Aaron Rodgers is the starting quarterback for the defending World Champion Green Bay Packers. After playing at Cal and surprisingly slipping to the 24th pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, Rodgers sat behind legend Brett Favre for three years from 2005-2007 until Favre’s legendary annual retirements led to his trade from the Packers to the New York Jets. Rodgers took over as starting quarterback in Green Bay in 2008 and led the Packers to victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2011’s Super Bowl XLV.
I have always admired Rodgers for his silence and restraint throughout the numerous Brett Favre sagas over the past half-decade. With locker-room interviewers asking leading questions and pushing buttons to get combustible quotes, and with Favre constantly garnering national water-cooler attention before self-immolating in his later years, Rodgers must have faced every temptation to vent, question, and criticize. Speaking up and speaking out is expected in an age of celebrity gossip and fire-starting news feeds, but you never heard any such thing from Rodgers.
I’m not a Packer fan and I’m sure Rodgers is far from perfect. But I appreciate public figures who carry themselves honorably and who seek to perfect their craft. So I thoroughly enjoyed ESPN’s recent interview with Rodgers who’s running at peak performance while leading Green Bay to a 12-0 record. Here are a few select quotes along with my reactions and reflections.
“When you really start figuring things out as a quarterback, you realize you don’t have to be perfect every time, but you do have to be quick and decisive.”
Part of Rodgers’ development as a quarterback has been the recognition that there are qualities more important than perfection. This appears counterintuitive, but in a lightning-quick game where half-steps and half-inches can make or break your season, taking too long to make a decision is a decision in itself.
“I’m at a point where there isn’t any wasted movement in the throwing motion. Everything is consistent and smooth.”
The idea of “no wasted movement” — maximizing efficiency and minimizing friction — is always a good reminder. In a day of endless distractions and unparalleled diversions, “wasted movement” is everywhere. So whatever your profession, how do you get to where Aaron Rodgers is at? Relentless practice and repetition that seeks to eliminate wasted movement while driving deep the healthy rut of fresh habits.
“When I first got into the league, I held the ball really high. That was the standard in college, and it messed up my timing a little bit — the draw, bringing it back, then the release. Even in my seventh year, I’m still trying to break old habits I learned as a kid.”
I appreciate this quote for several reasons. First, it reflects how the standard technique at one level can be ineffective at the next. Pros (with the help of their coaches, of course) notice, adjust, and continually labor to raise their game to the next level. Second, it demonstrates the power of practice, habit, and muscle memory. This 28-year-old pro who won the Super Bowl last year and who may finish this year with the best quarterback performance in NFL history is still fighting childhood football-throwing habits. Third, it shows that you’ll never perfect your craft if you think you’ve perfected your craft.
“First, the fundamentals, then you have to become an expert in your own offense. Then you can get to a point where you’re attacking instead of reacting.”
Rodgers goes on to share some quarterbacking wisdom he received from veteran Rich Gannon. Gannon said that you can know what level you’re at as a QB by what you’re thinking about when you break the huddle. If you’re thinking about your own guys — the play call, receivers’ routes, your checkdowns, your footwork — you’re already a step behind. You have to nail those things down — absolutely master them — so you can move to the next level. What’s the next level? Knowing the stress points in your pass protection or anticipating defensive coverage schemes or predicting your potential options in case of a certain type of blitz. And what’s the goal of getting to this next level? Attacking instead of reacting. Mastering a vocation is about learning the fundamentals so well you can forget about them and step into the nuances and possibilities — getting from reactivity to proactivity, from responsive to aggressive.
ESPN: “You do all this stuff, and some of it takes years to develop, just to get a defender to take one wrong step?” RODGERS: “Not even a step. Just to shift his weight the wrong way, to lean one way or the other. It’s all about windows. Creating windows. Moving guys to create windows to throw into. The windows are so much smaller in the pros than in college. So you have to use everything — including your eyes — to move a linebacker or a safety or a defender curling out into the flat just to get him to step to his left in order to throw to a guy open behind him.”
Here’s what Rodgers is saying: The years of practice, the grueling two-a-days, the early mornings, the long weekends, the first-one-to-arrive-and-last-one-to-leave approach, the endless film sessions, the late-night playbook memorization, the insomnia-inducing pre-visualization, the incessant technique-tweaking, the off-season conditioning regimen, and the ruthless self-criticism (along with a bunch of stuff I could never imagine) are all designed to get him to the point where, in the midst of a swirling pack of 300-pound alpha males with 70,000 fans screaming in the middle of November, Aaron Rodgers can use his eyes to shift a defender’s balance so he can squeeze a 15-yard ball into a swiftly-closing 2-foot window for a 1st down on 3rd-and-10. That just puts the idea of “armchair quarterback” to shame. And it should challenge everyone who reads it to really get after it in their own profession and calling.
“… those intricate things you do intentionally can really add up to make a big difference.”
The cumulative effect of intentional intricacies is easy to understand but so difficult to practice. It’s the big events, the stage moments, the weighty habits that get all the press. But Rodgers understands that the little things add up — to Super Bowl victory and an off-the-charts season in his particular case. This man is the best quarterback on the planet right now, and he’s saying that his success (inasmuch as it depends on him) comes from very small choices and habits. Every day the sluggard says, “Just a little more sleep,” and within a few years he’s bankrupt (Proverbs 6:6-11). But the wise man goes after what’s good and prudent in every area of life, no matter how small, and the cumulative effect is astonishing.