GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers and Ben Stiller have been buddies for a while now.
Rodgers, a longtime fan of Stiller’s movies, met the actor a couple of years ago and the two have been pals ever since. Of Stiller’s many films, the Green Bay Packers quarterback is particularly fond of Zoolander, having channeled the title character in his ESPYs acceptance speech after Stiller’s social media assist helped him win the NFL player of the year voting during the offseason.
But it’s another of Stiller’s movie scripts that Rodgers has taken a page from — sort of — when it comes to those free plays he’s always generating, including in last week’s victory over Seattle.
In the climactic scene of “Night at the Museum,” Stiller’s nighttime security guard Larry is chasing Dick Van Dyke’s villain character Cecil, who’s making off with magical Tablet of Ahkmenrah. Cecil is on a stagecoach pulled by “money carrier” horses trained not to stop unless they hear a specific code word. Larry, of course, knows the word — “Dakota!” — and the horses come to a screeching halt, allowing him to capture Cecil and preserve the museum exhibits’ lively nightlife.
“That’s not bad,” Rodgers said with a chuckle in advance of tonight’s game against the Atlanta Falcons. “That’s not the worst (comparison) you could make.”
Except that when it comes to free plays, the top-secret code word Rodgers shouts is designed to get his 10 offensive mates to spring into action, not freeze.
“It’s one word,” wide receiver Jordy Nelson said. “We all line up and know what to do.”
That’s what happened last week against the Seahawks, when Rodgers caught the defense trying to substitute and threw a 32-yard touchdown pass to Nelson with the resulting free play. And no one is better at it than Rodgers.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, the touchdown to Nelson in the Packers’ 17-9 victory over the Seahawks was Rodgers’ 12th on free plays (on offsides or 12-men-on-the-field penalties) since he became the starter in 2008. No quarterback has capitalized on free plays like Rodgers, who has three times the amount of the next-most successful quarterback — Baltimore’s Joe Flacco with four — during that time.
So how does he do it?
Each game, Rodgers has a code word he yells when he sees the defense is susceptible to a 12-men-on-the-field penalty. The word is different each week, is chosen by Rodgers and is never divulged publicly, even after the fact.
“It’s something we’ve used for a long time,” Rodgers said.
When Rodgers’ teammates hear the word, they’re supposed to hustle to the line of scrimmage so center Corey Linsley can snap Rodgers the ball before the 12th man makes it to the sideline. All the receivers run deep vertical routes — with a penalty upcoming, there’s no risk on the play, since an interception would be wiped out anyway — in hopes of getting a touchdown.
That’s why Rodgers’ 12 free-play touchdown passes have averaged 30.8 yards.
“We just want the penalty, then everybody just runs like crazy and it’s almost like recess all over again,” Nelson said. “You try to find an open area and get open as soon as possible.”
That’s happened against the Seahawks when Rodgers saw linebacker Terence Garvin was trying in vain to get off the field. Nelson said the Packers were huddling when Rodgers spotted Garvin jogging off and yelled the code word.
“We were huddling because it was a third down. There was also some uncertainty about whether or not we could (run out) the quarter,” Rodgers said. “I looked up at the clock and saw that the game clock was longer than the play clock, so we had to run a play. And then (Seattle) tried to do a last-second substitution and then we broke (the huddle). Because we didn’t sub, we were allowed to get up there and snap it as quick as we wanted to.”
You can bet the Falcons spent the week preparing for that scenario, especially after being caught themselves during the team’s regular-season meeting last October.
In that game, Rodgers spotted Atlanta’s Brooks Reed heading to the sideline and got the ball snapped.
Officials didn’t initially flag Reed — Packers coach Mike McCarthy had to challenge the missed call, a challenge he won — and while the free play didn’t directly result in points, the 5-yard penalty gave the Packers a first down on a drive that did end in a touchdown.
“We want the 5 yards for the gimme, and then if we get the big chunk and the big play, then we take that,” Nelson said. “It’s worked for us multiple times over the years, it will continue to work for us.
“It’s something that teams are prepared for now, so they’ve got to stay on the field. If not, we’ll take advantage of it.”