Green Bay — Suddenly, the unproven kid from Chico, Calif., who took over for Brett Favre is 30 years old.
The quarterback once booed by his own fans during an intrasquad scrimmage at Lambeau Field, the one who took over for a legend in an unprecedented fashion has officially entered the back nine of his career. Since that manic summer of 2008, Aaron Rodgers has won a Super Bowl, a league MVP award, received a historic $110 million contract extension and, last season, fractured his collarbone.
As the Green Bay Packers quarterback explains to the Journal Sentinel's Tyler Dunne in a sit-down interview, this has all made him wiser.
On three different occasions, Rodgers cites his age. Entering his 10th NFL season — and seventh as the starter — Rodgers looks back at the injury that turned the Packers' 2013 season upside down and why he must play smarter in light of it. He details his relationship with Mike McCarthy, saying they're both "alpha dogs" and can both get "salty" at times. And Rodgers also explains the responsibility that comes with being the longest-tenured player on the team.
Q. Let's start with Nov. 4, 2013. You fracture your collarbone. Did you realize the magnitude of everything the moment it happened?
A. I knew I was hurt. I like to be able to get off the field under my own power, in a timely fashion with any injury. When I came over to the sidelines—a lot of times when you take a hit and come off—it kind of goes away or lightens up a little bit. This one lingered. Doc came over and saw me, and when he pushed on it, I knew something was wrong. I came in the back, got an X-ray, looked at the X-ray and it looked fine. But the problem was we had X-rayed the wrong shoulder. When they got the right X-ray, they could tell there was a fracture there and I knew it was going to be some time. I've always wanted it to be on the shorter side of any recovery. But this proved to be—despite some of the early leaks, which we weren't sure where they were coming from, the early leaks said three to six and two to four (weeks). It was a significant injury, one that was tough to deal with physically, as far as sleeping and being able to work out, but also mentally being separated from the team and having to watch from the sideline and especially as we tumbled there for a while until we righted it and I was able to come back. It was definitely a tough injury."
Q. When you walk back onto the field — you're giving fans the thumbs up and the stadium erupts — are you thinking back to Family Night '08, practices '08 when some of these fans are booing you?
A. I did. That's a great point. That was one of the top moments of my career. I actually got teary-eyed coming back onto the field when I got the ovation. I'd put it right up there with running off the field after we beat the winless Lions and finished 6-10 in '08 and I got a very nice ovation. And then, up there with the "Welcome Back to Lambeau" when we won the Super Bowl. Those are three of my top moments at Lambeau. One of them was really special with the Super Bowl. And the other two, one I'm walking back on the field and the other we're out of the playoffs, the season's over and we just beat a hapless Lions team. That was a special moment, one I'll never forget. In that moment of sadness, knowing that I was done, I got just an incredible perspective on the connection that we as players and me personally have with our fans.
Q. For you personally, why did this ovation mean so much to you after everything you've been through?
A. The '08 summer was a difficult one, as Brett was trying to get back into the mix and some of the comments that I heard or saw, you know, were hurtful. I never held that against the fans because there was such a small percentage and the fans are so loyal they just want to see a winning product on the field. As difficult as that season was to get through, to have a moment like that at the end of the '08 season and then to also have a moment on the field this past season, that kind of outpouring of love is what makes this game so special. And more than that, it's what makes this organization and this city, this franchise so special. There's a direct connection between the fans and the players. And they love their football, they love their Packers. I'm proud to be one of them.
Q. Those seven games where you weren't the Green Bay Packers' starting quarterback, what was your personal darkest moment?
A. I don't know if there were any real dark moments. I learned when I was on the IR in '06 when I broke my foot that it is tough to be separated from the team. And I had a reminder in 2010 when I had my second concussion and had to go home for a couple days. It's tough to be separate from the team, but there's a lot to be said about the kind of teammate you're going to be in those situations. I tried to be as helpful as I could to Seneca and then Scott and then Matt in realizing that when you're done playing it's about more than what you did on the field. It's going to be the kind of teammate you were and the kind of friend you were. I wanted to do as much as I could to help those guys out. And also, there's something inside you that wants to feel connected to a team when you're out. For me, that connection was made through being in the meeting rooms, being on the sideline with the headset, talking to the starter on the sidelines and trying to help them out as much as I could.
Q. Did sitting out that long further feed your competitiveness?
A. It didn't feed my competitiveness. It sucked. It made me have a greater appreciation for what we do and the opportunity we have, much like I felt when I had to go home for two days during the New England week in 2010. I love this game. I'm blessed to be able to play it. I'd love to play it as long as I possibly can. And hopefully, I can stay relatively injury-free the rest of the way.
Q. In light of a fractured collarbone, do you feel the need to change, to tweak your playing style at all?
A. I think just getting older in the league, you have to continue to be smarter. After I took that second concussion, I think I've been smarter with my running in not taking a whole lot of chances. Alex (Van Pelt) has done a great job this year of getting the quarterbacks in the right frame of mind as far as our thought process and our reads, just honing in on those. I think I'm always going to want to use my legs — it adds an extra dimension to my game that's always been helpful. It's about knowing when to do that and being smarter every year. The more games I play, the more experience I have and it will hopefully translate to making better decisions.
Q. If it was up to Ted (Thompson) and Mike (McCarthy), would they want you to stay in the pocket?
A. Ted, probably. Mike just wants me to play I think. But Ted probably wants me to stay in there a little more.
Q. But isn't that what makes you different from other quarterbacks, different from the best passers in the league? You can use your feet to keep plays alive.
A. I think so. But it's about knowing when to do that and knowing when to get to the checkdown and throw it away. We've done some good scheme tweaks. But I'm 30 now. So I'm a lot smarter than what I was in my 20s.
Q. How satisfying was the Week 17 win at Chicago to clinch the division your first game back?
A. That was right up there with the top games in my career. It wasn't the cleanest game of my career. I made a couple uncharacteristic mistakes. But especially the last drive was one of the more special moments that we've shared together — Mike and I, in our time — and one we'll always look back on fondly.
Q. And one week later, it's over. Have you thought about that last offensive possession against San Francisco this off-season?
A. Not really. We had it down there. We had a chance to take the lead. We tied it and wish we could have gotten it into the end zone. But it's a game of inches.
Q. What separates the Green Bay Packers from the San Francisco 49ers?
A. Not much.
Q. How would you describe your relationship with Mike McCarthy, your head coach?
A. I think it's a real good relationship. I think there's a lot of communication between us. I think there's a lot of trust. We played a lot of games together, shared a lot of wins together, had a lot of ups and downs together. But it's been mostly ups. And we know each other well. We know each other's body language. We can read each other on the field. I think we're in a real good place.
Q. So when you say "body language," what would be an example of that?
A. It's probably more on his side, but he can tell sometimes what kind of mood I'm in and what kind of play I'm looking for. And I can tell on the flip side by the inflection of his voice what he's thinking about on certain plays or if I look over at him and he's giving me the "McCarthy eye" or the snarl, I know what he's thinking. But I think there's a lot more laughter in store for our relationship in the coming years and I look forward to that.
Q. We all saw the sideline deal between you two at Cincinnati in Week 3. How often do you two butt heads?
A. Not that often. That wasn't really butting heads. That was a couple competitors having a conversation. That happens from time to time when competitors collide. But every now and then, you have to stir it up a little bit and it all comes back together.
Q. So why is that important for both of you to be competitive, to be yourselves and stir it up?
A. Because we're competitors. We're both alpha dogs. We're both leaders. We just have to remember there's two alpha dogs leading the sled, not one.
Q. Is this a difficult power struggle?
A. No, I don't think so. It's just how we both view the relationship and now that he's 50 and I'm 30, I think we're both a little wiser.