to extend his career until the coach of Butte Community College, who lived down the street in Chico, Calif., dropped by to offer him a chance.

Rodgers took it on the spot, beat out an incumbent quarterback and threw for 2,500 yards and 28 touchdowns before heading to Cal, after Golden Bears Coach Jeff Tedford inadvertently spotted Rodgers while he was scouting Butte's tight end.

Ever since that disappointing draft in 2005, Rodgers dutifully bided his time until Favre retired and then left for the Jets. He's maximized his playing time in the past two seasons, even though he wasn't one of the three NFC quarterbacks picked for last week's Pro Bowl. But he's used to slights.

"I don't know if you can say he's one of the best in the game," Brandt said, "but he's probably in the top five."

That's fine with Rodgers. As he's proven, he's willing to wait.

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