An Aaron Rodgers smile usually means game over. The Los Angeles Rams were reminded of that when the NFL’s newly-crowned MVP buried them for good in last month’s Divisional Round matchup.
With seven minutes to play, there was a smirk of inevitability on the face of the Packers quarterback as he crouched to take the snap before retreating five steps and floating a back-foot dime into the path of wide receiver Allen Lazard, whose eventual 58-yard touchdown would prove the decider in Green Bay’s 32-18 win.
The 37-year-old led the league with 48 touchdowns, a 70.7 percent completion rate and a 121.5 passer rating, his nonchalance and unflappable nature both on and off the field serving as familiar supplements to the exquisite arm talent.
For running back AJ Dillon, Rodgers’ ability to flick the switch between laid back observer and cold-blooded killer became an experience to behold in his rookie year.
“Unbelievable, man, he is a different breed,” Dillon told Sky Sports. “My words won’t even begin to describe it. Obviously you see him on TV and in the games what he does, but this man shows up day in and day out whether it’s cold, wet, hot and goes out and performs, and he’s always locked in.
“He’s the type of guy who can sit there and laugh with you and then throw the best ball you’ve ever seen whereas somebody else is joking and they can’t focus. So you talk about professionalism, you talk about somebody handling their business the right way, that’s what he does.”
Dillon grew up an admirer of former New York Yankees shortstop Alex Rodriguez, collecting Panini Trading Cards of the 14-time MLB All-Star. He now finds himself taking inspiration from another A-Rod.
As is the trend for so many making the transition from college to the NFL, Dillon went from being THE man to being the protege again overnight.
The Packers back left Boston College with all-time school records in rushing yards (4,382), career rushing touchdowns (38), total touchdowns (40) and all-purpose yards (4,618) before landing in Green Bay as the 62nd overall pick at the 2020 NFL Draft and backup to Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams.
An unhurried introduction shared parallels with that of his college career, during which his breakout game arrived in Week Seven of the 2017 campaign when Dillon erupted for 272 yards rushing and four touchdowns from 39 carries in a 45-42 win over Louisville.
In a similar pattern, he announced himself in Week 10 of the NFL’s regular season with 124 rushing yards for two scores off 21 carries to surmount rushing champion Derrick Henry in a 40-14 win over the Tennessee Titans, having managed just 115 yards from 24 touches through the opening nine games.
“I don’t think I’d had a game where I had more than five carries the whole season up until that point and then I had 21 carries, I got my first two touchdowns, my first Lambeau leap, kinda, but that was a big confidence booster,” added Dillon while representing Panini.
“Obviously it didn’t exactly work out like college, I didn’t start the next game but that kind of built a lot of momentum for me going into the playoffs and now going into next year and I feel like the coaches know what I can do.
“It’s hard to tell sometimes in practice, there’s only so many reps. But big-time game, big-time moment, big-time players have got to make big-time plays, so I’m happy I did.”
An expanded role out of the backfield potentially awaits for Dillon in 2021 amid uncertainty over the future of running back colleagues Jones and Williams, both of whom are due to become free agents.
Jones led the team with 1,104 yards rushing for nine touchdowns from 201 attempts last season, followed by Williams’ 505 yards for two scores off 119 carries.
Rarely did the trio feature together until the postseason arrived, at which point head coach Matt LaFleur complemented Rodgers with a three-pronged rushing attack that wore down the Rams’ No 1-ranked defense.
“I learned a lot from them,” continued Dillon. “They’ve helped me out so much, there’s no animosity or anything between us, we all look out for each other and I feel like they taught me how to be a leader more so.
“Obviously I was a leader at BC but it can be hard to be a leader when you are not the man and so to watch those guys, they’re both going into free agency this year and they’ve been around each other for four years, we’re always competing but not competing in the sense that we don’t want each other to succeed.
“To be able to watch them do that and be the superstars they are has taught me a lot about looking out for your brothers and encouraging them.”
Between them, Jones and Williams also contributed 78 catches for 591 yards receiving and three touchdowns as significant factors in the Packers’ passing game.
While Dillon’s reputation coming out of college had primarily centered around his threat as a power back, the 22-year-old did flash signs of his talent as a pass-catcher with 13 receptions for 195 yards and a touchdown in his junior year. Given how the Packers offense operates, it’s an area of his game he has continued to address since.
“Going into the season after I got drafted, I got a lot of opportunities to work out with Jordan Love the first-round pick, we’re in the same agency so we started to have a better connection and that definitely prepared me,” he said.
“Then obviously when I got there, I think of myself as RB1 in any situation so I want to make sure everybody knows what I can do, whether it’s pass game, blocking, run the ball and I feel like when I have the opportunities to show that this year I did.”
Rookie AJ Dillon scores his first NFL touchdown! #GoPackGo
📺: #TENvsGB on NBC
📱: NFL app // Yahoo Sports app: https://t.co/iW14QNTbk4 pic.twitter.com/4nzvBys49N
The patience required through the opening weeks followed by the responsibility of carrying the bulk of the workload against the Titans provided Dillon with an insight into the importance of staying ready, both physically and mentally.
It’s a lesson that remains prominent as he enters the offseason in view of asserting himself as a primary option.
“Just being a pro, preparation, taking care of your body,” said Dillon on his biggest takeaways as a rookie. “How to approach every day because in the NFL people sometimes go down, people need to get called up, people step up so you never know when your number is going to be called.
“You might be thrust into a bigger role or even demoted to a lesser role but you need to be able to do your job so just always preparing like I’m going to be doing everything.”
For the second straight season, the Packers’ playoff run came to an end in the NFC Championship Game when they were beaten by the eventual Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
But in his first real experience of NFL heartbreak, Dillon found himself able to take optimism from the undamaged locker room harmony and the offer of support from veteran players to their young teammates.
“Everybody was pretty disappointed to get that far and not be able to get it done, but you can’t take away all the success that we did have and the records people broke and other achievements,” said Dillon.
“Obviously it’s tough to think about the positives in a time like that but overall the big message was ‘it’s OK to feel a little hurt’, the love in the locker room, we really have a family unit in there, that’s something I can definitely say so it was kind of like, ‘stay together and if you need anything, you can reach out to anybody’.”
They’ll be back, perhaps with Dillon as a starring component.
Stay across Sky Sports NFL’s digital and social channels for all the latest offseason news and views as we build up to free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft.
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