‘Happy’ Aaron Rodgers, Packers in Perfect Place to Break NFC Title Drought | Bleacher Report

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers gestures to fans after an NFL divisional playoff football game against the Los Angeles Rams Saturday, Jan. 16, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis. The Packers defeated the Rams 32-18 to advance to the NFC championship game. (AP Photo/Matt Ludtke)

Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

Aaron Rodgers laughed. He’d just tried and failed his usual hard-count gyrations to get the Rams defense to jump offsides. But the Rams recognized his trickery, and Rodgers explained later that L.A. linebacker Kenny Young shouted at him, “You can’t get us, you can’t get us!” Young’s enthusiasm amused the quarterback who has seen it all.  

Later, on the Packers’ last drive, the game already in hand, broadcast cameras caught Rodgers openly smirking at the line of scrimmage as he surveyed the defense and delivered the play call. 

And after Green Bay’s last kneel-down, Rodgers ran to the Packers sideline and launched the football into the stands, a celebratory token of appreciation for the crowd of about 8,000 fans. 

“I wouldn’t say he changed, it’s just, you can just tell, he is happy,” Packers defensive tackle Kenny Clark told Bleacher Report. “He is just in good spirits, good mood, good energy, whatever you want to call it; he is just really happy, and he is showing that out on the field; he is having fun with all of us.”

Jeffrey Phelps/Associated Press

Rodgers has always been relaxed and carefree on the field, a trait that can have a disarming effect on his opponents, but this season is different. Rodgers is enjoying himself now more than ever, and because of that, the Packers will host the NFC title game for the first time in Rodgers’ career as a starter. He’s always been a deep thinker, but his interviews and press conferences this year have reached a new level of introspection. 

“I really feel like we have the ability to manifest things we desire in our own lives, through our spoken word and our intentions,” Rodgers told reporters after Green Bay beat L.A. in the divisional round. “That’s the direction I have really tried to stay on this year, of really being wary about my moods and what I was thinking about and my perspective, try to be as positive as possible and continue to try to live with an attitude of gratitude.” 

A year ago, these Packers won ugly on their way to the NFC title game, where they were steamrolled by the 49ers ground game, and Nick Bosa’s consistent pressure affected Rodgers. 

In 2019, the Packers finished 18th in total offense (345.5 yards per game), Rodgers went without a passing touchdown in three games (all victories—the ugly kind), and seven of their wins were by just one score (including playoffs). This season, Green Bay is winning beautifully. The Packers finished fifth in total offense (389.0 yards per game), Rodgers has only one game without a passing touchdown and has thrown at least four touchdowns in seven games, a feat he only achieved twice in 2019, and 12 of their 14 wins (including postseason) have been by multiple-score margins. 

“We got a lot of comments about being the worst 13-3 team last year,” Rodgers said Tuesday in his weekly appearance on The Pat McAfee Show. “This year the offense is clicking a lot better.” 

Ever since that playoff loss to the 49ers on the road, Clark says Rodgers and head coach Matt LaFleur have regularly talked about getting back to the NFC Championship Game and hosting it. As Rodgers might say, Green Bay manifested that dream and spoke it into existence. 

Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

For the first time in several years, the quarterback is perfectly comfortable. Rodgers is so at home in his second year in LaFleur’s system that he’s taken on a vocal leadership role that he’d never done before in his career. “I mean, I am getting called on to give speeches after games now,” he said, incredulously, on The Pat McAfee Show. “You know me—that just hasn’t been my personality over the years. It’s been fun to have those opportunities. I don’t know if the guys fully understand what I’m saying. I mean, I’m not talking about chakras and all that stuff, but I do talk about how important it is to have the right mindset and visualize things and manifest things that you want. Some guys might be saying, ‘What is this old guy talking about?'” 

The prevailing thought around the league is that Rodgers is a man on a mission this season because he’s pissed off that his team traded up to draft his successor in the first round, instead of gifting him a wide receiver. “I feel like Aaron made it his personal mission to prove to the organization just how valuab he was,” said one pro scout who has studied the Packers closely. “And it certainly lit a fire under him when they picked [Jordan] Love, right?” 

Rodgers says otherwise, and there’s no sign of the pettiness and negative energy he’s exhibited at times in the past. His body language and interviews have proved this season isn’t a scorched-earth revenge tour. And inside the building, Love’s presence in relation to Rodgers’ performance really isn’t a storyline this season. 

“It’s not a they-drafted-my-replacement-and-this-is-how-I-play mindset,” Rodgers told McAfee. “See, that’s where people are wrong. They don’t understand the attitude of gratitude and positive mindset all the time. It doesn’t have to take a crescendo moment of somebody else doing something to you. It’s when you take ownership of your own life and start working on yourself and loving yourself and changing your own perspective.”

“Things that happen to me don’t have to influence my life in a negative way,” he added. “When that perspective changed I realized I was in control of my own attitude, perspective, routine, enjoyment, joy, happiness, love, all those things, and that’s been the biggest weight off my shoulders. Not any draft pick that happened, or end-of-the-tunnel epiphanies. It’s been working on myself and changing my perspective.”

At 37 years old, Rodgers is having a career year and is a favorite for MVP, which will be his third honor. He set career bests in passing touchdowns (48, fifth in NFL history) and completion percentage (70.7). Green Bay’s offense was so efficient that Rodgers threw more touchdown passes in the regular season than the Packers punted (46 punts). 

The league has certainly taken note of the change in Rodgers and this Packers team, and in conversations with sources around the league this week, Green Bay is the clear favorite to beat Tampa Bay. Most sources were surprised Green Bay didn’t draft a receiver this past offseason, because Rodgers hasn’t shown any signs of winding down in his career. 

“People knew they were a good team because they made it to the NFC Championship the year before,” an assistant coach said. “They were one or two guys away from going to the Super Bowl and they didn’t fix anything; they stayed the same team.” 

“Coming off of that [2019] NFC Championship Game, I didn’t see [any aging] with Aaron,” said the pro scout who has studied Green Bay. “I didn’t see a rusty thrower or a bad athlete or a poor decision-maker, or even average. So it confused me why they didn’t add weapons.” 

The decision to draft Love, and to pass on a wide receiver for Rodgers, became Green Bay’s major offseason drama. But, as it turns out, Green Bay general manager Brian Gutekunst actually knew more about his offensive skill players than the rest of us did. Love doesn’t even dress on game days, but several young skill players have emerged and are having career years. At tight end, Robert Tonyan caught 11 touchdown passes, receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling averaged 20.9 yards per catch, and receiver Allen Lazard has become a versatile key to this offense. His 58-yard touchdown against the Rams came on a play-action design that Green Bay had run several times earlier, with Lazard blocking each time. Not to mention bona fide stars Davante Adams and Aaron Jones, also having career years. Everyone is peaking at the same time. 

Matt Ludtke/Associated Press

“It’s crazy,” Clark says. “We got the same players, a lot of the same players, and everybody was talking about what we needed and all this kind of stuff earlier in the year, but we all had confidence in ourselves and confidence in our team.” 

“I’m big on developing,” he added. “I know for me, I wasn’t a guy that came into the league and just came into the league on fire right away. I just felt like there were a lot of young guys in the WR room, the tight ends were young, first year of Coach LaFleur’s offense at the time, and I didn’t think it was good to say we needed this, we needed that. You have to let guys develop and let guys grow into their role.”

The confidence Clark mentions is evident in their interviews, in their play and even in their on-field behavior. During warm-ups before the Rams game, Adams walked over to Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey, a fellow first-team All-Pro, to deliver an important message. “I said, ‘Look, I’m not some of the dudes that you covered, so I just want you to come with me and follow me everywhere,'” Adams told reporters postgame. “‘Let’s give the people what they came here for.'” 

Adams burned Ramsey on a crafty one-yard touchdown catch, and Green Bay toppled the No. 1 scoring defense in the league. 

In their second year together, LaFleur and Rodgers’ relationship has developed (Rodgers calls LaFleur “Matty” in interviews), and the head coach feels comfortable allowing Rodgers more freedom. Before the Rams game, LaFleur hugged Rodgers and told reporters that he said to Rodgers, “You’re the guy in charge out there, so whatever you see, go with it.”

“When you got a running game with Aaron Rodgers and you got a great running back in Aaron Jones and you got a No. 1 receiver in Davante and speedsters like MVS and Allen Lazard and a tight end that can catch the ball, it’s tough to stop Aaron Rodgers. I mean, he’s a beast”, said Kenny Clark. 

The Bucs beat the Packers 38-10 in Week 6, and their defense was the only one to hold Rodgers without a passing touchdown this season. But Rodgers told reporters Wednesday: “That was so long ago. That was months ago.”

Mark LoMoglio/Associated Press

So how can a defense dismantle Green Bay’s offense, which is now at its peak? A three-headed rushing attack with a brick wall at offensive line, speedy pass-catchers, and crafty play-action designs (21 touchdowns off play-action this season, and no interceptions), led by Rodgers in MVP form. 

“I don’t know, man,” the first pro scout said. “I don’t see anybody really doing it except the Chiefs. You have to be able to stop Rodgers at some point, and I think their defense can get pressure with Chris Jones. They are going to put up points, and you’ve got to match them.” 

“It will be a tall task for sure,” said another pro scout. “I do think Tampa can score with them, though.”

Since their 2010 Super Bowl-winning season, the Packers have made it to the NFC Championship Game three times and lost each time. On Wednesday, Rodgers was asked if he feels any pressure to win it all this season, and if he ever wonders how many more cracks he’s going to get.

But the quarterback said he isn’t worried about that. He’s living in the present. The Packers are winning this year, and it’s a beautiful thing. He’s enjoying the present too much to look too far ahead.

“My future is a beautiful mystery,” he said.

   

Kalyn Kahler covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow her on Twitter for NFL musings and thoughts: @KalynKahler.