GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The quarterback surveyed the Green Bay Packers’ locker room -- as if scanning the field in a fruitless search for an open receiver -- and shook his head. Another spring, another familiar nameplate or two gone. Another guy he’d won a Super Bowl with, another guy he’d played cards with on charter flights to and from road games, another guy he’d become close friends with -- gone.
“The longer you're here,” the quarterback said, “the more that happens.”
That was the scene 10 years ago, and the quarterback talking was a 36-year-old Brett Favre, heading into the 15th of his 16 seasons in Green Bay. With his Packers coming off a 4-12 finish and a decade removed from their Super Bowl XXXI title, the future Pro Football Hall of Famer had returned from an extended offseason to find the generation gap growing.
"It's like I was telling [my wife] Deanna, 'You know, there's nobody left that was [on the Super Bowl teams],'" Favre said following an organized team activity practice that spring, the first under then-rookie head coach Mike McCarthy. "You look at the roster, and guys were born in the '80s -- that's when Deanna and I started dating, '83! It's like, ‘My God! We've got guys born in '83, '84!'
"But it's a good thing because I'm still here; not a lot of guys can say that."
A decade later, Aaron Rodgers can say that. Entering his 12th season -- and ninth as the starter after his three-year apprenticeship behind Favre -- the 32-year-old Rodgers is now experiencing exactly what his predecessor endured then. The longest-tenured player on the team -- and second-oldest, behind 36-year-old Julius Peppers -- Rodgers finds himself on a 90-man roster in which more than half the players (55) are 24 or younger.
He is especially disappointed that free-agent fullback John Kuhn, who was willing to return for the 10-year veteran’s minimum salary, has not been re-signed. Kuhn, whom Rodgers called “a dear friend,” has been with the Packers since 2007. He’ll turn 34 two days before the regular-season opener at Jacksonville.
“There’s a lot of '90s babies in here,” Rodgers said after last week’s first open-to-the-public OTA practice, referring to the 70 players on the roster born in 1990 or later. “It’s weird. It’s a different locker room. It’s tough when you lose guys like that or you show back up in the locker room [in spring] and they’re not there.
“That’s part of getting older in the league. You look at the last three or four years. [Linebacker] A.J. Hawk, I sat next to him for nine years in the meeting room. His locker was just a couple down from here. [Wide receiver] James Jones came back to us last year and was our leading receiver. Obviously he’s not here anymore after a year hiatus [with Oakland] before that. And now John. Those are three of my closest friends as teammates over the years. You’d love to see guys like [them] around because you know they can help us win.”
Ask any great retired quarterback what’s at the top of his "What I Miss About Football" list, and they probably won't say it's the feeling of throwing a game-winning touchdown pass, or the adulation and fame, or the sensation of 80,000 boisterous fans cheering you on as you sprint out of the tunnel. No, the biggest void they usually find is the lost camaraderie with their guys in the locker room.
What's even tougher is when that feeling starts creeping in before you call it quits. And in Rodgers’ case, playing for a draft-and-develop outfit like the Packers, it comes with the territory.
“That’s the conversation we’ve had in the past,” said quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, who played nine seasons in the NFL and has become one of Rodgers’ closest confidants. “When you get older in your playing years, your friends start to move on and now you’re starting to look for new buddies to hang with and the generation gap is there. I think at that point, you have to take them under your wing more as a big brother as opposed to a friend.
“[The approach is], ‘I’m not telling you this to hang out with you; I’m trying to help you get better and help you grow, I’m trying to get you up to where I can trust you.’ And that’s just a different dynamic to the relationships that you build in the locker room.
“Obviously you still have your tight friendships with your core group of friends, but as those shrink, I think it’s more important that you take on that older brother role. And I’ve seen him do that. He’s been doing a great job with that.”
Perhaps that’s in part because he had a front-row seat as Favre struggled to connect with his younger teammates -- something Favre admitted in a 2007 interview, before his final season with the Packers.
“We don't have coffee chats in the morning,” Favre said that spring. “I think my role today is different in the sense that I bring a lot more experience [compared to] the rest of our offense. And I feel like on the field in practice and in our meetings, I'm not a coach, but I feel like I have to talk some things through with these guys based on my experience and what I've seen. They still have to play the game, and you still have to learn from your own mistakes, but I think that's where I come in.
“I would hope if you asked those guys that they would tell you, ‘He's been fun to work with, he's been fair.’ ... I try to offer advice without [being overbearing]. It's hard enough to play your position, but I just try to go off experience that I've had and things that I've seen and try to help guys out without being, ‘Oh God, here's Brett giving us another tip.’ I don't want to be that way.”
And now Rodgers is trying to toe that same line. He believes that while leadership has to come naturally in order to be “authentic” (his word), it also requires effort. That means making the first move with a reticent rookie like fifth-round pick Trevor Davis, a wide receiver from Rodgers’ alma mater (California) who admitted he was nervous about meeting the two-time NFL MVP, or bestowing an unexpected nickname on one of the new guys. (Anointing punter Tim Masthay the “Ginger Wolverine” in 2010 may be his proudest nicknaming moment.)
“You just have to be intentional about spending time with them and talking to them,” Rodgers said. “The thing you learn as you get older in the league is there’s some apprehension in them coming up to you. They might not feel comfortable asking those questions right away, so you have to have an ice-breaker, whether it’s a joke or a nickname or a funny anecdote that you read about them or found out about them.
“You’ve just got to be intentional about it and find time to talk to those guys. The more comfortable they feel with you, the more comfortable they’re going to be in asking questions. And the more questions that they ask when it’s the appropriate time, the more we can start to get on the same page.”