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 head 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 that 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 that Rodgers wasn’t going to be happy about losing him.
Then came Super Bowl week, when Rodgers appeared on a radio show 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 that 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 head coach Ben McAdoo, another McCarthy protégé 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 that he wanted a position coach who’d played quarterback in the NFL.
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 said. “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. 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.”
Oddly enough, Cignetti is the fifth quarterbacks coach Rodgers has had since entering the league in 2005, joining Darrell Bevell (2005, under previous head 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 (college at the 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 said. “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.’”