Green Bay Packers
In theoversaturated world of NFL coverage, one thing fans don't often get to see is agroup of star players, in an off-the-field setting, talking about theirprofession, telling war stories, as we imagine they do when reporters aren'taround and cameras aren't rolling. So in July, with dozens of NFL stars amongthe celebrities teeing it up for charity at NBC's annual American Century golftournament in Lake Tahoe, SI approached five premier quarterbacks under the ageof 30 and asked them to participate in a roundtable discussion. Cincinnati'sCarson Palmer and Dallas's Tony Romo (both entering their seventh season),Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger (sixth), the Packers' Aaron Rodgers (fifth) andAtlanta's Matt Ryan (second) all agreed.
What were theylike? My impressions: Roethlisberger is as opinionated as a two-time Super Bowlchamp should be. Palmer is thoughtful and honest. Romo is serious, smart andcircumspect. Rodgers and Ryan are bright but were reserved, likely in deferenceto their more experienced colleagues. "This was great," Palmer said asthe quarterback summit broke up. "We ought to do it more often."
Same time nextyear? I'm in.
JULY 17, LAKETAHOE, NEV.
PETER KING: O.K.,you're a general manager scouting passers. What is the one trait that today'sNFL quarterback has to have?
CARSON PALMER:Playing tough against the rush. Nobody gets hit in college. You get hit onevery single play in the NFL. I want my quarterback to get hit in the mouthplay after play after play—and be accurate while it's happening.
MATT RYAN: Iagree, especially when guys are forced out of the pocket. There are alwayspeople rolling around at your knees and things like that. You've got to beaccurate while getting hit.
PALMER: I alsowant to see a quarterback who can change his arm position when he throws. Inthis league you have to throw sidearm sometimes; you're going to have to dropyour arm, move while shuffling your feet. You're never going to be set. I wantto see a guy who can stay calm, keep his eyes on the field and be accurate.
AARON RODGERS:Good fundamentals. With a guy who's a shotgun quarterback in college, you haveto figure out if he'll adjust to the NFL drop. Can he get the ball out quick?Can he throw soundly over the top and three quarters? Does he waste steps?Those are the things in a split-second game that determine whether you can dothis.
TONY ROMO: Visiondownfield. Presence in the pocket. Matt's one of the best I've seen in a longtime at those things, the best at that since Peyton Manning.
KING: What abouttoughness?
BENROETHLISBERGER: I don't think toughness is when a quarterback says, "I'mgoing to run somebody over." Toughness is playing the worst game of yourlife but not backing down. You don't want to sit on the sideline. You want tostay in there and win. You know, down 21 points and the defense is gettingthrough in every single way, and you throw three interceptions. Staying in thatgame, keeping your head up, trying to drive your team down the field wheneverything's going wrong—that's the kind of toughness I want in myquarterback.
PALMER: I getasked all the time, "How good is [Jets rookie] Mark Sanchez going tobe?"—probably because we both went to USC. I don't know how good he's goingto be, because I've never seen him get hit in the face play after play. Even ifyou get hit in college, it's not by a 275-pound defensive end who runs fasterthan you and is coming at you full speed.
KING: That bringsme to fear. You're facing the Vikings, you have Jared Allen coming around theend and the two monster tackles, Pat Williams and Kevin Williams, coming up themiddle. Is there ever a feeling of fear inside you?
RYAN: You justdon't think about it. When you're watching [defenders] on tape, that's whenyou're thinking, Yeah, this guy's good. He brings pressure. But out on thefield, to me, the defense is just nameless, faceless guys. You can't say toyourself, That's Brian Urlacher. That's one of the biggest issues as arookie—you can't build up these guys to be bigger than they are. You just can'tthink about it, or you'll be in trouble.
PALMER: Fear offailure always drives me. I don't want to let my guys down. After we lose and Isee my linemen, it's like I let them down. That's the feeling a quarterback hasto have.
RODGERS: Whenyou're playing quarterback, it's knowing where the stress points are in yourprotection. You're conscious of where you might get pressure. But fear? No.
ROETHLISBERGER:Even if I do ever feel anything like that, and I'm not saying I ever feelscared or nervous, I'll never show it. We can't. Not at our position.Everyone's looking at us.
KING: Let me putit this way—think back to big moments or big games. How does your stomachfeel?
RODGERS: When Iwas a point guard, I wanted the ball in the last two minutes. When I was apitcher, I wanted the ball in the last inning. That's why in the big moments ingames, I'm not tight. Those moments are why you play.
ROETHLISBERGER: Ilove that. I want the ball. Our defense does some amazing things, but I want tohave the ball, and that's the way I've always been playing sports.
KING: Like on thelast drive of the Super Bowl?
ROETHLISBERGER: Onthat drive I ran out and thought, This is going to be really hard. Because wehad kind of struggled late in that game. Not saying I definitely couldn't doit. I just knew it would be tough regardless. When I got in the huddle, I toldthe guys, "I don't have any speech. Just think of all the extra work we putin, all the extra film study we did together. It'll all be for nothing if wedon't do this." Then we get a holding call on the first play, and it'sgoing bad. But here's the thing about playing quarterback in this league: Evenif you don't feel [confident], you have to show you feel it, so when yourteammates are looking at you, they believe it.
ROMO: In anindividual sport it's much easier. In tennis you serve and lose, and you lookat yourself and say, O.K., I'll get the next one. In the NFL, it's so muchabout other people.
RYAN: You don'twant to let the guys down. As for nerves, I always find myself more nervousbefore the game, before the kickoff, before the first snap. Then when you're init and you take a couple of hits, you get into the flow of the game. Honestly,when the game's on the line, I feel calmer than on the first series because I'minto the game. I'm not thinking about how big the moment is.
PALMER: That's thething about the big moment or the last drive. You have so much stuff going onin your head—What's the play? Where's your protection? Who's the hot[receiver]? Where's the safety?—and all you think is, Read. Just read theplay.
KING: Would youguys be better quarterbacks if you called your own plays?
ROMO: We would bethe best players ever. [All laugh.] There's a time and a place for it. I thinkthe coach trusts me.
PALMER: I wouldmuch rather have a play called [by a coach] because—during a no-huddle series,for instance—I don't know the defense's tendencies based on field position anddistance, like the offensive coordinator does. He knows the data from six weeksin a row. Having a bird's-eye view from the coaches' box, seeing everythingunfold up top, knowing what to expect in certain game situations ... I'd ratherhave his input, as opposed to calling what I feel like calling.
KING: Ben, wouldyou want to call your own?
ROETHLISBERGER:About 40 percent. Would I call it all? No. I'm the most untraditional guy here.I'm the one who wants to go just play backyard.
KING: That lastseries in the Super Bowl, did you make up stuff during that?
ROETHLISBERGER:Yeah. The last two [plays]. My coordinator, Bruce Arians, and I have such agood relationship that he knows what I'm thinking. Every once in a while if hesees something, he'll say, "Hey, don't forget this play." He'll tell meto run the ball if I'm throwing too much.
KING: Are thecollege spread and the Wildcat part of a revolution or just the normalevolution of the game?
ROETHLISBERGER: Ithink the game will spread out a little bit, but I don't think you're going tohave running backs and receivers taking snaps all the time. You go with yourpersonnel. When I got to Pittsburgh we had a formation where Antwaan Randle Elcame in from wide receiver and [took some snaps]. There's nothing wrong withdoing it a couple plays, because it's a changeup.
KING: You don'tthink everybody's going to do it for 10 snaps a game now?
PALMER: No. It's afad. I think you'll see it for eight more weeks, and once some defensivecoordinator comes up with a way to stop it, a certain blitz to control it,offenses will get back to the stuff that's worked for decades.
RYAN: I think it'sa fad.
RODGERS: It'llstay. Defensive players are getting bigger, faster, more hybrid. The days ofstraight pocket passers are gone. In the next 15 years you'll see them less andless.
KING: Now, yourfavorite topic: diva receivers. It seems a lot of wideouts are on their ownplanet and play by their own rules. How do you handle them?
PALMER: The thingwith diva receivers is, they're productive. It's not like they're thethird-string receiver who catches 40 balls for 612 yards a year. The guy wholeads the NFC or the AFC in receiving can get away with more. You've got to putup with it, but in my circumstance [with Ochocinco] the main thing iscommunication. As long as you have good communication, you can keep everythingunder control.
KING: Tony, howdid you handle Terrell Owens? Two years ago when you and Jason Witten weregoing to be on a magazine cover, you said, "No. T.O. has to be in it,"and the cover shoot ended up with all three guys. But still things wentsour.
ROMO: Every teamhas a receiver, I promise you, who wants the ball more than everyone else. Someguys are just more vocal about it, and I think T.O just wears his emotions onhis sleeve. So sometimes after games he'd say things that obviously you wishedwere different, but we actually were O.K. together.
KING: What's theone thing about your job that you hate?
RODGERS: The weekafter a loss. The media stuff you have to do, watching film when you know whatwent wrong, watching it by yourself. We just put the mistakes up there and thengo through a whole week with the loss hanging on us.
KING: Ben, what doyou hate about the job?
ROETHLISBERGER:The Bengals. [All laugh.] No. It's the scrutiny. We know the craziness of thefans. You know, we get too much credit when we win, too much blame when welose. After a loss it can be tough. Living your life under a microscope. I meanevery little thing. People don't treat you like a human. They don't think youeat normal food. They think you just float instead of walk. I'm a privateperson, so people always form a judgment when they meet me for 30 seconds orfive minutes. And they never go tell 20 people when you're the greatest guy inthe world. They go tell 20 people when you're the worst. So thatscrutiny—people driving by your house to take pictures, people bothering you atdinner—that to me is the worst part.
[Editor's note:Shortly after this interview Roethlisberger was sued by an employee of Harrah'shotel in Lake Tahoe, who claimed he had sexually assaulted her. Roethlisbergerhas denied the claim.]
PALMER: Not beingable to be normal, to just go to dinner and a movie. It takes a toll. That'swhy I live in California, because people there don't care about footballplayers. They're worried about Brad Pitt or Jennifer Aniston. You do what youwant. You can walk down the street with a beer in your hand, but if you're inGreen Bay....
RODGERS: AnytimeI'm recognized and can't just walk around, I remind myself I haven't had a jobin my life.
RYAN: I've onlybeen doing this for a year, and the toughest part is after a loss. All thepreparation that goes into just one game, and maybe one play at the end losesit.... It's devastating.
ROMO: I've kind oftrained myself not to care about the off-the-field stuff, so now all theattention just seems stupidly normal. For me, I can't stand the execution side[of the job]—being crappy one day and good the next. It would be awesome toplay at the same high level and execute as an offensive unit day in and dayout, but that's just the nature of the game. In training camp sometimes I'mlike, Gosh, we should score on every single possession. And when the gamestarts, it's like, Oh, that [teammate] got beat. Oh, I threw it a little high.It's what drives you crazy about the game. But it's also what you love aboutthe game—when it goes right.
KING: Is thereever a time when you guys are completely honest with the media and the public?The things you say after the game—are they 70 percent true, 50 percenttrue?
RYAN: Let me becompletely honest here. [All laugh.] I've always been told, starting in highschool, to say very little. My offensive coordinator at Boston College, DanaBible, told me before my first start, "Listen, the less you say, the lessyou have to take back." It remains true. I don't think we're dishonest, butyou might not always get entirely everything.
KING: There mustbe somebody or some team you really hate. Fess up.
PALMER: I'm a fanof everybody at the table....
RYAN: Here comesone of those 70 percent answers.
PALMER: Since I'vebeen in the league, the Steelers have been at the top of our division. We justhappen to be in the same division. You always want what you don't have. You'realways jealous because you all want the same thing. [Palmer turns toRoethlisberger.] He's got two Super Bowl rings, and we all want one. You'rejealous, you're envious, you want what they have. Ben, don't take this thewrong way, but when the Steelers were in the playoffs, after I got hurt[against Pittsburgh in January 2006], I was watching in California, Jon Kitnawas back in Cincinnati, and we were talking during every playoff game. It waslike, "I just can't watch. I can't believe they're winning." And I'mjust pissed off and mad, throwing bottles against the walls because [theSteelers] just kept going. It's nothing personal; it's about pride. Everybodyat this table wants to win Super Bowls, and when you don't win it, you'remad.
ROETHLISBERGER: Idon't hate anybody. I dislike certain teams because of their defense. I don'tlike playing the Ravens because they're so complicated, they do so manydifferent things. They've got great players, and [safety] Ed Reed is backthere. Everyone hates the Steelers because we're the Steelers.
PALMER: No. Wehate the Steelers because you're on top.
KING: What do yousay about the criticism that the league is too protective of quarterbacks?
ROETHLISBERGER:Nobody wants to see a Colts game without Peyton [Manning]. Nobody wants towatch the Patriots without Tom [Brady]. Or the Bengals without Carson. No onewants to see that. Overprotective? No. You have to protect us because we're notlooking at the rush. If we're stepping into the throw and guys are diving atour legs, we don't necessarily see them every time. So, yes, maybe sometimes weget protected a little more. But nobody wants to see a game without thestars.
RODGERS: You'vegot to keep the faces of the game intact. Like Ben says, the quarterbacks, likeit or not, sell the games. When they show a promo for Sunday Night Football orMonday Night Football, it's the two quarterbacks: Tony Romo against EliManning. They're not going to show Flozell Adams against I don't even know whofor the Giants.
PALMER: The truthof the matter is, somebody is going to die in the NFL. It's going to happen.Guys are getting so big, so fast, so explosive. The game's so violent. I hopeit's not anyone at this table, and I hope it doesn't happen, obviously.
Everyone talksabout the good old days when guys were tough and quarterbacks got crushed allthe time, but back in the day there weren't defensive ends like MarioWilliams—6'7", 300 pounds, 10 percent body fat, running a 4.7 40. The gameis getting bigger, faster, stronger, and there needs to be more protection. IfI weren't a quarterback, I would be mad about the rules. If I were a defensiveback, I would be mad about the new rule [banning helmet, forearm and shoulderhits to the head of a defenseless receiver], because it does take some of theferociousness out of the game. But the rules need to be adjusted because [theviolence] is getting a little out of control.
KING: What's theone job you'd like to have if you weren't an NFL quarterback?
ROETHLISBERGER: Arelief pitcher, like Mariano Rivera, coming in every once in a while, makinglots of money; or a fighter pilot, like Tom Cruise in Top Gun.
RODGERS:Situational relief pitcher. You work maybe an inning, throw 20 pitches, getpaid a lot of money.
PALMER: Golfer.You can play forever. Walking down the fairway with somebody carrying my bagand a guy doing the scoreboard, I just feel like Tiger Woods.
RYAN: I'm going togo with [Lakers forward] Luke Walton's job. Play eight minutes a game, win anNBA ring. He's got it going on.
ROMO: I'd saycoach if you didn't have to do it 24 hours a day. Those guys are ridiculouswith the time and effort they put in. It would be fun to call plays, be a partof that. But I kind of like the job I have.
PALMER: We'd bestupid not to.
"Toughness is playing the worst game of your lifebut not backing down."
IN FIVE seasons the Steelers' Big Ben has collected twoSuper Bowl rings—and countless battle scars.
"What do I hate? The week after a loss—watchingfilm when you know what went wrong."
Backup to a Packers legend for three years, Rodgersthrew for 4,000 yards when his chance finally came.
"I'm more nervous before the game. A couple ofhits, and you get into the flow."
As a rookie, Atlanta's starter displayed the downfieldvision and presence of a canny vet.
"Every team has a receiver who wants the ball more.Some are just more vocal about it."
The Cowboys' QB takes his tabloid fame in stride—butinconsistent execution drives him crazy.
"The truth of the matter is: Somebody is going todie in the NFL. It's going to happen."
Cincy's leader knows that as players get bigger andfaster, the game gets ever more dangerous.
Portraits by MICHAEL O'NEILL
BOB ROSATO (RODGERS)
CARY EDMONDSON/US PRESSWIRE (RYAN)