- David Fleming, ESPN Senior Writer
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This article appears in ESPN The Magazine's Dec. 12, 2011 "Interview Issue."
FLEMING: In Week 9 against the Chargers, your third touchdown was a 21-yard pass to receiver James Jones in which you audibled out of a run play at the line of scrimmage, froze the deep safety with your eyes and then threw a ball that seemed to materialize in Jones' hands when he reached the end zone. What does it feel like to be in a zone like this?
RODGERS: It's a lot of fun. It feels fluid. I used to play baseball, and it's like when you're hitting it on the label, or the barrel of the bat. You don't feel anything, just fluid contact, and you just know you hit the ball on the sweet spot with clean power every time. When you're throwing the football the way you want to, you're not thinking about it. You're not thinking about your drop or your release point or the trajectory or where your feet are. It's just coming off your hand exactly the way you want it to, fluid and confident. You're getting good snap on it, a good spiral, and it's ending up exactly where you want it. That's when the game becomes fun, when you can put the ball exactly where you want it. You just react naturally and let all the fundamentals and muscle memory that you've built up take over. It's that feeling of being in total control.
Is part of that getting to a place where complicated reads, such as the TD to Jones, just become second nature?
It's quicker reactions and being more decisive with my checks. 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. On that play, we had James on the left and Greg Jennings on the right. The pass check was for James to run a man-beater route -- a route with a double move that works well against single coverage. We were hoping the Chargers would go to a one-high safety look. Instead, they played more quarters, where each DB plays a quarter of the field, and they used high-low coverage on Greg. My quick reaction was that we still have man coverage on the other side with James, who is running a man-beater route. It wasn't perfect, but we still had good options to work with.
Jim Zorn once told me that each year a quarterback's motion should become simpler, shorter and smoother. Is that happening with you?
I don't know about shorter but definitely smoother. I'm at a point where there isn't any wasted movement in the throwing motion. Everything is consistent and smooth. 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. You're taught to get back as deep as you can as quick as you can, but you can never throw the ball out on time when you do that. Learning to time up my drop with each route has been a big thing for me. It allows me to throw the ball in rhythm and hit the same release point with every throw, meaning that no matter what else is happening, the ball comes out on a similar plane. That's when accuracy comes.
Once that happens, is that when you're free to start perfecting all the other little things about the position?
That's 100 percent accurate. 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. Rich Gannon told me this back in 2006: You'll know you're at a good level by the things you're thinking about when you break the huddle. If you're thinking about your own guys -- what routes they have, who has what -- you're not thinking about the right things. You should be thinking at the next level. What's my protection adjustment? Where's the stress in the protection? What am I going to do, reaction-wise, if they show me a different coverage? That's when you know you're playing the game the way you want to.
And that's where you are now?
When I break the huddle now, I know what my guys are doing. I know the areas they're going to be in. When you're dropping back, you're not looking at your own guys. You're feeling flashes and movements of defenders in your peripheral vision, and you're reacting to what those tell you on the other side of the ball. I know if I see a linebacker go this way, that means they're probably playing a certain coverage, and that means I'm either going to have this receiver open or this other guy open. If I see the defense rotating a certain way or going to a certain pressure, I know now what coverage they're probably playing behind it, and I know I have to get the ball out quickly. If we have the play protected, then I go into my reads downfield.
So it's like a pyramid, where you master a level of quarterbacking and then go up a step and fine-tune?
It takes awhile to get there, especially for guys who are thrust into playing immediately. That's why I give a lot of credit to Andy Dalton, Cam Newton and Christian Ponder -- quarterbacks who are playing in their rookie years and playing well. It's really tough to figure it out, and I guarantee, talk to those guys in two or three years and they'll say, "Man, I really didn't know what I was doing my rookie year." Playing the quarterback position, there are so many things you need to master that improvement ends up taking place on graduated levels.
Are the eyes a 98th percentile thing for quarterbacks, one of the final things you master as an elite thrower?
It is one of the last things. Tom Clements, our quarterbacks coach, broke down Tom Brady's entire season a few years ago, and there were very few times in 550 or so passes when Tom didn't look a defender off. You have to look guys off to complete passes in the NFL. But when you study Tom, you learn it's about the feet as much as the eyes. When you look a guy off, your feet already have to be lined up where you plan to throw, but your eyes have to go to the target late.
You do all this stuff, and some of it takes years to develop, just to get a defender to take one wrong step?
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.
Another little thing you've improved is your body language on play-action fakes.
That was one thing I really worked on in the off-season a couple of years ago. I had the pleasure of playing golf with Tom Brady and got to pick his brain a little bit. One of the things I took away from that was that he is very critical of himself from the previous year, and he uses that to find one, two or three things that he wants to improve on each off-season. For me, that was my ballhandling.
But part of me still thinks, Come on, you're throwing for 4,000 yards. Does it really matter if you lean over six inches more on a run fake?
Peyton Manning would say so. He is sacked very few times, and that's because, one, he has great pocket presence, and two, he's so good with those fakes that they not only hold the linebacker but also slow down the rush. People don't think much about it, but by staying disciplined and using the same body language on a run or a pass, Peyton gives himself more time and a bigger window to throw the ball. That's not a little thing. As an offense, I know we feel like those intricate things you do intentionally can really add up to make a big difference.
So the idea that football is a game of inches is more than just a cliche?
Look at our biggest play from our last drive of the Super Bowl. We're only up by three, and on third and 10, we run Greg Jennings down the middle of the field and connect for a 31-yard gain. If you look at that play on the game film from the end zone, Steelers corner Ike Taylor gets his pinky on the ball and changes the trajectory but not enough to make Greg drop it. If Taylor gets one more knuckle on the ball, everything changes. An inch one way or the other and it might be a totally different outcome in the Super Bowl. Afterward, everybody was like, "How did that happen?" But that's a play we've worked on for years. Years. That's where all this comes from -- to be able to step into that throw, with seven minutes left in the Super Bowl, up by less than a touchdown, knowing it's third down and you have to make a play. I've thrown that ball to Greg, that same exact ball, 100 times in practice. Same exact route. So when I break the huddle, that's what's flashing in my mind. I've completed this throw in my mind 1,000 times before the ball even leaves my hand.
You're talking about visualization?
I don't know whether other quarterbacks use it, but visualization has been very important to me. When I have a lot of confidence in a play, as soon as the huddle breaks it's immediately flashing in my head -- a picture in my mind for just a millisecond. "Oh, hey, three Wednesdays ago we ran this play in practice against the scout team, and I hit Greg on this route." I can see it.
What does it look like?
It's a picture of a play, a successful play, flashing through my mind each time I walk to the line of scrimmage.
In ESPN The Magazine's Interview Issue, David Fleming talks with Aaron Rodgers about his record-breaking season with the Green Bay Packers.