GREEN BAY – Aaron Rodgers seems to be a pretty good judge of character and talent. And he’s not bad at predicting coaching success, either.
The Green Bay Packers quarterback had long insisted that Joe Philbin, his former offensive coordinator, was head-coaching material, and given the start Philbin’s Miami Dolphins are off to in his debut season, the early returns are encouraging on Rodgers’ prediction.
So when Rodgers recently said on his weekly radio show on 540 ESPN and ESPNWisconsin.com that Packers tight ends coach Jerry Fontenot possessed similar potential, it was noteworthy.
“Jerry Fontonot is head-coach material,” Rodgers said matter-of-factly on the Oct. 23 show. “I always enjoy spending time with Jerry and talking to him. I get a chance to talk to him on Fridays as I’m putting together some stuff and on the third floor for a few hours with those (assistant coaches). I just really appreciate his football mind.
“He’s coached a few different positions now; this is his third position group in three years. He really understands the game and played for a long time in the league at a high level and you have to give him credit for that. I think the thing that you appreciate about him is that he’s really direct in his teaching. He doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s doesn’t scream and yell in your face, he understands as a player what the best approach is to get the most out of his players.”
Rodgers paused, then laughed.
“He’s also one of the coolest cats on the team,” Rodgers said. “He’s Mr. Smooth – he’s Mr. two buttons down on the collared shirt and semi-tight jeans. But I definitely think Jerry is head-coach material.”
If that happens someday, Fontenot would be the latest in a recent line of tight ends coaches to climb the coaching ladder. The Packers have only had seven tight ends-only coaches in their history (Virgil Knight in 1988 was the first, under Lindy Infante), and four of Fontenot’s five predecessors have gone on to become head coaches: Andy Reid (Philadelphia Eagles), Mike Sherman (Packers, Texas A&M), Jeff Jagodzinski (Boston College) and Philbin. Fontenot took over for Ben McAdoo, who moved to quarterbacks coach during the offseason.
Told of Rodgers’ comments, Fontenot replied: “That’s very complimentary of Aaron. Is (being a head coach) on my to do list? It’s always a hope, and a lot of things would have to happen in order for that to come around someday. I do this because I love it. I love giving back to the guys what was given to me by my coaches, and if I can have that kind of effect on those guys, that’s the most important thing. If anything else comes from that career wise, then I would certainly look at it and explore it. For me to say that’s my ultimate goal, I’m happy doing what I’m doing. And that’s the most important thing to me right now.”
A third-round pick out of Texas A&M by the Chicago Bears in 1989, Fontenot played 16 NFL seasons with the Bears (1989-1996), New Orleans Saints (1997-2003) and Cincinnati Bengals (2004). He played for one of the best-known head coaches in all of sport in Chicago's Mike Ditka, but in 2000, the Saints hired a young offensive coordinator by the name of Mike McCarthy, and that's when the coaching seed was planted.
When McCarthy was hired as Packers head coach in 2006, he brought the recently retired Fontenot in as a coaching intern for training camp, and McCarthy asked him to stay on for the remainder of the season to assist with the offensive line. McCarthy elevated him to full-time status as assistant offensive line coach in January 2007; promoted him to running backs in February 2011 after the departure of wide receivers coach Jimmy Robinson forced a staff reshuffle; and then named him tight ends coach in February 2012 after Philbin left to coach the Dolphins.
If Fontenot does want to advance in the coaching business, moving from the line to running backs to tight ends won’t hurt his global understanding of coaching offense, that’s for sure.
“I think it certainly lends itself to that opportunity, being able to deal with different groups around the field and understanding how each part fits together — having played offensive line, coached running backs and now coaching tight ends,” Fontenot said. “It’s definitely an asset to have all that coaching.”
After retiring as a player, Fontenot faced some of the same struggles every ex-player does. He had a hard time figuring out what to do with himself, much to the chagrin of his wife Stephanie.
“(She) kicked me out of the house. No, she’s wonderful. (But) she did kick me out of the house. She got tired of having me hanging around,” Fontenot said. “I actually tried my hand at some commentating and tried out for a color spot for FOX Sports when they were taking over the BCS series. Then I did some stuff for ESPN and WGN in Chicago. That was fun, and it had its challenges. I just had some competitive juices that were still flowing at the time, and I wanted to get back into the game. So I did that long enough to figure out that I wanted to get back into the game. It just so happened that fortunately Mike got the job here.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on 540 ESPN on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.