But, listening to some of McCarthy’s comments in the days following the big win, there was an interesting dichotomy at work between the play-caller and the trigger man that shouldn’t go unnoticed.
When McCarthy revealed on the game’s opening play how aggressive he was going to be – coming out in shotgun, with four wide receivers and a lone back – it would have been natural for Rodgers to adopt the same ultra-aggressive mindset.
Only in some ways Rodgers did the opposite. He took it slow and didn’t get overanxious to make the big play, showing remarkable patience and savvy for a young quarterback in his first Super Bowl being handed a wide-open game plan.
McCarthy used the term “disciplined” to describe his play. Rodgers didn’t take chances, no matter how aggressive the call. He stayed within the framework of the offense, which affords him multiple options at any given time. He took what was there, didn't panic when something wasn't, and as a result none of his 39 passes was ever really in danger of being intercepted.
Not only did it work, it was exactly what McCarthy wanted and needed to see in order to “keep his foot on the gas,” to borrow one of his pet phrases. As the game progressed, McCarthy didn't back off and entrusted Rodgers with more and more freedom, which allowed the Packers to put up 24 offensive points against a defense that allowed a league-best 14.5 per game in the regular season.
“Aaron’s discipline, ability to throw the ball away when it wasn’t there, didn’t take any chances, just gave me the ability to be aggressive as a play-caller,” McCarthy said. “It was a game plan that we were going to put the ball in Aaron’s hands, put it on his shoulders, and we knew he would produce.”
McCarthy referenced a conversation he had with Rodgers in the locker room before the game, during which he basically laid out the apparent contradiction – that McCarthy was going to be the aggressive one with the calls, but Rodgers had to be the disciplined one with his decisions. That’s what McCarthy means when he talks about the play-caller and quarterback being on the same page, even though in some ways that doesn’t sound like the same page.
The decisions included the numerous run-pass options Rodgers handled at the line of scrimmage, depending on what he saw from the defense. Rodgers definitely leaned toward the pass, as he handed off to running back James Starks just 11 times.
But the fact that Starks gained 3 or more yards on seven of those 11 rushes, including 7 or more yards four times to post a healthy 4.7-yard average, showed how keen Rodgers’ decision-making was. Pittsburgh allowed just 3.0 yards per rush in the regular season, a full half-yard better than anyone else in the league.
Rodgers’ reads of the Steelers’ coverages were also nearly flawless. While his modest completion percentage (61.5, 24-of-39) should have been higher if not for a handful of drops, equally telling was the fact that Pittsburgh was credited with just one pass break-up (by cornerback William Gay) on the 15 incompletions. In other words, he wasn’t forcing balls into coverage.
It was astute game management by Rodgers, but not in the negative sense of being a “game manager” who is asked just to avoid screwing up and losing games. In McCarthy’s offense, with so much authority and responsibility given to the quarterback, being the “game manager” means you are tasked with making the plays to win the game.
Rodgers, the well-deserved game MVP, did that primarily with three plays – his 29-yard TD strike to Jordy Nelson on third-and-1 when his receiver had single coverage from Gay; his 21-yard TD to Greg Jennings on a bullet over the middle that whizzed past the outstretched hand of safety Ryan Clark; and his 31-yard laser to Jennings on third-and-10 with the Packers leading just 28-25 in the fourth quarter, on a ball that probably still has cornerback Ike Taylor wondering how it got past him.
Those were Rodgers’ most daring throws, but they weren’t necessarily dangerous because a deflection was all the defense might have managed on each one. On the latter two, he fired at high velocity but without high risk, first trusting his read and then making the type of throw necessary with stunning accuracy.
“It’s a special feeling knowing Mike trusted me enough to make the decisions there and make the plays,” Rodgers said. “They have a great front seven, tough to run against, but we felt like if we could pick (their blitzes) up, there were some lanes to throw. I appreciate Mike’s trust in me to make the right decision.”
So it would seem pretty simple, then, that if McCarthy and Rodgers can formulate and execute a game plan to beat the league’s best defense in the season’s biggest game, there should be no stopping Green Bay’s offense, right?
Of course it’s not that easy, and that’s the challenge 2011 will bring. The Packers’ 13 opponents on the 2011 schedule have an entire offseason to study how Rodgers handled the Steelers, as well as everyone else, through one of the most remarkable playoff runs by a quarterback (90-of-132, 68.2 percent, 1,094 yards, 9 TDs, 2 INTs, 109.8 rating) in recent memory.
“There is going to be a plan to play Aaron Rodgers, just like everybody feels they have a plan to play the top quarterbacks,” McCarthy said. “So he is going to have to answer that call every week. We clearly felt that Pittsburgh was going to set their plan around Aaron, which was the case. They tried to roll the pressure at him consistently throughout the game.
“So we need to do a very good job as a staff so that the game is not on his shoulders 24/7, and we will do that just with the other assets that we have on offense.”
The good news is some of those assets weren’t even available to Rodgers in the Super Bowl, namely running back Ryan Grant and tight end Jermichael Finley. The thought of pairing or alternating Grant and Starks in the backfield, and re-inserting Finley into McCarthy’s various spread formations, will give opposing defenses that much more to think about.
But more than anything else, McCarthy has the experience and success of his quarterback in Super Bowl XLV to draw, and rely, upon. Rodgers deftly balanced the aggression coming through his helmet speaker with the discipline needed to navigate what he saw through his facemask, a performance no one, least of all McCarthy, will ever forget anytime soon.
“I thought Aaron Rodgers played like Aaron Rodgers, and that’s why he is the MVP,” McCarthy said. “I think he has the best set of skills in the league as far as his pinpoint accuracy, his athletic ability, and all of his best football is in front of him.
“(We have) a special relationship. It will go on long after football. But he did exactly what he was supposed to do.”