Monday, April 25, 2005

Packers catch a falling Golden Bear

The Greenbay News Chronicle
By Todd McMahonNews-Chronicle
When they least expected it, a golden opportunity presented itself to the Green Bay Packers on Saturday afternoon.
Without having to budge from their position toward the end of the first round, the disbelieving Packers inherited a Golden Bear from the University of California who had only recently lost his hold on being the golden arm of this year's NFL Draft.
"We felt very fortunate," Ted Thompson would later say, perhaps the understatement of his inaugural draft as Packers general manager.
Green Bay has never had the honor of picking first overall since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. Yet, there the team's brain trust was inside its Lambeau Field war room on the 15-minute clock, not having to think twice about whom it would select at No. 24.
Sacrificing their pressing needs to shore up a dismal defense, at least for one round, the Packers took what many of the other teams had given them and took California quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
"In this particular case, it fell a certain way where the decision was really pretty easy," Thompson said.
Not even a week ago, Rodgers was roundly considered the hot commodity of choice for the San Francisco 49ers, who owned the No. 1 selection. Yet, as the countdown to the start of the draft at 11 a.m. Saturday dwindled to a matter of days, the indecisive 49ers turned their attention to Utah quarterback Alex Smith and, after a lot of hemming and hawing, ultimately settled on him. Still, there weren't many experts who envisioned the free fall that Rodgers experienced, for all of the country's devout football fans to see as the draft unfolded on ESPN. He was one of six draft prospects, along with Smith, treated by the league to a week in New York City.
Yet, after Miami cornerback Antrell Rolle was taken by Arizona at No. 8, Rodgers found himself on a lonesome island seated in the green room of the Javits Convention Center. He stayed seated for more than 4 1/2 hours.
Watching three running backs taken in the first five picks. Watching some more more as three cornerbacks went in the first nine picks and four in the first 23 selections. Still watching as four wide receivers were grabbed in the first 22 picks.
In fact, by the time the improbable watching and waiting were over, as Rodgers arose from his chair with commissioner Paul Tagliabue's announcing the Packers' pick at 3:44 p.m., the 21-year-old wasn't technically the second quarterback taken on this day. Arkansas' Matt Jones, who will be converted to a wide receiver or a tight end, went to Jacksonville at No. 21. "We hoped for the best, but we were prepared for the worst," Rodgers said.
The disappointment of not going No. 1 to the 49ers, his favorite team while growing up in Northern California, or anywhere in the top echelon of the opening round wore off when Rodgers learned where he would be beginning his pro career.
Brett Favre, the NFL's only three-time MVP, will be his mentor, and the young man who idolized Joe Montana couldn't think of a better situation where to be baptized. Never mind that the high investment the Packers have made in him means he has been minted as Favre's probable successor. For his part, Rodgers doesn't plan on ruffling any feathers with No. 4.
"I totally recognize the fact that Brett is the guy back there, and he's a legend," Rodgers said. "My goal for this next year is to tap into his resources as a player and just learn everything I can from him about the game and how to be successful for many years like he's been. I just really look forward to starting a good relationship with Brett."
Thompson stressed that the team won't put any undue pressure on Rodgers by labeling him as the heir apparent to Favre, who turns 36 in October and has committed for now to playing only next season.
"I think we shouldn't call him that," Thompson said. "He'll have a chance to be the quarterback that plays after Brett Favre. But, there is no Brett Favre heir apparent. There was no Bart Starr heir apparent. There were good quarterbacks maybe in between times. But, it doesn't necessarily mean he has to be Brett Favre. He has to be Aaron Rodgers and play quarterback for the Packers when his time comes. I'm sure he'll be up for that challenge."
Incidentally, Rodgers is the first quarterback the Packers have taken in the first round since they tabbed another Cal product during the lean years between Starr and Favre's storied tenures behind center. Rich Campbell was the sixth overall pick in 1981.
Once it became apparent that Rodgers was going to last until the Packers' turn Saturday - Oakland did trade up to No. 23 but took cornerback Fabian Washington - Thompson said the QB was the top choice among those working beside the boss in the draft room, including head coach Mike Sherman.
Thompson added no consideration was given to taking the top defensive player still available on the team's draft board over Rodgers, though the Packers' top priorities coming into the draft were on that side of the ball.
"We really and truly wanted to take the best football player on the board," Thompson said. "We felt like he was the best football player on the board.
"Now, did we think he was going to be there when we were watching (game tapes of Rodgers the last few weeks)? No. But, over the course of the last week or so, there was a couple of Web sites or ESPN that said maybe he might get there (to 24). So, I went back and did a little more work (on analyzing Rodgers) just to make sure. I feel very comfortable that this kid warranted being picked where we were at."
Rodgers starred at Cal for only two seasons, electing to forgo his senior year and enter the draft.
He completed 424 of 665 passes in his career with the Bears for a completion percentage of 63.8, ranking second in the school record book behind only Campbell's 64.5.
Rodgers was on the money last season, completing 66.1 percent of his 316 pass attempts for 2,566 yards and 24 touchdowns. He made a big impression in a big game, tying the NCAA Division I-A record by completing his first 23 passes in a Pacific 10 Conference loss to national champion Southern California.
"He's driven to excel," said Cal offensive coordinator George Cortez, who learned of Rodgers' selection by the Packers following the Bears' spring practice.
Cortez has coached a number of top-flight quarterbacks, including Baltimore's Kyle Boller while at Cal in 2002 and former San Francisco and Cleveland starter Jeff Garcia with Calgary in the Canadian Football League.
Cortez said Rodgers "throws the ball better" than Garcia, and he added that he hasn't seen a quarterback who has a quicker release than Rodgers.
However, it's believed that one of the reasons Rodgers' stock dropped in the view of some NFL teams is because of mechanics that have been likened to being robotic. Rodgers has an unorthodox throwing delivery, bringing his right arm up high with football in hand before releasing it.
When asked Saturday if he's aware of having any issues with his mechanics, Rodgers argued, "I don't believe I have any mechanic problems throwing."
Concerns also have arisen about the 223-pound Rodgers' standing 6-foot-2, which scouts assessed gave him problems finding his receivers over the line as a quarterback who predominantly operated between the tackles.
Cortez, though, contended that Cal's West Coast-style offense, like the Packers', did call for Rodgers to roll out of the pocket and occasionally run to the outside on option plays. Some insiders also were quick to downgrade Rodgers' performance against USC last season because all of those passes completed in succession were of short to intermediate distances.
Packers quarterbacks coach Darrell Bevell acknowledged throwing the deep ball isn't one of Rodgers' strong suits.
"I just graded him below average on his deep-ball accuracy," Bevell said. "(But) we'll be able to work on that."
Similarly, Rodgers must overcome the stigma of being the latest star quarterback delivered to the NFL by Jeff Tedford. Trent Dilfer, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, A.J. Feeley, Boller and David Carr were other highly rated Tedford disciples in college but haven't always lived up to expectations in the NFL.
Packers officials wondered if Rodgers would turn out the same way. He had a ready answer for them when the matter was broached during their initial meeting at the scouting combine in February and then when offensive coordinator Tom Rossley attended Rodgers' pro-day workout at Cal in March.
"We asked him, 'Why are you going to be successful?'" Bevell recounted. "He said, 'Because I'm better than all of them.' So, he has confidence in himself, and we have confidence in him also."
Not much does faze Rodgers. He hails from the small town of Chico, Calif., and played for a high school (Pleasant Valley) that barely attracted attention from college recruiters. Rodgers didn't get any Division I offers, or Division II for that matter, and followed two of his teammates to Butte (Calif.) Junior College.
Tedford took notice of Rodgers his first year at Butte in 2002, only because the Cal coach was actually sent there to watch another prospect.
So, as Rodgers gets set to begin his pro career in Green Bay today, getting passed over not once, but 23 times by NFL teams Saturday isn't such a big deal. It just means Rodgers will wear the Packers uniform with an extra chip on his shoulder.
"Yeah, I will be," Rodgers conceded. "Merton Hanks told me (Friday), 'You should play your career with a chip on your shoulder regardless and just always feel like you have something to prove. I definitely have a lot to prove."

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