Aaron Rodgers said the Green Bay Packers could run the table.
And because they did — winning their final six regular-season games and playoff games against the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys to advance to the NFC Championship Game — Rodgers was named the state athlete of the year and the Packers were honored as the team of the year at Thursday night’s sixth annual Wisconsin Sports Awards.
Rodgers led the Packers’ turnaround from a 4-6 start and recovery from a four-game losing streak with more than just his public pronouncement that he believed his team could win out and making a run at a Super Bowl berth. The two-time NFL MVP delivered one of the best stretches of his career, completing 195 of 283 passes (68.9 percent) for 2,384 yards with 21 touchdowns and only one interception (117.9 rating) during the Packers’ eight-game winning streak before their season-ending loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Jan. 22.
And while rallying from the poor start certainly qualified as an accomplishment for the team, it also wasn’t enough, Rodgers said.
“We ran the table. We won the last six to get into the playoffs,” Rodgers, who is entering his 13th NFL season and 10th as the Packers’ starting quarterback, said following Thursday night’s event, which was held at Camp Randall Stadium and the UW Field House. “That was the first goal, because anything can happen when you get into the playoffs — and it did. We were up 7-6 against the Giants and hit a Hail Mary that changed the momentum of that game. And then we were in need of two scores on the last two drives against Dallas, and it happened.
“We ran into a hot team (in Atlanta) and they were better than us that day. But I’m really proud of our guys.”
The Packers advanced to the NFC title game by beating the Cowboys on a 51-field goal by kicker Mason Crosby with 35 seconds to play — a kick set up by Rodgers’ 35-yard sideline strike to tight end Jared Cook on third-and-20 the play before.
In addition to Rodgers’ individual award, the Packers were honored as the team of the year for their remarkable turnaround, which resulted in the team’s eighth consecutive postseason berth, tied for the third-longest streak of playoff appearances in NFL history.
But for Rodgers, Thursday night was more about looking ahead than looking back.
“Going forward, we have to be better when our best is needed. All around — offense, defense, special teams,” Rodgers said, standing outside the stadium before heading back to Green Bay, where the Packers’ offseason program continues. “There are plays in that Atlanta game that go our way, it’s a different ballgame. We missed a kick, we fumbled, we go stagnant on offense and the next thing you know, it’s 31-0. You’re not going to win games like that against good teams.
“I think we’ve rebuilt a little bit, but we’ve got to see what we’ve got here.”
Rodgers said he was pleased with the additions of tight ends Martellus Bennett and Lance Kendricks, nose tackle Ricky Jean Francois, cornerback Davon House and guard Jahri Evans. But the Packers also lost some players in free agency whom Rodgers believed were vital — Pro Bowl guard T.J. Lang, veteran pass-rusher Julius Peppers and safety Micah Hyde.
“I’d like to reserve judgment when we’re in shirts and shorts, but (the new players) look the part,” Rodgers said. “I’ve worked out with Lance, he’s a fantastic guy and he brings a different dimension to us. Martellus and I, Marty and I have gotten to be good friends. I enjoy his personality and his attitude and his focus — just kind of his whole persona. He’s a very interesting human being and a really good guy to be around and have fun conversations with. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know him. And Jahri brings some veteran leadership and some clout to that huddle and the locker room.
“The tough part is, as you get older in this league and you see guys leave — and you have to ask why, a lot. It’s tough to lose veteran leadership — Julius, T.J., Micah, John Kuhn last year. We’ve replaced them — but the leadership part is tough, and I think that’s an undervalued part of our league that we need guys to step up.
“I’m proud of (Pro Bowl safety) Ha Ha (Clinton-Dix), because I think he’s really stepped up and can be one of those guys. … But the exciting thing is, you don’t know. You’re not sure what’s going to happen.”
Among other winners Thursday were Madison Edgewood’s Estella Moschkau (high school girls basketball player of the year), La Crosse Central and UW recruit Kobe King (high school boys basketball player of the year), UW football’s Paul Chryst (coach of the year), UW volleyball’s Lauren Carlini (college athlete of the year), UW basketball’s Nigel Hayes (community involved athlete of the year) and UW athletic director Barry Alvarez (game-changer award).