Young receivers step up as Packers deal with injuries
GREEN BAY—With James Jones out, Jarrett Boykin got to fill in at practice last week and reveled in the rare opportunity. Finally, work with the starters.
Then Aaron Rodgers called the play in the huddle, lined up behind center and waved Boykin in motion.
Boykin didn't move.
Rodgers waved again.
Boykin was a statue.
Rodgers took the snap, made the play and didn't say a thing to his second-year receiver.
But he did give Boykin that look—only this time, with a grin.
“I don't even have a motion on that play,” said Boykin. “He wanted to see if I was going to come down there. He'll do that every now and then. He's going to test you and make sure you know what you're doing. Because if you don't know what you're doing, there's going to be some problems.”
Injuries have again altered the “A list” of the Green Bay Packers—Jones, Randall Cobb and Jermichael Finley have been affected.
As a result Rodgers must work closely with, and rely on, a couple of young and inexperienced receivers: Boykin, a second-year pro, and Myles White, an undrafted rookie. For someone who has assumed a leadership position since 2008, that has meant a new role for Rodgers: mentor.
For the last five years, Rodgers has played mostly with receivers who were his peers (or older). Greg Jennings, Jones, Finley and Jordy Nelson were able to grow and develop their games along with Rodgers, while Donald Driver, early on, helped guide.
This year, that started to change a little. This summer, one of the new receivers even called him “sir.”
“I like the respect; the sir part makes me feel a little bit old. That's kind of the Catch 22 there,” said Rodgers, smiling—sort of.
Less than two months shy of his 30th birthday, Rodgers can help groom the next generation. With the way injuries are piling up, he'll have to.
The gold standard
If there was ever an example for the young player, it is third-year receiver Randall Cobb. He studied like crazy, paid attention in meetings and threw out pointed questions.
“Then Randall took a jump last year when he started speaking up and became a vocal leader,” said Rodgers. “I think that's in his DNA and I think it's good. It says a lot. I look for the confidence, first.”
And then what, brains? It helps the youngest wideouts to be smart, for sure, in this magna cum laude offense, but Rodgers actually looks for something else.
“My favorite trait in a young receiver is the passion, because then you know you can work with a guy,” said Rodgers. “Young guys that really care and desperately want to get better.”
In that, Rodgers is obligated to help. He starts by encouraging receivers to evaluate the veterans, figure out why they do what they do and adopt some of the real-world football smarts.
“It's interesting how many guys can kind of pick that up,” said Rodgers. “Some guys are like, 'I can run the route that's on the paper.' Well, there's paper football and there's real football. Make the jump from the player who can do what you're supposed to do to a player who can get open and make plays.”
As Rodgers works with the young guys, he's mindful of how he comes off. We've all heard the criticism: He's too picky, he's quite demanding, he's intolerant of mental mistakes and awful at masking his frustrations.
He was asked if he was too much of a perfectionist.
“No, I feel like that's a good quality,” said Rodgers. “There has to be accountability amongst teammates. It's healthy. I think the guys appreciate my leadership style. I like to bring enthusiasm and energy to practice. I like to be the most prepared guy in the facility. I expect guys to lean on me to play well. And I have high expectations for them as well.”
In their view
It seems to be working. Boykin and White said Rodgers pays extreme attention to detail—more than anyone they've ever known—but that it has only heightened their awareness.
“He doesn't give off that negative vibe of a perfectionist,” said White. “He gives off the, it should be done the right way, every time. That's how he manages the offense.
“When you're in preseason or OTAs, he's in Week 8 mode. He's so ahead, you've just got to catch up. I want to be right there with him. My mental psyche of the game has improved from playing with Aaron.”
Rodgers will get after them if they mess up in practice. They don't even need to wait to hear it from a coach because No. 12 will be in their ear.
And he can be understandably demanding. A route is wrong if it is 2 feet off. The timing is wrong if it is a half a second too late. A meeting is pointless if the receivers aren't engaged in the film.
“If you didn't know any better you would think he was the coach in there,” said Graham Harrell, who was the backup quarterback in training camp. “He asks more questions than the coaches to the younger guys. But he has some experience to draw from to ask those questions.”
The young players find Rodgers' leadership style not only acceptable but productive.
White and Boykin have 15 career receptions and one start—three days ago for Boykin—between them. Rodgers has the Super Bowl championship, the MVPs, the records.
“He's going to be a future Hall of Famer,” said White. “It's his way, and you've got to understand that and just go with it. Just get on his page.”
“He's definitely the leader,” said Boykin. “You respect everything he does and everything he tells you, you make sure to have open ears about it. He's never angry about it. I mean, if you mess up, he will let you know. But that's just more about him being a leader. He can be a little bit stern but nothing bad about it, he just lets you know what he wants you to do. And how it needs to be done. So it's just like coaching.”
Rodgers has not gotten so famous or successful that he's become insensitive to what it is like to be new, and young.
“I try and give grace,” said Rodgers. “I remember how I would want to be treated and I try to do the same for these guys—erring on the side of holding them accountable, but realizing that what I am saying to them, would I appreciate the same kind of treatment when I was their age.”
But being a leader doesn't always lead to being popular. Rodgers is trying to win football games, not the next election. So he pushes his receivers on.
“There's a nature in all of us that wants to be liked as humans, but there is a desire as a competitor to strive for greatness and to expect the guys around you to bring the same kind of attention to detail and passion to the game,” said Rodgers. “That's the way I approach it and always have.
“I want my guys to be dialed in, to care enough to not be OK with making mental mistakes. I think they understand, there's a fine line between there's times I will let some things slide and times where you need the tough love, because I care about it and I want to be successful and win games. I hope that comes off and I think it does.”