Aaron Rodgers Excited for First Fans at Lambeau Field in 2020

Aaron Rodgers used adjectives like “strange,” “weird” and “different” to describe the current NFL season. The Green Bay Packers star quarterback wasn’t referring to anything on the field though. In fact, it’s been business as usual for the Packers, who are atop the NFC North at 7-3 and currently situated as the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs.

The two-time NFL MVP and Super Bowl XLV champion was referring to everything off the field with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic looming overhead since March. At first, he said, all of the new protocols, testing, mandates and restrictions took some getting used to, but now it’s like “Groundhog Day” for players, who are somewhat used to it knowing there’s still a job to do.

“A lot of it is autopilot,” Rodgers said. “You kind of flip that switch and you realize it’s go time, it’s game time, it’s what you do. I think as a competitor it isn’t hard to get in that mindset when you’re on the field. It’s a competition. That’s your happy place. That’s the fun zone. That’s your sanctuary. That hasn’t been hard. 

“It’s been the other stuff that’s been different.”

The “other stuff” is a result of the pandemic. The NFL implemented health and safety protocols for players, coaches and personnel prior to the season and has been updating them as the year and situation have progressed, especially after confirmed cases that hit the Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots and Baltimore Ravens. On November 18, the league announced a more intensive COVID-19 protocol as cases began to surge around the United States. 

Some of the key measures include: Players and coaches are required to have a negative test from the previous day’s testing before entering facilities, all meetings are to be held virtually unless they can be conducted outdoors or indoors with a pre-approved plan, locker room use is strongly discouraged on non-game days, meals will be served in a grab-and-go style, and team and player gatherings away from the facility are prohibited. 

The league followed those measures up on Tuesday by announcing that beginning with Week 12 games on Thanksgiving, all players must wear face coverings on the sideline if they aren’t wearing a helmet or entering the game, and those who do not are subject to discipline.

Chemistry and relationships have been hampered with in-person interaction limited.

“There’s nothing like that team chemistry, and it grows over the year from the offseason to training camp to in-season,” Rodgers said. “I think that’s been a big missing piece for every team—just not being able to have the same type of interactions and feel that closeness.”

In an effort to further promote team chemistry, even from afar, Rodgers did some early holiday shopping by gifting his linemen Traeger Grills and custom-fitted TaylorMade golf clubs for protecting him this season. Through Week 11, Rodgers ranks fourth in the NFL with 2,889 passing yards, second with 29 TDs, and first with a 115.8 passer rating, while being sacked just 11 times.

“I think quarterback is the position you have to have so much faith that your guys are going to take care of you because you’re at the mercy of their blocks,” Rodgers said. “I’ve always felt it’s important to let those guys know how much I appreciate them. …  It’s fun to get these guys gifts and just thank them for taking care of me because I’m healthy thanks to them.”

While Rodgers sent gifts to his linemen, the Packers will receive another gift for Sunday Night Football against the Chicago Bears (5-5) as the team announced it will allow approximately 500 team employees and their families to attend the rivalry game at Lambeau Field.

So far this season, 19 organizations including the Miami Dolphins, Kansas City Chiefs, Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys have permitted limited attendance, but Lambeau Field has had 80,000+ empty seats each gameday. 

“We’re excited even to have a few hundred fans at our game coming up because there’s just nothing like Lambeau,” Rodgers said of the storied venue that averaged 77,845 fans in eight regular-season games in 2019. “There’s nothing like gameday at Lambeau and we all really miss those moments.”

Whether there’s 80,000 screaming fans clad in yellow and green, 500 or zero, Rodgers knows the implications of a Packers-Bears game. He’s played against Chicago 24 times in his 16-year career with the Packers.

“I don’t think we need a lot of motivation to play Chicago,” he said. “We know what kind of game it’s going to be—they’re a big, physical football team. We played them last year in two one-score games; both hard-fought, physical ones.

“They’ve lost four in a row, so they’re looking for a bounce back, and we’re looking for a bounce back as well from last week.”

After starting the season 5-1, Chicago has lost four straight, including three consecutive single-score defeats. Green Bay, on the other hand, is coming off a 34-31 overtime loss to the Indianapolis Colts after a Marquez Valdes-Scantling fumble in OT led to the Colts game-winning field goal.

Rodgers has spoken up on multiple occasions in support of his teammate, especially after Valdes-Scantling said he received death threats on social media following the mistake. While internet trolls are unnecessarily attacking and blaming the third-year receiver for the loss, Rodgers said the Packers lost that game—and two others this season—because they have yet to play a complete game across all three facets.

“To be our best we have to be great in all three phases,” Rodgers said. “We have to click in all three phases and I’m not sure what’s going to be the catalyst for that. Is it going to be a certain player or a moment or a scheme? I’m expecting something to click in that department and at some point we’re going to play our best game. We still haven’t played it yet; we’re still looking for it. 

“We’re fortunate to be 7-3 and to be in a good position but we have to play our best football down the stretch if we want to get to where we want to go.”

NOTE: First appeared on Forbes SportsMoney

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