GREEN BAY — Frank Cignetti Jr. had to have known what he was signing up for. The veteran NFL assistant coach probably didn’t need public confirmation in the form of a Super Bowl week radio interview, that’s for sure.
When Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy tabbed Cignetti to be the Packers’ new quarterbacks coach — replacing Alex Van Pelt, who let his contract run out and was not brought back — Cignetti surely went into his new gig aware star quarterback Aaron Rodgers would be less than thrilled with the change. Van Pelt had become the two-time NFL MVP’s closest confidante on the coaching staff, so it was safe to assume Rodgers wasn’t going to be happy about losing him.
Then came Super Bowl week, when Rodgers appeared on ESPN Radio’s “Golic & Wingo” and publicly expressed his frustration over Van Pelt’s departure, calling it “an interesting change — really without consulting me. There’s a close connection between quarterback and quarterback coach. And that was an … interesting decision.”
When McCarthy introduced the new coaches a few weeks ago, Cignetti, 52, expressed confidence he’d hit it off with Rodgers once the two started working together in earnest at the team’s offseason program, which kicks off in mid-April.
“I love to coach,” Cignetti said. “And I believe part of being a successful coach is building trust and relationships.”
It’s Cignetti’s relationship with McCarthy that brought him to Green Bay. Cignetti and McCarthy first crossed paths in 1989, when they were graduate assistants together at the University of Pittsburgh. They reconnected in New Orleans, where Cignetti was the quarterbacks coach in 2000 and 2001 under McCarthy, who was the Saints’ offensive coordinator. Cignetti spent the past two seasons as the New York Giants’ quarterbacks coach under coach Ben McAdoo, another McCarthy protege who was Rodgers’ quarterbacks coach in 2012 and 2013 in Green Bay.
Asked if he thought it’d be a challenge to coach Rodgers without having a preexisting relationship with him, Cignetti replied, “I don’t think it’s difficult at all. Because one, coaching’s teaching. And getting in that quarterback classroom, you build a relationship. And you understand that, ‘Hey, we’re an extension of each other.’ And it’s so exciting to go out on that field whether it’s the practice field or game field and see these guys execute and make plays. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Coincidentally, when McCarthy promoted McAdoo from tight ends coach to quarterbacks coach in 2012, Rodgers wasn’t pleased, either. At the time — in the wake of an offensive staff reorganization triggered by offensive coordinator Joe Philbin getting the Miami Dolphins’ head-coaching job — Rodgers made it clear he wanted a position coach who’d played quarterback in the NFL.
Shortly thereafter, McCarthy hired someone who fit those qualifications: Van Pelt, who spent 11 seasons in the NFL as a player, mostly as a backup quarterback. Except he hired Van Pelt to coach running backs, not quarterbacks. Only when McAdoo left after the 2014 to become the Giants’ offensive coordinator did Van Pelt start coaching Rodgers and the quarterbacks.
McAdoo was well aware of Rodgers’ displeasure with his promotion, and instead of begrudging him, McAdoo simply went to work.
“I’m going to go about it the way I go about everything else — I’m going to show up, put in an honest, hard day’s work, give him the information he needs and count on him to give me back some information (and) communicate with me. And that’s how we’re going to do it. It’s going to be simple,” McAdoo explained in an interview later that offseason. “Like you learn from Day 1 in any business, you have to communicate. And if there’s not communication, there’s no chance to be successful and build a successful relationship.
“I understood where he was coming from. I’m not defensive about that,” McAdoo said shortly after his promotion to quarterbacks coach. “I didn’t play the position, I’ve never coached the position. I have something to prove. I’m very capable. I’ve never been the pretty girl in the room. I’ve always had to work for what I have. And I like that.”
Cignetti is the fifth quarterbacks coach Rodgers has had since entering the league in 2005, joining Darrell Bevell (2005, under previous coach Mike Sherman); Tom Clements (2006-‘11); McAdoo (2012-’13) and Van Pelt (2014-’17). Of the five, only Van Pelt played quarterback in the NFL, with Clements (CFL) and Bevell (University of Wisconsin) having played the position but never in the NFL.
For his part, Cignetti said last month that he hadn’t asked McAdoo for any pointers on how to cultivate a relationship with Rodgers. Maybe he should. Because when McAdoo left for the Giants in January 2014, Rodgers did something he rarely has to do: He admitted he was wrong.
“When there was an opening as Joe left and Tom (Clements) moved up, I said I thought having a guy who played the position was right for me at that point,’” Rodgers recounted on his weekly radio show on ESPNWisconsin at the time. “But I told Ben this: ‘Ultimately, I need and have always needed a guy who gets me prepared every week, that can give me the opportunities to reach my potential.’
“Ben did that every day the last two seasons for me and the other quarterbacks in the room. It was fun to see his personality continue to come out as we became closer and he just allowed himself to relax and be comfortable in those rooms. It helped having a great quarterback room with Seneca (Wallace) and Scott (Tolzien) and Matt (Flynn). It was a lot of fun for me and a lot of fun for us, as well.”
Asked what changed about their relationship, Rodgers replied, “Just spending time together. You can’t help but respect Ben the more time you spend with him because he really cares about his job. He spends a lot of time there. He puts a lot of effort into our reminder stuff. He listens when you talk. He asks good questions. He understands the nature of certain conversations that need to stay in the room (and) which need to be filtered up the chain of command. He tried to become a better quarterbacks coach every day. And he did.
“He proved it every day that he was a very prepared coach.”