GREEN BAY — Martellus Bennett clearly is one smart dude.
This is obvious not because he was able to rattle off a list of must-reads from his library — a list that includes, but is not limited to, Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy” and “The Restaurant at the End of the Universe,” Paulo Coelho’s “The Alchemist,” Karen Foxlee’s “Ophelia and The Marvelous Boy,” and the works of Malcolm Gladwell and Eckhart Tolle.
It’s not because he has taken a very intentional and thoughtful approach to getting to know his new teammates, one that takes him to different corners of the cafeteria and into the sauna despite his dislike of the heat.
And it’s not because he’s an engaging conversationalist who quickly shifts from deep philosophies (“The creative adult is the kid who survived”) to funny one-liners (“I may not be a team captain, but I am the captain of fun”) to demonstrations of self-awareness (“When people see me, the first thing they do is smile because they don’t know what the hell I’m going to say next”).
No, it’s obvious the Green Bay Packers’ new tight end is a bright fellow because of what he’s made his No. 1 priority since joining the team as a free agent in March: Becoming BFFs with quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the NFL’s two-time MVP and the demanding on-field director of the Packers’ potentially lethal offense.
Talk about your smart moves.
Even if Rodgers might need an emoji-to-English translator for the barrage of iMessages that ping into his phone on a regular basis.
“I send a lot of emojis and GIFs and stuff like that to him. Other than that, it’s just conversations,” Bennett explained following an organized team activity practice last week. “That’s pretty much it. I tell him things like, ‘I like chocolate chip cookies. What kind of cookie do you like?’ I just tell him little things. Like, ‘Hey, look my daughter did this today. She’s jumping, or she learned to use the potty.’ Stuff like that.
“It’s just conversation, making friends.”
Of course, the true way into Rodgers’ heart is through knowledge of the playbook, as his reputation is well-established as a stickler for knowing the intricacies of the offense and intolerant of silly mental gaffes. So while their personal relationship grows, their professional connection must as well.
“I’m always talking to him on the field, too, trying to see what he wants,” Bennett said. “(I’ll say), ‘Hey, how did that look?’ or he’ll give me the thumbs up. Or if I’m in another group, I always look back at him, ‘Hey, is that what you want? Is there something different you want on this?’ Always trying to figure out, just trying to have those conversations on and off the field, trying to get know each other as players, and as people.”
The Packers haven’t had a tight end the likes of Bennett since Jermichael Finley suffered a career-ending neck injury in 2013. While the 6-foot-5, 247-pound Finley created matchup nightmares for defenses and possessed rare athleticism, he wasn’t always on the same page with his quarterback.
That was a frequent source of consternation for Rodgers, despite Finley putting up three of the best seasons ever by a Packers tight end in 2009 (55 receptions, 676 yards, five touchdowns), 2011 (55 receptions, 767 yards, eight TDs) and 2012 (61 receptions, 667 yards, two TDs). Finley also was off to a strong start in 2013, when he was on pace to set career bests in catches (72), yards (873) and TDs (nine) at the time of his injury.
The 6-6, 275-pound Bennett, who turned 30 in March, has had at least 50 receptions in each of the past five seasons, including 55 receptions for 701 yards and seven touchdowns last season for the Super Bowl-champion New England Patriots and 90 catches for 916 yards and six touchdowns in 2014 with the Chicago Bears, the best statistical year of his nine NFL seasons.
“He’s a little taller than Jermichael was. But he wears his weight really well. I think he’s up near about 280, (but) he looks like he’s about 260. He’s just a very well put-together player,” Rodgers said. “He can do a lot of things.
“He can get down the field. He can make plays in the passing game. But he can really run-block as well. We’re excited about having him here. He brings a different type of attitude. He is a very interesting person. He’s got a lot of great interests. He cares about football. He cares about dominating. He brings that grit and that attitude to the field where he wants to dominate the guy over him whether he’s blocking or catching passes. And I think he’s going to bring some extreme confidence to the locker room, which we need.”
Bennett certainly doesn’t lack for confidence, and he insists he is a team-first player despite Green Bay being his fifth NFL stop. He talks in terms of wanting “to water other people’s gardens,” of not being “a guy that points to the back of my jersey” and of believing that having Tom Brady and Rodgers as his quarterbacks in back-to-back seasons makes him “fortunate enough to pick the right guys to play with in my career.”
He also says winning the Super Bowl with the Patriots last year — after reaching the postseason only once in his first eight NFL seasons — gave him a better understanding of what he’s been chasing. With only six players left on the Packers’ roster from their Super Bowl XLV-winning 2010 team (Rodgers, wide receiver Jordy Nelson, outside linebacker Clay Matthews, right tackle Bryan Bulaga, kicker Mason Crosby and safety Morgan Burnett), Bennett’s more recent experience gives him a teachable moment to point to with his ring-deprived teammates.
“The interesting thing about the Super Bowl is it’s everybody’s ultimate goal, and that’s what every guy wants to do,” Bennett said. “(But) you (have to) get that taste to actually know why you’re playing. Because for a long time, you had this idea of something, this beautiful thing out there, (but) you’d never seen it, never really touched it.
“You may watch it on TV, but when you’re in that moment, and you get to enjoy it, get to experience it, then you get that taste (of), ‘This is why I do this.’ It took me 10 years to get there, but it’s like ‘This is why I’ve been practicing. This is all those sprints. All those extra runs, those extra reps. This is why you do it.’ Because before then, it’s just a myth.”
Tight ends coach Brian Angelichio has liked what he’s seen from Bennett so far as a teammate (“He’s good with the young guys”), as a meeting-room comic (“Marty has a good personality that you like”) and as a talent (“Anytime you have a chance to get a player like that, you’re excited”).
But ultimately, while Bennett wants to impress his coaches and other teammates, too, it’s winning over No. 12 that matters most.
“I’m just trying to do my job, make sure I can keep up with those guys,” Bennett said. “They’ve been doing a good job for so long, I’m just trying to get in where I fit in right now.
“I’ve been fortunate. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I know a little bit about a lot.”