Flem File: Inner workings of a QB wizard
Deep inside Lambeau Field, the Packers' inner sanctum is protected by a large, green metal door. Even with the proper security code the heavy door still lurches open in a slow and dramatic way. And as I stood in the doorway during this theatrical pause on the afternoon of Nov. 10, a team official summed up the moment rather nicely when he said, half-jokingly: "Prepare to meet the wizard behind the curtain."
He wasn't that far off, really.
The Packers have won 17 games in a row, thanks in large part to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who now ranks No. 1 in passer rating (127.7), completion percentage (71.8) and touchdown throws (33) against just four picks. He's also the only QB in NFL history to register a passer rating of 110 or more in 11 consecutive games. In light of all this my assignment for the Interview Issue of ESPN The Magazine was a doozy: track down the leader of the world champion and still undefeated Green Bay Packers and, ya know, get him to spill his guts about what might just be the greatest season ever by a quarterback.
The finished product is now online and on newsstands. But the reaction to the piece was so strong I thought I'd follow it up in this week's Flem File with a kind of behind-the-scenes look at the interview along with some deleted scenes, if you will.
On the other side of that Lambeau doorway, sunk low in a large, cushy black leather chair, was the wizard himself. Rodgers was dressed in sweat pants, a hoody, a blue- and white-striped knit cap (it had been snowing, on and off, all day; welcome to Green Bay) and he had what looked like about a week's worth of stubble on his chin. He was tapping away on his phone but then turned it off and put it away. (A good sign, I thought, and a courtesy not every athlete extends.)
We weren't in a room, exactly, but something more like an alcove just off the team auditorium. Just behind Rodgers' head, in fact, was a bank of what looked like computer or system routers stacked in a black cabinet from floor to ceiling, an odd tapestry of panels, wires and little green flashing lights. Other than that oddity it was a good spot, though -- private and quiet.
Somehow I had never seen this area, even though the Packers and I go back a ways. All the way to Super Bowl XXXI, in fact, where my assignment for Sports Illustrated was to ride in the limo with MVP Desmond Howard from the Superdome to the Packers' hotel. His knees bumping into his agent's inside the crowded limo, Howard fiddled with an unwrapped cigar and worried about his new SUV parked back in Green Bay -- completely clueless about the Wonderland-like rabbit hole he was about to step into. The same kind of transformation Rodgers experienced just nine months ago in Dallas.
But for this interview I didn't want to talk about the Super Bowl, or Brett Favre, or the Vikings (that week's Monday night opponent) or even his ubiquitous insurance commercial. My request was simple and straightforward: a chat about the craft of quarterbacking. Because, despite all the endless, 24/7, wall-to-wall coverage of the NFL, very rarely does anyone ask these guys about how they do their jobs. Sure, we ask them about the job results -- the wins, the losses, the interceptions, the touchdowns, etc. -- but not about the actual nuts and bolts, the tiny, intricate, complex minutia of how they actually manage to get all those things done, or, sometimes, not done. And here's a little secret: in this regard athletes are just like the rest of us, most of them absolutely love to talk about, are dying to talk about, the deeply technical aspects of their passion and obsession which, in this case, is the unique craft of QB'ing.
Before the 2010 draft I did a piece for The Mag with Jimmy Clausen on the art and mechanics of throwing a football. What seems like a simple thing is actually one of the most kinetically complex motor skills in all of sports. Which is why we titled the piece "As easy as 1, 2, 3 … 756, 757, 758." The long-term benefit of doing this story and talking at length with a dozen or so QB gurus like Steve Clarkson, Troy Calhoun, Jim Zorn and Sonny Detmer, is that, in some small way, it has allowed me to speak to quarterbacks in their own language, if you will.
Because if you ask Peyton Manning about his feelings, his face will instantly begin to resemble that blank blue "safe mode" screen your computer goes into when it gets hit by a virus. But ask him why the deep safety's left cleat was 18 inches outside the numbers even though he was supposed to have inside leverage on a touchdown pass to Dallas Clark, and he'll talk your notebook full until the building empties and the janitors are flashing the locker room lights because they want to go home for the night.
I had never spoken to Rodgers at length before but I had a pretty good feeling he was one of these guys.
Just in case he wasn't, I had a handful of plays at the ready to stir his memory and our conversation. There was a ridiculous play-action bootleg he ran against the Vikings where he threw a perfect 26-yard strike, on the run and between three defenders to Greg Jennings. There was a 50-yard TD pass to Jordy Nelson against the Broncos where Rodgers froze veteran safety Brian Dawkins and prevented him from gaining inside leverage on a deep seam route. There was a pass in Atlanta on third-and-8 with the Packers trailing 14-0 where he bought enough time with his feet to allow a long, crossing pattern to develop downfield for a huge, possibly perfect-season-saving pass. I even had the details down from one of his few picks this season where his feet, his eyes and his reads escaped him for a moment against the Bears and Brian Urlacher made him pay.
But, as it turns out, I didn't need any of it. Rodgers is as bright, as chill and as helpful and engaging as they come. I barely got halfway through my opening question about a TD against the Chargers when he jumped in with:
He broke that play down for a few minutes, almost challenging me to keep up. I hung on for a while before I had to put my hand up and call a timeout and ask him to go back to explain a few things. It all seemed so complicated but the Packers make it look so effortless. I asked him if it felt that way.
You learn quickly in talking to Rodgers that Tom Brady has had a huge influence on him.
A lot of other quarterbacks also came up.
Even what's his name, that other Packers QB and Wrangler pitchman, came up. Well, kinda.
Thinking about his own development the past seven years, Rodgers was very impressed by the immediate success of rookies such as Andy Dalton, Cam Newton and Christian Ponder.
One of the things Rodgers kept coming back to was how football, and especially the quarterback position, was a game where winners and losers are determined by the smallest of margins.
On the mental side of the position.
Are there exceptions?
We also talked about throwing mechanics a lot. And he kept mentioning "release point." It's like a follow-through in golf or a jump-shooter's wrist snap in basketball -- when a quarterback is in the zone his hand and arm end up in the same place after every throw.
We ended up talking for almost 40 minutes. It went by fast. The one thing I really wanted to ask about but didn't get to was the concept of throwing receivers open with back-shoulder passes.
In the end, what I came away with -- besides a new understanding and appreciation for the complexities of playing quarterback at the highest possible level -- is the feeling that despite the immense and mounting pressure on him, Rodgers is genuinely still having a blast playing this game.
And after it's all said and done this year that might set him apart almost as much as his record-breaking achievements.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a columnist for ESPN.com. While covering the NFL for the past 16 years at Sports Illustrated and ESPN, he has written more than 30 cover stories and two books ("Noah's Rainbow" and "Breaker Boys"), and his work has been anthologized in "The Best American Sports Writing."
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