Talent, toughness, QB-coach 'marriage' help Aaron Rodgers thrive

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Spears concerned about Rodgers' knee (0:54)

Marcus Spears explains why Aaron Rodgers' knee injury worries him and should concern the Packers moving forward. (0:54)

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Aaron Rodgers didn't just show up at Lambeau Field on Sunday morning, give the game plan a once over, throw a DonJoy brace on his injured left knee and head down the tunnel.

Even one of the greatest quarterbacks of his generation needed a week of diligent preparation (most of it without much actual time on the practice field) combined with a knee-friendly game plan from a coach who knows his every move and, of course, all of his talents to pull off another performance for the annals in the 29-29 tie with the Minnesota Vikings -- a game in which Rodgers still managed to throw for 281 yards and a touchdown without a turnover.

"Rodgers' toughness is real," said Matt Hasselbeck, a former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst. "He probably saw it first hand with [Brett] Favre, too. Truly an inspiration to watch that."

Like a married couple

For Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy, the process to figure out whether Rodgers could even play -- and if so how he would play -- began the day after Rodgers suffered the knee injury in the season opener against the Chicago Bears.

"Mike is smart," Hasselbeck said. "And he and Aaron seem to understand each other like a married couple."

Still, Monday and Tuesday -- the big game-planning days -- weren't easy. McCarthy, offensive coordinator Joe Philbin, run game coordinator James Campen and pass game coordinator Jim Hostler had to set the course for the week without knowing how much -- if anything -- Rodgers could do.

At least this week, in advance of Sunday's game at Washington, they know Rodgers will play even though he's still not 100 percent.

"There's communication on Monday, and you've just got to kind of watch him," McCarthy said "The hardest part is making sure you can flow from one game plan to the next because the No. 2 quarterback, his job is to make sure to keep you in a healthy volume and still attack the defense. Just make sure we were in line there, but probably our best strength in this game-plan situation is we have experience. We've been through this before."

It's one of the benefits of a 13-year coach/quarterback relationship.

"I think it's taken for granted probably more so for him and I, and that's easy to do because we've done it for so long," McCarthy said. "There's really no surprises. If anything, our challenge is probably not doing too much. But in the earlier years, your structure was more stringent. The adjustments were more A to B to C, where now we're using more of the whole menu. I don't even know if that's noticeable to the common eye."

Meeting time

During a week in which Rodgers' only actual practice reps came the day before the game in an hourlong practice, the meetings became even more critical. And this week appears to be heading in the same direction. McCarthy canceled Wednesday's practice because of the strain the first two weeks has already put on his team, and Rodgers did not practice on Thursday.

"We certainly have a good amount of meeting time, [and] he's not afraid to share some of his feelings on things that he likes, which is good," Philbin said of Rodgers. "And obviously he's got a great command of the game and so it's always good to get his feedback on how he feels about certain things."

Rodgers did not even attend practice last Wednesday or Thursday. Nor was he at the Hutson Center this week for Thursday's practice. Instead, he spent the time in the training room with the medical and training staff to work on his knee.

That means the first time he saw the game plan put into action was when the offense gathered to watch the film after practice, and what he watched was DeShone Kizer running the plays designed with Rodgers in mind.

"The best way when I'm out there running practice and taking his reps is making sure I'm reacting in somewhat of a similar way to how he reacts -- to the way that he does his signals to the way that he communicates," Kizer said. "It would be pointless for me to go out there and do it a different way, it would be taking us back from the game plan. So it's all about trying to communicate with him as much as possible and learn about the way he goes about things so I can try to do it as similar as possible.

"From there, I'm learning quite a bit about the things. What I'm learning with Aaron is that he has so many different experiences and he's gone through this for so long, that I just give him as much information that I can accurately give him and allow him to use it for whatever he wants to use it for."

Executing the plan

McCarthy likes to tell the story from Rodgers' first season as a starter in 2008, when no one knew until the morning of a game against the Falcons whether Rodgers could play after he separated his throwing shoulder the week before at Tampa Bay. When Rodgers was finally cleared on the morning of the game, McCarthy assured Rodgers that he wouldn't call any deep balls.

That didn't last a half before McCarthy called "Fake 94 X Read" -- a play-action shot play on which Rodgers threw the ball 50 yards in the air for a touchdown to Donald Driver.

The plan last Sunday was supposed to be void of "keep passes" -- or roll-out plays. Or at least that was the plan when McCarthy and Rodgers held their regular one-on-one meetings on Friday and Saturday.

"There's always calls each and every week where we discuss, 'Where are you at on it?' or 'This is what I think,'" McCarthy said. "There's always going to be calls that I like more than he likes and vice versa. But when we get into this situation, you carry calls into the game where you say, 'Hey, you're going to have to call for this one once you get out there and get a feel.' For example last Sunday, it was the keeps. We ran two keeps in crunch time. I wasn't going to come out of the gate with it. Let's get going and see how you feel. You do things like that."

That communication is a two-way exchange.

"He's got to know what's up, meaning what plays are up," Rodgers said of McCarthy. "Can we do some action or can we not? That just depends on how my knee's feeling. I don't think you can say because I did some of those things in the game that automatically I'll be able to do that any more on Sunday. It depends on how I'm feeling. I've played from the pocket for a number of years, I know my body better than anybody, I know what it's like to play with a knee injury for years -- in high school and junior college and at Cal. So I know what I'm capable of, depending on how that knee is. Obviously it won't be 100 percent, so I'll just adjust accordingly to how I'm feeling and try to get through."

Former Packers safety and current ESPN analyst Matt Bowen explained how McCarthy and Rodgers did a masterful job of limiting the plan without limiting its effectiveness.

"Shotgun quick game, shotgun play-pass, RPOs paired with inside zone [runs], three-step vertical game out of the gun and no seven-step concepts or longer developing routes," Bowen said. "With limited mobility in the knee, that could put him in some adverse situations."

Or, as Hasselbeck put it: "Mike's coached a lot of great quarterbacks and has experience with guys way less mobile than Aaron. He might just need to play quarterback like a 40-year-old for a while to get some wins until he's healthy again."