I tell the other guys, "There are receivers in this league who don't have good quarterbacks, and they never get a chance to show their talents. We're blessed. We're playing with a guy who's going to Canton if he keeps this up."
—JAMES JONES, Packers wide receiver
The football connects them. Aaron Rodgers throws, and his receivers catch. It's that simple, but not simple at all. It's the culmination of endless practice repetitions and film study, a symbiosis of movement built on schematic design (but also on talent, instinct, trust and nerve) that ends with a pass spiraling tightly through the air into a waiting pair of hands. The last time it happened was late in the Packers' 33--27 win over the Vikings in the venerable Metrodome on Oct. 23, when Rodgers hit 13-year veteran Donald Driver for a six-yard gain on second-and-12, the 711th catch of Driver's career. "Little stick route," says Driver. "Run down five yards, turn in or out, depending on where the defense is." (He shrugs as if to emphasize the routine nature of the play.)
"Base play in our offense," says Rodgers. "Trying to get half the [first-down yardage] back before third down." (He nods to affirm this simplicity.)
Immediately before that was a 15-yard completion to Jordy Nelson. And a little while before that, on the second snap of the third quarter, a 79-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings that Rodgers threw on a flat line while rolling to his right, and Jennings was so wide open that he jogged in from the 40. Before that, 13 consecutive completions to start the game, including a first-quarter two-yard bullet to fullback John Kuhn just beyond the goal line. All day it looked easy, the way it has all season, as the Packers have won seven straight games and are the closest thing to a safe bet in a wildly unpredictable league.
If 2010 was the year in which Rodgers ascended to the top echelon of NFL quarterbacks, alongside Brady, Brees, Manning and Rivers, 2011 is the year in which Rodgers has become—at least for now—the best of them all. He has completed 71.5% of his passes (the single-season record is 70.9%, shared by Drew Brees in 2009 and Ken Anderson in 1982) for 20 touchdowns (the league high) with just three interceptions (second lowest). He has averaged 9.9 yards per attempt, which if sustained through the end of the season would edge out Kurt Warner (2000) for the highest one-year average since 1956. Rodgers's passer rating of 125.7 is more than four points ahead of Peyton Manning's seven-year-old NFL one-season record, and his career rating of 101.9 is more than five points above Steve Young's alltime record of 96.8 (although Rodgers has played in only 61 games, to Young's 169).
Rodgers, 27, has been playing quarterback for 15 years, since he was a tiny eighth-grader with pontoon-sized feet in Chico, Calif. In that time he has completed approximately 2,000 passes to nearly 100 different receivers—and he says he remembers most of them. He can tell you that his first NFL connection went for no gain on a checkdown in garbage time of a 52--3 beatdown of the Saints in October 2005, his rookie year. It came on a play called H6 Flanker Pivot, and Rodgers was thinking before the call came in, Please don't call Flanker Pivot, because the fullback in the flat is always the only guy open on that play, and man, he just wanted to air one out. Vonta Leach caught that pass. Rodgers can tell you that one of the most important completions of his career came early in his first start at Cal, in the fifth game of the 2003 season, a Cover Two hole shot (between the corner and the safety) down the sideline against Illinois. "Gave me the confidence to make those throws," he says. The receiver was Jonathan Makonnen.
His receivers remember too. The guys from back home remember not just a little boy with a big wing but also a celebrity whose cellphone is stuffed with numbers for high school buddies. The ones from Cal remember a dorky kid who never got nervous, even in the tightest spots. The Packers remember a guy who showed uncommon grace while waiting for a legend to retire and turned scout-team work into his own private Super Bowl. All of them remember sore hands from fielding the Rodgers fastball. They're the ones who can draw the line from Green Bay back to Chico.
Before win number 7 this year in Minnesota, there was Super Bowl XLV in Dallas, a 31--25 win over the Steelers last Feb. 6 in which Rodgers threw for 304 yards and three touchdowns and was named the game's MVP. The first touchdown of the night came with 3:44 left in the first quarter, as the Packers faced third-and-one on the Pittsburgh 29-yard line. The play call into Rodgers's helmet was a screen pass. Nelson was to run a straight clear-out pattern to take the top off the Pittsburgh coverage and was categorically not to be thrown the ball.
Nelson arrived in Green Bay from Kansas State in 2008, the year Rodgers became the starter. "Missed all the drama," he says. "I've never even met Brett Favre." Nelson learned right away that a ball could come his way at any time, including when a screen pass was called in the Super Bowl. "We get up there, and Aaron signals me: tap to his helmet," says Nelson. "That means he's coming to me."