Inside Aaron Rodgers’ historic pursuit of Brett Favre’s record

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Early in his career, way back when he was Brett Favre’s backup, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers liked to do some pregame reading.

After he put his pads on, he would sit at his locker and thumb through the game program that was provided to each player at Lambeau Field.

He’d start with the weekly features on current players and alumni.

Then he’d get to the section with all the team and individual records.

“I remember, I’d go through the records, and by the time I was maybe a third- or fourth-year starter, my name was in black on some of those records as I’d started to put up some numbers,” Rodgers recalled. “I remember looking at the number of touchdowns that [Brett Favre] had and thinking, ‘Oh my god, I’m not even at 100 yet. How could I ever play long enough to be in this same category as that?'”

Someday there will be another quarterback who says the same thing about chasing Rodgers.

Rodgers tied Favre’s franchise record of 442 TD passes on Sunday when he threw three in a 31-30 win over the Baltimore Ravens. Rodgers can break the record at Lambeau on Saturday against the Cleveland Browns (4:30 p.m. ET, Fox).

“That’s a special one,” Rodgers said recently, “just because of the history of the franchise and how long our franchise has been around and how many great players have come through here and the opportunity to be here 17 years and the longevity records Favrey used to talk about when he was here. To be part of some of those is pretty cool.”

Favre needed 255 games and 253 starts for his 442 touchdowns over 16 seasons. Rodgers, who’s in his 17th season, can do it in his 211th game and 204th start.

The biggest difference between the two, however, is the interception total. The gunslinging Favre threw 286 in his Packers career, more than any player in the NFL regardless of team. The fastidious Rodgers has thrown 93.

Favre dusted the previous franchise touchdown record of 152 held by Bart Starr early in his career and then set the then-NFL record for touchdown passes when he threw his 421st in 2007.

The following year, Favre was traded to the New York Jets as Rodgers became the Packers’ full-time starter. The rest has been history in the making.


Free money

When a defender jumps before the snap or doesn’t make it off the field in time, Rodgers’ eyes light up. And everyone on the field knows exactly what to do: The center immediately snaps the ball and the receivers go deep. And it often works.

Whether it’s because they jump at his cadence or players subbed out don’t get off the field in time, Rodgers has the most touchdowns (15) and averages the most air yards (25.6 per attempt) on those so-called free plays. They’re free because there’s no consequence. If he throws an interception, it’s wiped out by the penalty.

Former Packers receiver Jordy Nelson once revealed that they had a code word when Rodgers spotted an extra defender on the field. That word changed on a weekly basis.

“It’s one word,” Nelson said at the time. “We all line up and know what to do.”

As for Rodgers’ cadence, even after all these years, teams haven’t been able to figure out how to time it quite right.

“Aaron is definitely different with his cadence than pretty much every quarterback out there,” Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said.

At this point, opposing coaches can anticipate Rodgers’ strategy. Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called a timeout during their Week 4 game to prevent Rodgers from getting a free play with too many Steelers defenders on the field. The quarterback and opposing coach shared a knowing grin during the timeout.


Ushering out the gunslinger era

Rodgers’ aversion to interceptions began in high school, when he realized the difference between him and other quarterbacks with scholarship offers was the number of times he threw the ball to the other team.

“All these dudes had a ton of touchdowns and not a lot of interceptions, and I was thinking that’s the one thing I’ve been doing that other guys haven’t — and that’s throwing too many interceptions,” Rodgers said in an interview with ESPN last year.

In case he needed a reminder, Rodgers’ first season in the NFL was 2005, when Favre threw 29 interceptions. Rodgers wasn’t around for Favre’s worst interception game — when he threw six of them (three of which were returned for touchdowns) — in the 2001 NFC divisional playoff loss to the Rams. Afterward, Favre matter-of-factly said: “I could have thrown eight if we had gotten the ball back.”

At Rodgers’ current interception rate (one in every 2.2 starts), he could start 419 more games — more than 24 seasons worth — and still have fewer interceptions with the Packers than Favre. In other words, Rodgers could throw an interception on 141 consecutive pass attempts and still have a lower interception rate than Favre, whose fewest interceptions in a season (13) equals Rodgers’ most.


Not dependent on first-round picks

Many people around the league thought 2020 was the year the Packers were finally going to draft a first-round receiver for Rodgers. The last one the Packers took was Javon Walker in 2002. Not only did they not take a receiver last year, but GM Brian Gutekunst poured salt in the wound by trading up to take quarterback Jordan Love at No. 26.

The receiver most believed the Packers had their eye on was LSU’s Justin Jefferson, but the Vikings took him at No. 22, prompting Gutekunst to say, it “just didn’t work out that we weren’t able to select some of the [receivers] that we had rated really highly.”

While Rodgers has thrown only four touchdown passes to a first-round pick, all to tight end Marcedes Lewis, who joined the Packers in 2018, it’s not like he has been left without talent. Second-round picks Davante Adams, Randall Cobb, Greg Jennings and Nelson combined for 211 of Rodgers’ touchdowns.


Going deep

Since 2008, Rodgers leads the NFL with 106 touchdown passes that traveled at least 20-plus air yards, and he’s had an NFL-high four seasons with 10 such touchdown passes. Tom Brady has done it once over that span. Rodgers also has an NFL-high five TD throws that traveled at least 50-plus air yards, including his Hail Mary to Richard Rodgers in 2015 that traveled 61 air yards, which are the most air yards on a touchdown pass thrown by any player since Rodgers entered the league in 2008.

Rodgers’ success on deep balls is not by accident. He practices it every day during training camp.

Equipment manager Red Batty and former Packers coach Mike McCarthy devised a contraption that has a net attached to a metal ring positioned at a 60-degree angle and raised about 6 feet off the ground. From 40, 50 and even 60 yards away, Rodgers and the other quarterbacks bomb away.

“Touch is more important than arm strength,” Rodgers told ESPN for a 2015 story about deep passes. “When I’m out there, you just have to react. That’s why you work on those throws. When you’re in the moment, you can’t think to yourself, ‘How do I get this to go 47 yards and be 2 yards inside the sideline?’ You just have to listen to your body and remember what the elements are and what your wrist snap does to the football.”

Said Nelson at the time: “Aaron does such a good job, especially on our double-move deep balls, that you have time to adjust. It’s hard to throw it on a line and know exactly to hit it at 57 yards or whatever. But if you put air under it, if it’s a little short or long, you can gauge your speed to it.”

Original article: https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/32890287/inside-aaron-rodgers-historic-pursuit-brett-favre-td-record-green-bay-packers

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