Monday, July 14, 2008

Yahoo! Sports: Rodgers rarin' to go for Packers


By Michael Silver, Yahoo! Sports

Unlike most NFL players, Aaron Rodgers can’t wait for training camp to begin. Even as he lives it up this weekend at the American Century Championship celebrity golf tournament, the Green Bay Packers’ new starting quarterback is itching to embrace the dorm life, two-a-days and monotonous meetings that men in his profession typically dread.  Most of all, as he closes his eyes at night, Rodgers flashes ahead to the games he’ll get to play come September, when he expects to become the first Packers player other than Brett Favre to start at quarterback since 1992. As Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy made clear Saturday – just as they had last month privately to Rodgers, before the news broke that Favre had decided to end his four-month-long retirement – a new era has begun in Titletown.

The Packers now are Rodgers’ team, and the fourth-year passer literally can’t wait until the July 27 reporting date for the team’s training camp at St. Norbert College.  “I’m going out there a week early, if that tells you anything,” Rodgers told Yahoo! Sports on Saturday in his first extended interview since Favre requested his formal release in a letter the Packers received Friday. “I’m just excited about that first night’s sleep in the dorms, going out and practicing the next day and all the things that will follow. I knew at some point my time would come, and it looks like we’re getting close to that.”

As for Favre’s change of heart, and the Packers’ decision to deny the legendary passer’s request to be released so that he could play for the team of his choosing, Rodgers insisted he is not getting caught up in the melodrama.  “I’m only worried about things I can control,” he said. “I can’t control any decisions that he might make, so I’m not worried about it. Brett and I haven’t talked, so I can’t tell you where he’s coming from. And really, I’m not even thinking about it, and it doesn’t (add any additional pressure). There’s pressure on every quarterback in the NFL. Every team expects Super Bowl or bust. I know I need to get myself ready to play, and that’s pretty much all that matters to me.”

Few first-round draft picks have spent as much time waiting for their chance as Rodgers, who is the 21st century sports world’s poster child for enforced patience. He launched his pro career by squirming nervously in front of millions, enduring an infamous 4½-hour stint in the green room on draft day in 2005. Projected as the possible No. 1 overall selection, the former Cal star was passed over by the San Francisco 49ers, who instead chose Alex Smith, and an uncomfortable and incomprehensible free-fall commenced.

When the Packers finally took Rodgers with the 24th overall selection, then-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue offered private words of encouragement on the dais that have stuck with Rodgers to this day.  “He called my name and we shook hands and I held up the Packers jersey, and then he told me, ‘Good things happen to people who are patient,’ ” Rodgers recalled Saturday. “I believe it, now more than ever.”  Rodgers’ success never has seemed to come easily. He played one season at Butte College, a junior college near his hometown of Chico, Calif., and wasn’t attracting interest from Division I schools until Cal coach Jeff Tedford came to scout teammate Garrett Cross. Enlisted to throw to the tight end, Rodgers impressed Tedford during the workout and earned a scholarship offer. He didn’t become the Golden Bears’ starter until several games into his sophomore season. Rodgers’ record-setting junior campaign ended with then-No. 4 Cal losing out on its first Rose Bowl berth since 1959 because of a controversial Bowl Championship Series outcome affected by a late shift in the polls, followed by a disappointing defeat to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl.

After that, Rodgers declared for the draft. He mostly has watched during his first three seasons as Favre extended his record streak to 275 consecutive starts. But Rodgers impressed McCarthy and Thompson with his progress heading into 2007, and when Favre suffered an elbow injury after performing poorly in the Packers’ pivotal showdown with the Dallas Cowboys last November, Rodgers played brilliantly (18 of 26, 201 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions) in relief and nearly pulled out a comeback victory.

Though Favre had a terrific season in ‘07, he struggled in the Packers’ defeat to the New York Giants in the NFC championship game at Lambeau Field. After Favre’s emotional retirement news conference last March, Thompson and McCarthy began preparing Rodgers to take over as the starter. Later that month, according to a report in Friday’s Wisconsin State Journal, Favre told the GM and coach he was ready to end his retirement and return but later reneged on the deal. At that point, the decision was made to move forward with Rodgers as the starter, and in April the team drafted two quarterbacks, second-rounder Brian Brohm and seventh-rounder Matt Flynn, as backups.

On Saturday, Thompson told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that “Aaron Rodgers is our starting quarterback” and conceded he wasn’t sure how the Favre situation would play out. Earlier, Thompson and McCarthy told The Associated Press that they wouldn’t grant Favre’s request to be released and that the veteran quarterback was welcome to rejoin the team as a backup. A more plausible scenario is that the Packers will attempt to trade Favre over the next two weeks, thus allowing him to continue his career while avoiding the prospect of him playing for NFC North rivals Chicago or Minnesota.  Even if Favre were to return to the Packers, creating what surely would be an uncomfortable situation, Rodgers insists he won’t be fazed.

“We’ve got a first-class organization,” Rodgers said. “Ted has done a great job building our team through the draft, and coach McCarthy has done a great job with the day-to-day stuff. We’ve got a great group of players. I’ve been there the whole offseason and have been hanging out with guys away from the stadium and building a great rapport with my teammates. It’s a great situation.”  Rodgers said he has received supportive calls and text messages from numerous teammates over the past couple of days, including offensive linemen Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton and wideout Greg Jennings. He also has shown his leadership skills by actively mentoring Brohm and Flynn, a stark contrast to the chilly reception he got from Favre after joining the team.

“I’ve been trying to be as open as I can possibly be,” Rodgers said. “I told both Brian and Matt from the start that if they have any questions, they should come to me and I’ll help them in any way I can. Because making them better is making our team better.”   Though Rodgers wishes his golf game was in better shape, he thoroughly enjoyed his experience in Lake Tahoe. On Friday night he cracked up while watching comedian Frank Caliendo, a Milwaukee native, do his deadpan impression of announcer John Madden gushing over Favre during a private show at Harrah’s Casino. After the show Rodgers spoke privately to Caliendo, then joined Baltimore Ravens quarterback and Cal predecessor Kyle Boller at a blackjack table.

“This is a great week up here,” Rodgers said. “But I’m eager to get back to Green Bay and get things going.”

He is especially eager to help the Packers, who had the league’s youngest roster in ‘07, erase the memories of the disappointing defeat to the Giants in subzero temperatures last January. Standing on the sideline, Rodgers recalled, “I was freezing. It was ridiculous. Miserable is pretty much the best word. I was miserable, and just about everybody in the stands was, too – especially after we lost.”

Rodgers knows the only way he can win over the fans in Green Bay is to win games, regardless of how Favre’s situation plays out. Replacing a legend won’t be easy but he has been preparing for this moment for a long time, and he swears he has no regrets about the patience it required.  “My road to where I am now has been very fulfilling,” Rodgers said shortly before entering the clubhouse at Edgewood-Tahoe, where he’d just completed Saturday’s second round. “I put in a lot of hard work in high school just to get noticed, and when I got to Cal I waited in the wings behind a really good quarterback (Reggie Robertson) before I got my turn. Obviously, I knew when I was drafted I was going to have to wait a while because I was behind a Hall of Fame quarterback who is one of the greatest guys ever to lace ‘em up.  “I knew at some point I’d get a chance to play. I always hoped it would be in Green Bay. I’m so ready.”

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