GREEN BAY – Earlier in camp, the red-zone connection between Aaron Rodgers and Jimmy Graham was at times hit or miss.
On Monday, one goal-line play in particular showed just how difficult the duo might be to stop.
With Rodgers rolling slightly to his right, he lofted a short pass into the end zone to Graham, who had safety Marwin Evans right in his hip pocket. But it didn’t matter, because Graham leaped and reached up with one arm to haul in one of the most impressive TD grabs by anyone through nearly three weeks of camp.
Evans didn’t jump, but even if he had, it wouldn’t have mattered, because Graham’s gigantic paw rose above everyone and everything, including the ball.
“We needed something like that, because we’ve been talking a lot about how he wants those type of fade balls thrown,” Rodgers said after the 2½-hour workout on a warm, humid day. “It was nice to be on the same page.
“He was expecting a ball in that area, and the athleticism, I have absolutely nothing to do with that. I’m just trying to put it in area for him. It’s pretty impressive to watch.”
It’s the kind of play Rodgers and Graham hope to connect on often, and even though there hasn’t been an overwhelming display of red-zone dominance in camp, the two-time MVP quarterback is confident they’ll get there.
Rodgers likened Graham’s overall grasp of the game to that of some of his favorite teammates over the years – John Kuhn, Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, James Jones, along with Davante Adams and Randall Cobb now.
“Those guys really understand the game, see it through the quarterbacks’ eyes and want to be right all the time,” Rodgers said, before adding the obvious – there are rewards to that approach.
“They set their ego aside to understand how I see it, because I think they understand if they see it how I see it, they’re probably going to get the ball. So we have a lot of conversations in the locker room, in meetings, on the practice field, and after hours texting, if there’s something we see on film.”
Perhaps the two can take their work to the game field for the first time Thursday night against Pittsburgh.
Based on the way the practice reps have been divvied up this week, it appears Rodgers will start against the Steelers and play at least a little.
“I’d like to in front of our fans. It’d be nice to get out there, back on Lambeau,” he said. “When I came back from my injury (last year), I was on the road, so I haven’t played at home for a long time.”
Not since Week 4 vs. Chicago, to be exact, and Rodgers’ chances of playing this week appeared to improve with All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari returning to practice from his Family Night ankle injury.
Bakhtiari was limited on Sunday and progressed to several 11-on-11 snaps on Monday, not wasting any time getting back to protecting Rodgers’ blind side even if no one would have questioned him had he given himself longer to recover.
“I think he knows I’m playing so he wants to be out there with me,” Rodgers joked, before going on to sincerely compliment Bakhtiari’s professionalism.
“He’s a rock over there. We don’t worry about (him). Dave’s over there, he can handle it. We can win that matchup consistently and that’s who he is now. I’m glad we paid him, because he’s worth it to the team and definitely to me.”
Rodgers added that next week will be the most important as well as intense week of practice for the veterans, because they’ll play the most in the third preseason game in Oakland and most likely sit the fourth game.
All the games are of heightened importance for the young players, of course, and Rodgers liked what he saw in the preseason opener last week vs. Tennessee.
As a few young receivers – Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown and Jake Kumerow in particular – turned in strong performances, Rodgers downplayed any effects his criticism of practice last week might have had.
His message, in a nutshell, was this: If his words served a certain purpose, so be it, but they weren’t necessarily intended as motivation, because he shouldn’t function as anyone’s source in that department.
“I don’t think (the performances are) a response to anything I’ve said,” Rodgers said. “Now maybe it is for a couple of them, but it shouldn’t. You get to this league and to stick around, you have to be self-motivated. As a leader you’re trying to inspire, but the motivation to change and to improve has got to come from within.”
His motivation for saying what he said was simple.
“I care about winning, number one,” Rodgers said. “I’m going to say and do the things I feel that can advance us. It’s going to be tough at some points. It’s not a popularity contest all the time. Obviously, as a human you like being liked and appreciated, but I’m trying to win games. That’s my job.”