ARLINGTON, Texas — If it wasn’t clear before this, it should be now: Aaron Rodgers likes this team.
Happy quarterback. Happy returns.
“I think the first difference is our defense,” Rodgers said.
Forget the stats.
OK, not the three interceptions.
And not the three timely sacks — all of them by the Smiths (two for Za’Darius and one for Preston).
Rodgers gave the requisite praise to running back Aaron Jones, who beat the NFL’s highest-paid running back Ezekiel Elliott at his own game. Jones doubled Elliott’s total yardage (182 to 91) and outscored him four touchdowns to one. And credit was also due to all the players who picked up the slack while Davante Adams tried to get his turf-toe injury right for next week’s Monday Night Football game against the Detroit Lions.
Rodgers went deeper.
“I like the vibe on the team,” Rodgers said. “I think we’re having a lot of fun.”
Rodgers didn’t stop there.
“I just think we’re a more connected team this year,” Rodgers said. “We’re enjoying each other more. We like each other a little more. We hang out with each other. The locker room is a raucous environment, whether it’s a Monday or whether it’s right after a big win. I just think guys really play for each other more and we have that chemistry because of the leadership that we have that maybe we’ve been lacking the last couple years.”
That’s never more evident than on the road.
Last year, the Packers didn’t win away from Lambeau Field until Week 16. They were 0-7 before they won their road finale against the Jets.
“Is that what it was?” Packers right tackle Bryan Bulaga asked as if he tried to erase it from his memory.
So far this year, they’ve won at two reigning NFC division champions — the defending North champion Bears and the defending East champion Cowboys. They’re 4-1 with home games upcoming against the Lions and Raiders that could have them at 6-1 before they hit the road next for Kansas City and the defending AFC West champion Chiefs.
“I think it’s really about encouraging guys to be themselves,” Rodgers said before he went on to praise the difference both Smiths have made not only on the field but in the locker room.
When a reporter asks Aaron Rodgers about a Packers tight end from the 1920s, Rodgers can’t help but laugh.
“I think when you create an environment that allows the freedom of expression or you have guys like Z, who just bring it everywhere they go,” Rodgers said. “Z and Preston are like actual brothers. They love each other and hang out and love doing interviews together. It’s just a different feel. It helps those guys are playing well, too.”
The obvious change is first-year coach Matt LaFleur.
Most think he was hired for his offensive philosophies and schemes, but perhaps his command of a team and room went underrated. Of course, former coach Mike McCarthy surely would have benefited from what the Smiths brought to the team had the Packers been more willing to play the free-agency game to help prolong his tenure.
“I think it’s the whole program and adding the personnel that we did,” Rodgers said. “It’s personalities, that’s the biggest thing, and the personalities that we have, I think, are encouraging others to grow and be confident in themselves. You’ve seen the performances.”
Rodgers took that moment to single out players who gutted it out through injuries during the Cowboys game: Za’Darius Smith (who was in and out with knee issues), cornerback Kevin King (who was a last-minute upgrade) and Montravius Adams (who had missed the past two games) among them. And then there were injury replacements like center Lucas Patrick, who took over after Corey Linsley’s concussion.
“I think that’s very admirable of those guys,” Rodgers said. “That’s what playing for your teammates is all about.”
There’s no way to quantify how far that will take the Packers, but Rodgers smiled as much or more during his postgame press conference than at any in recent years. He even laughed off a question from a reporter whose shtick is pretending he’s covering sports as if this were the 1920s — something that probably would have annoyed Rodgers at various times in the past.
“It’s just our mindset,” Jones said. “I mean, last year, I don’t think we got our first road victory until the last game and that won’t get you in the playoffs.”
Having fun and on the road, however, just might.