In a rare move from a seasoned veteran, Aaron Rodgers turned heads in the NFL this past week when he criticized Green Bay’s backups for poor practice habits.
“For whatever reason, the rookies have not picked up the practice tempo or the importance of the scout-team looks as well as maybe it’s been in the past. There needs to be a level of professionalism that is current through the entire team from the veterans to the rookies that they kind of understand how each part of the day adds to the preparation. And I think it definitely can be improved on their standpoint from an assignment and a tempo side of practice.”
In turn Rodgers was criticized by the media for throwing younger and lesser known teammates under the bus, a rare move in professional sports. Seriously, who blames the backups? Was Rodgers blowing off some steam? Shifting blame? Or could it be the media missed and Rodgers was onto something no one else knew about?
For the uninitiated, the scout team is the period in practice when backups and lower string players run the other team’s plays against the starters. This is done to expose weaknesses and simulate the game by finding flaws in the scheme or execution, as each week requires teams to add wrinkles and tweak their base package. Then again, if you’re a team in the dumps, you might install wholesale changes and throw starting positions up for grabs. Ever wonder how a lot of fights start in practice? Often when a hungry younger player on scout embarrasses a veteran, repeatedly. In the NFL, 22 out of 53 players on the active roster are starters. That means there are 33 players on each team feeling snubbed and looking to prove something in practice.
One of the ways to move up the depth chart quickly is to turn heads on scout duty. From a scout player’s perspective, it’s invaluable to work against starting competition. If I’m a young receiver looking to improve, practicing against Pro Bowl defensive backs like Carlos Rogers or Champ Bailey will force me to become a much better player than going against another third stringer. How did Rodgers become the Super Bowl MVP he is today? By running the scout team in Green Bay for several years when he was waiting for Brett Favre to move on. That’s why he understands the importance of the scout team, and he demands a high level of effort from his practice squad now. Nothing causes a team to crumble on Sundays like a cake walk through practice all week.
I spent the better part of my first two years in university on the scout team. As if football wasn’t competitive enough, our defensive co-ordinator liked to add incentive to our sessions. For every interception or turnover the starting defense created, the scout offense ran an extra set of conditioning at the end of practice. For every TWO touchdowns the scout offense scored, the starting defense ran an extra set. Field goals counted for nothing. Notice the two-to-one disparity? Imagine what that did for tempo and atmosphere. (Side Note: nobody ever won less conditioning, you just weren’t punished with extra.)
While it may seem simple on the surface, there is a complicated task that really puts pressure on a scout offense. Imagine you are preparing to face Robert Griffin III or Cam Newton this week. How many starters in the league can simulate that kind of athleticism or talent? Not many. So how many backup/scout players can simulate that? Even less. That doesn’t mean they’re off the hook, but it does mean expectations are raised. The man moving the quickest up the depth chart in the league this week might just be the one with the best RGIII impression on the scout team.
As a player who has been down that path and proven himself, Rodgers demanded more from his teammates because he knows you don’t roll out of bed on Sunday and invent success. You work on it from Monday to Saturday, and on Sunday everyone watches you either outwork the opposition, or the opposition works you over. So what did Rodgers do on Sunday night against the Houston Texans after chewing out his scout team in the press? He threw SIX touchdowns and led Green Bay to a 42-24 win on the road against an unbeaten defense led by current NFL sacks leader J.J. Watt and Pro Bowl cornerback Jonathan Joseph.
The NFL will watch the Packers work through their schedule this year without much thought of practice players. After the events of the past week leading up to the Sunday night game, it’s safe to say the Green Bay scout team heard Rodgers loud and clear, and the rest of the league had better look out.
Luke Purm is a freelance writer and former college football player (a wide receiver at Simon Fraser University) with an inside look at the sights and sounds from the huddle, down the field, through the air, in the endzone, under the pile, out of the locker room, on the scoreboard, and everywhere else football sweats, smells, yells, breathes and collides with life. Follow him on Twitter.