GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers hasn’t forgotten the speech.
He’s a little fuzzy on who delivered it – he’s pretty sure it was Dr. Joe Kaempf, the father of one of his best childhood friends, and the coach of his juggernaut Nickel Ads-sponsored teams in 1995 and 1996 – but he remembers what was said nearly verbatim, having heard it on an annual basis before every Raleigh Hills Little League season in Portland, Oregon.
And the Green Bay Packers quarterback believes that this year’s Packers team is exactly the kind of team coach Kaempf would have loved.
“At the beginning of the season, he would address the team and say, ‘Everyone in here is going to get an opportunity at some point. You may only get one, or you might get a number of opportunities. But make sure you’re prepared for those opportunities because the team is counting on you to produce when you get those opportunities,’” Rodgers recounted, later proudly breaking down the 1995 team that beat the Providence Heart Institute team for the title and the 1996 team that beat the Damerow Ford team to repeat. (Rodgers, who spent three years of his childhood in Portland, was a pitcher on those teams.)
“Sometimes you wish there was that reminder before every (football) season now if the guys needed that. Because here we are, and we have guys that we didn’t count on now playing big roles for us and getting opportunities. And you hope that their professionalism and their work ethic have put them in a position to be successful.”
It certainly appears that way. The Packers take a four-game winning streak into Monday night’s showdown with the archrival Chicago Bears, having gone from 1-2 to 5-2 and atop the NFC North, despite playing without a variety of key players for varying lengths of time
Consider the list: Left tackle Bryan Bulaga (knee) and running back DuJuan Harris (knee), both of whom were lost for the season in training camp; four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker Clay Matthews (broken thumb), who will miss his fourth straight game Monday night; wide receiver Randall Cobb (broken leg), who is on injured reserve with the designation to return but won’t play until Dec. 15 at Dallas at the earliest after going down at Baltimore on Oct. 13; tight end Jermichael Finley (neck), who was coming into his own before suffering a bruised spinal cord Oct. 20 against Cleveland that could end his season and possibly his career; wide receiver James Jones (knee), who went down at Baltimore and is questionable for Monday night; outside linebacker Nick Perry (foot), who is doubtful for Monday night and hasn’t played since suffering the injury against the Ravens; and inside linebacker Brad Jones (hamstring), who is expected to return this week after missing the last three games. The also began the season without safety Morgan Burnett (hamstring), who missed the first three games, and nickel corner Casey Hayward (hamstring), who missed six.
In their places, rookie fourth-round pick David Bakhtiari has protected Rodgers’ blindside more than adequately; rookie second-round pick Eddie Lacy has run for more yards over the past four weeks (395) than anyone in the league; Mike Neal and rookies Andy Mulumba and Nate Palmer have held down edge while the Packers have registered 11 sacks in the three games Matthews has missed so far; Jarrett Boykin has caught 13 passes for 192 yards and a touchdown the past two weeks; Andrew Quarless, Brandon Bostick, Jake Stoneburner and Ryan Taylor (who has missed the past two games himself) are trying to fill the void left by Finley; and third-year man Jamari Lattimore has played so well in place of Brad Jones that defensive coordinator Dom Capers believes he merits playing time even with Jones back healthy.
And while general manager Ted Thompson and his personnel staff deserve credit for finding the right guys, and coach Mike McCarthy and his staff deserve credit for preparing them to play, the players themselves have had to deliver when called upon. And they have.
“I think even more important than that is the kids themselves,” Thompson replied when asked about the scouting and coaching staffs’ work. “They have to believe they can play, and I think some of those guys believe they can play.”
There is not an obvious, common profile to the players who’ve filled in, but they all seem to share a few common traits. They call carry themselves with a confidence that indicates they aren’t overwhelmed (or at least are good at hiding it). They are aware of their humble NFL beginnings and are motivated by them. Despite not being high draft picks, they don’t lack for confidence in themselves. And they are as competitive as all get-out.
Stoneburner, for example, said he had “10 to 12” teams express interest in him after he went undrafted this spring. But he knew the Packers’ history of developing their roster through undrafted free agents and practice-squad players, and he signed – despite a less-than promising depth chart.
“I was the seventh tight end coming into training camp. But I still liked the offense, liked the program a lot, liked the amount of undrafted and practice-squad guys they like to bring up from within,” explained Stoneburner, who was cut on the final roster reduction, added to the practice squad and promoted to the 53-man roster on Oct. 15. “That really appealed to me – even though they had six tight ends here.
“Upstairs, I think they know what they want. I wouldn’t call myself a ‘hidden gem,’ but they find guys who maybe weren’t the biggest names in college but they know how to play at this level. They breed you, almost, and by the time you’re out there, you know how to play.
“(But) they can only do so much for you. I think that has a lot to do with their scouting. I feel like here, when they bring in an undrafted guy or even a late-round guy, they come in knowing they can play. They’re not coming in just to fill spots or fill needs for camp – they bring in guys they believe can play, whether it’s now or down the road. That’s what they told me when I got here. Whether you’re the last guy on the depth chart or Aaron, you’re doing to be treated the same. I never felt for once that I was the seventh tight end. Even though I knew in my mind that I was, I would still go out there and get reps with the 1s. They give you a shot to succeed. And that’s all you can ask for as a guy coming in as an unknown.”
One of those players who has succeeded is safety M.D. Jennings, who was thrown in as a replacement starter last year for eight-time Pro Bowler Charles Woodson. After starting 10 games while Woodson was sidelined, Jennings has started all seven games this season. He, too, got multiple offers after going undrafted in 2011 out of Arkansas State, and he picked the Packers after watching them win Super Bowl XLV.
“I was watching the Super Bowl that year, the year they won it, and the announcers were talking about how many undrafted players were playing important roles like (rookie outside linebacker) Frank Zombo and (rookie cornerback) Sam Shields. They were key players that year,” Jennings recalled Saturday. “I had a couple teams call me on draft day telling me they were going to pick me. None of them did. I don’t know why, but I’m glad they didn’t.
“I remember last year, DuJuan Harris came in basically fresh off the street. He made a huge impact around here. It’s just the way it is. The scouts, they do a great job finding talent, and once they do, the coaches do a great job with the young guys, teaching you the scheme and getting you ready.
“But it takes a special person. Being undrafted, I think it makes you work harder. It makes you appreciate the chance, the opportunities a little more. The greatest coach can’t coach a player who isn’t willing to learn and buy into what he’s selling. That’s the thing about these guys. Once your number is called, you have to make the most of that opportunity.”
But there is more to their success than simply being opportunistic or the ability to do as they are told by their coaches. And while it may be unquantifiable, Rodgers is sure they all share another quality: They all deeply love the game.
Rodgers had that love and saw it others while he was backing up Brett Favre and running the scout-team offense in practice those first three years. And now, he sees it in the guys who are stepping into the breach and allowing the team to still be successful.
For while he has played with some big-time talented wide receivers (Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jones and Cobb), he’s also connected with lesser-known players like Ruvell Martin, Carlyle Holiday, Antonio Chatman, Jeremy Ross and now Boykin, Myles White and recent waiver-wire pickup Chris Harper, whom he met for the first time on the eve of the Oct. 20 game against Cleveland.
“Since a young age, I’ve been able to be coached by some great coaches, and a common theme they taught me was, ‘Practice how you play,’” Rodgers said, bringing the conversation full-circle. “I’ve always appreciated guys who really sell out in practice and guys who give you good energy in practice. But more than that, the guys who really care about it in the meeting room and ask the right questions. The ‘why’ is always been a question that’s been important to me, and when I hear other guys ask the ‘why’ question – why are we doing this? – it’s because the knowledge you can acquire there is kind of the root of plays and the root of understanding the thoughts that go through my mind. And when you can do that, then you can start to think like a quarterback and then the offense kind of opens up because you understand (it).
“That’s what we’ve seen from guys over the years – the big-name guys like Greg and Jordy and James and Randall who stepped in and did that, and then the other guys who I love – the Ruvell Martins, the Doc Hollidays, the Jarrett Boykins, the Jeremy Rosses, Myles Whites – guys that step in and maybe aren’t thought to do a whole lot but they put the time in and they really want to be great.
“You say, ‘Well, every player is like that, right?’ Ah, no. Actually, I think there’s a difference between whether football is your life – and this is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately – or not. Is football your life? Is it something that you do? Who you are? Or is it your love? And I really feel like when it’s your love and your passion, then you’re going to put more into it and you’re going to care about it more.
“When it’s your passion, when it’s your love, those are the guys I’m looking for, and those are the guys I believe in.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.