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Peter King reflects on Bart Starr’s determination, NFL legacy

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In his last interview—and that is a stretch, really, because the “interview” was 23 courageous and arduous words long, and it lasted well over an hour—Bart Starr tried to accomplish his goal just as hard as he tried to burrow in for the biggest touchdown in the history of the Green Bay Packers in the Ice Bowl. Two strokes, a heart attack and a brain-scrambling disease called aphasia can make uttering 23 words like climbing Kilimanjaro. I know. I witnessed it, late last August in Starr’s office south of Birmingham, Ala.

The effort that day said so much about Starr the man. I had come to Birmingham to convey the level of the relationship between Rodgers, 34, and Starr, 84. Though they were a half-century apart in age, they had a bond. When Rodgers took over the Packer QB job in 2008, Starr wrote Rodgers a letter, and Starr kept writing him. Encouraging things. “It meant so much, coming from a man who had been in my shoes with this team,” Rodgers told me a few days later. “I was a big football fan, and big Packer fan. Here was Bart Starr, writing to me. It always meant a lot to me, because I knew I had the support of one of the greatest players of all time.”

Bart Starr died Sunday morning at 85. He was a great player, a Hall of Fame player, quarterbacking the Packers to the NFL championship in 1961, 1962 and 1965, and the larger Super Bowl championship in the 1966 and 1967 seasons. Pretty good for the 200th pick in the NFL draft in 1956, exactly 44 years before Tom Brady was the 199th pick in the draft.

You know what I really wanted to ask Starr that afternoon in Birmingham? You completed 14 of 24 throws in minus-46 wind chill in the Ice Bowl, against that great Dallas defense, with two touchdowns and no interceptions, and a rating over 110. How? How’d you do it? But it wasn’t the place or the time; the memory bank just wasn’t there. But I did want him to know how good he was if no one reminded him about it much anymore—his 104.8 career rating in NFL playoff games has never been surpassed in the last half century by the greatest of the quarterback greats. But he didn’t care.

What he cared about that day was doing something nice for his friend. These 23 words were his Bob Lilly, his big foe.

I, and an NBC crew, had come to Birmingham, and would proceed to Green Bay a few days later to speak to Rodgers, for an NBC story on the warm relationship between the great Green Bay quarterback of the sixties and the great Green Bay quarterback of modern day. Starr and his personal assistant, Leigh Ann Nelson, had written a short note for this story. Starr would tell of his relationship with Rodgers. Nelson knew the message had to be short, because Starr simply didn’t have the ability to say much, at any volume, because of the strokes.

When Starr walked in, steadied by Nelson, he sat down on a couch and I told him how much I appreciated him making this effort.

He stared at me, opened his mouth. “Glad,” he said, and then it took a few seconds, “for Aaron.”

This was for Aaron. Anything for Aaron. Bart and Cherry Starr, his wife of 64 years, loved Aaron Rodgers.

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What’s next for Aaron Rodgers, Mike McCarthy, Matt LaFleur after explosive report

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I think my biggest takeaway from Tyler Dunne’s excellent unpacking of the Packers/Rodgers/McCarthy/Thompson story is this: Mike McCarthy is going to have work hard, and repair his tarnished image significantly in the next nine months, to have a real shot at a head-coaching job in 2020. With the broadsides he’s taken since getting fired by the Packers late last season, McCarthy has a chance to be Brian Billick—a Super Bowl-winning coach damaged so much late in his tenure that he never got a chance to coach another team.

I think there’s a journalism tale in Dunne’s story too. He got significant parties to the story—most notably Ryan Grant, Jermichael Finley and Greg Jennings—to go on the record about a very sensitive topic involving one of the great players in recent history on a storied franchise. A franchise, I should add, that has been excellent at keeping dirty laundry in-house. What Dunne did is penetrate the bubble, and in today’s NFL, with so many filters between the media and the players, that’s an incredibly hard thing to do.

In today’s media, what’s also hard, and what Bleacher Report deserves credit for, is giving a writer four months to work on a story. I talked to Dunne on Friday (he’ll join me on my podcast dropping Wednesday), and he started reporting this story in early December. He talked to more than 50 people for it. Kudos to Dunne, and to his bosses, for realizing what a gold mine the story was, and taking the needed time that so few media entities allow today.

I think Matt LaFleur had to be quaking reading that story. Here’s LaFleur, four years older than Rodgers, never been a head coach, never been in charge of a veteran, star quarterback, and now he’s got to run a team after reading a story that portrays Rodgers as a vindictive, you-better-do-it-my-way guy. LaFleur’s never had to walk in front of a room of 90 guys and command them, which is a daunting enough task. Reading Dunne, LaFleur has got to worry about what kind of partner he’ll have in Rodgers. I hope Packers president Mark Murphy, in the search process, saw enough signs in LaFleur that he’ll be able to handle a quarterback like Rodgers and be able to lead a team.

I think, come to think of it, that Dunne probably just helped Aaron Rodgers prepare to be great again in 2019. Rodgers will understand that many now will view him as a controlling home-wrecker, and he’ll be supremely motivated to show what a team guy, and a winning guy, he is. He’s not going to want to be known as the 800-pound gorilla. He’s going to want to be known as a great leader and winning player. That’s my guess anyway.

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Inside scoop on why Packers, Broncos, Bucs and Cards made coaching hires

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Observations, stories, and some inside stuff on the eight coaching openings that now look filled, with six announced and two more (Brian Flores in Miami, Zac Taylor in Cincinnati) that appear to be done:

Kingsbury’s not apologizing for his past. New Arizona coach Kliff Kingsbury, who had a losing record in six seasons at Texas Tech, said “there’s no question defense is an area I have to focus on” after his teams were consistent bottom-feeders in the NCAA on defense. But in hiring former Broncos coach Vance Joseph as his defensive coordinator, Kingsbury will likely have a job situation like Sean McVay with the Rams; McVay allows Wade Phillips to be the de facto head coach of the defense. “The mentorship of Josh Rosen will be extremely important,” Kingsbury said. On his jilting of USC after one month: “That is where I wanted to be. But when this opportunity arose, I took it.” I asked Kingsbury if there’s anything he thinks people should know about him after this stretch of a hire by the Cards. “No, I think I’m good,’’ he said. I get the sense Kingsbury understands why there is widespread skepticism about the hiring of a coach whose teams played exciting football but didn’t win enough, and there’s nothing he can say now to erase that. He’s got to coach Rosen and the offense well, and he’s got to win.

In Tampa, Arians knows the job is to get Jameis Winston to play well. “If Jameis is somewhere between 15 and 20 right now [in performance] among NFL quarterbacks,” GM Jason Licht told me, “is it really absurd to pick up his fifth-year option [at $20.9 million], considering what other quarterbacks make? No.” After being yo-yoed with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Winston will get the same coaching treatment Arians has given Ben Roethlisberger, Andrew Luck and Carson Palmer in recent years. He’ll be coached hard. Dirk Koetter tried a version of that. Now Arians gets his turn. “I think we can eliminate some of his mistakes and make him play better,” Arians said. “There’s two things with a quarterback. There has to be trust between the coach and the quarterback. You have to be closer to your quarterback than you are to any of your players, because they mean so much to your team. Two, you’ve got to work with them on fundamentals daily. I call it going to the driving range for 25 to 30 minutes every day. That’s how we’ll work with Jameis.” Arians, by the way, said he didn’t expect to return to coaching; he thought he was finished after last year in Arizona. How many times have you heard a coach who walked away say a year later: “I realized how much I missed it?” Ditto Arians.

Elway wanted a traditional coach, and he got it. Not long after arriving at the Broncos practice facility for the first time last Wednesday, late in the day, and before even getting a tour of the place, Vic Fangio went up to his new office, put on Bronco sweats, and started watching tape of his team. That’s who—and what—the Broncos hired. He didn’t politic for the job (“I didn’t ask one person to reach out to John Elway for me,” he said), or for any job over the years; he first was interviewed for a head-coaching job by GM Bobby Beathard in San Diego … in 1997. It’s also amazing to think that Fangio first was a defensive coordinator with the expansion Carolina Panthers in 1995. He reminds me of Arians getting the Cardinals job six years ago—Arians just assumed at his advanced age, he’s never get a shot, and he was bummed by it, but he could live with it. With Elway, Fangio found a guy who was buying what the coach was selling: discipline, unwavering rules for all, and an emphasis on making even the best players better. Fifteen minutes into their interview, Elway said, Fangio’s “death by inches” ethos swayed him. Fangio explained to the Denver media, and then to me. “Death by inches,” he said. “A player is off in the right technique just a little, and you let it go because he’s playing okay. A player’s late for a meeting by 30 seconds. One act. Meaningless. But if you don’t correct it, then two players walk in a minute late the next day. All these things build on each other. It’s death by inches—or, in our business, it’s losses.”

The Packers hope they got a good coach, and a good Aaron Rodgers partner. New coach Matt LaFleur, who has nine years of experience on the staff of Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, spoke to Rodgers as part of his process. “You could hear the passion in his voice,” LaFleur said. “I believe him when he says he wants to be coached, and coached hard.” The year he considers the most significant in his development for this job was 2012 in Washington, when he saw head coach Mike Shanahan and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan build an offense around the non-traditional skills of Robert Griffin III, and the team went to the playoffs. “That year taught me more about coaching than any other,” he said. “You find out what your players do well, and then you adapt your system to them.” That’s going to be vital in Green Bay, where Mike McCarthy’s system stalled while new offensive coaches around the league became mad scheming scientists. LaFleur is going to have to challenge Rodgers with new play designs, and he’s going to have to do it not only to keep a great quarterback interested. It’s why he was hired, regardless of the quarterback’s resume.

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