GREEN BAY, Wis. – Aaron Rodgers paused.
"I'll try and say this nicely," he said.
Staring out into the Packers' locker room, Rodgers let the words dangle. After an offseason of change and criticism, of different coaches expecting him to adapt and former teammates sniping at his leadership style, he is ever more attuned to his role within the team dynamic. At this late stage of his career, Rodgers said he knows when to project calmness or quiet strength through how he speaks — and to whom.
Seeking to minimize anxiety among younger teammates, Rodgers has taken to what he recently called overcommunicating.
"My brain and responsibilities, it operates at a different level than other positions," Rodgers said in an interview. "Everybody has different responsibilities. And it's important that when I'm trying to convey a message that it's as clear as possible. Even if in my own brain it might be crystal clear, I've got to make sure I'm thinking about it from their perspective. I think that's the most important thing that I have to do as a quarterback."
Rodgers spoke four days after he wrecked the Oakland Raiders on Oct. 20 at Lambeau Field, throwing for 429 yards and recording the first perfect passer rating of his splendid career. The crazy thing is, he kind of predicted it.
After a wobbly opening month, he started feeling more comfortable and confident, and after throwing his first touchdown against the Raiders, he sidled over to his new coach, Matt LaFleur, and said he wanted to throw four more. So he did.
That performance, the inflection point of Green Bay's joyful return to the NFC elite, offered evidence that Rodgers' capabilities endure. The Packers (8-2) head into Sunday's matchup at NFC West-leading San Francisco with their best record through 10 games since 2011, when they started 13-0. That year, the statistical apex of his career, Rodgers won the first of his two MVP awards.
In his 15th season, and less than two weeks from his 36th birthday, Rodgers depends more on teammates than he ever has. He is shielded by a stout offensive line and abetted by rushing and receiving threat Aaron Jones on an offense that through Week 11 ranked second in red-zone efficiency and fifth in points per possession. The Packers no longer rely on Rodgers' weekly passing eruptions the way they once did, but he is communicating better than he ever has and contributes something totally different to their success.
"He's taken ownership of what's happened here the last few years of us not going to the playoffs, us being bad, because we were a bad team," right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. "For him, that's personal. I feel like his leadership role — it's quadrupled. He's speaking more; he's more vocal."
Bulaga has been with the Packers since 2010, which means he has protected Rodgers for almost a decade. Stability is appreciated in Green Bay, but by the time coach Mike McCarthy was fired Dec. 2, after a dreadful home loss to Arizona, the Packers welcomed a change.
A partnership that had produced eight consecutive playoff berths and a Super Bowl title had become untenable.
"The whole thing was like a reset," Rodgers said. "You go through the grieving process of a system and friendships — I worked with Mike for so long — and then you start to embrace the changes."
LaFleur has asked his quarterback to operate more under center, to conform without sacrificing his essence, but listened when Rodgers expressed his own preferences. In the red zone and in the two-minute drill, LaFleur has given Rodgers "total control." LaFleur might suggest a play, but Rodgers has the autonomy to use it or to choose something else.
As the Packers' offense tottered in September, ranking 28th of 32 teams in yards per play (4.83) and yards per game (286.7) across the first three weeks, according to Pro Football Reference, Rodgers and his teammates reciprocated by maintaining their belief in LaFleur's scheme.
"In years past, even when we struggled, you always had a feeling that the system worked and it's going to work itself out at some point," Rodgers said. "The biggest thing for us, especially starting the season, was trust. And we had to trust that it was going to start trending in the right direction."