Ask most NFL coaches, players or decision makers if Aaron Rodgers is elite, and they’ll probably look at you like you’re either new or slightly inebriated. In the recently revealed NFL Network’s Top 100 Players of 2019, the league’s players ranked Rodgers as the fourth-best QB in the league, behind Drew Brees, Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady, and the eighth-best player overall. Likewise, 53 of 55 coaches and executives polled by The Athletic’s Mike Sando ranked Rodgers as a tier 1 quarterback — results that elevated him over Brady as the most esteemed quarterback in the NFL in the eyes of the league’s decision-makers.
Questioning Rodgers’s ability normally borders on football insanity, but in recent seasons, the statistics of the Packers’ quarterback haven’t exactly matched his outsize reputation. So as Rodgers prepares for his 12th season as the Green Bay starter and his first under a new coach, we dare to ponder the unthinkable: Are we sure Aaron Rodgers is still elite?
There’s no doubting Rodgers’s excellence early in his career. From 2008 — his first year as a starter — to 2014, Rodgers led the Packers to a 70-33 record1 and a Super Bowl win while throwing for 8.3 yards per pass attempt and winning two MVP awards. Over that same period, Rodgers passed for 225 touchdowns, good for a TD rate of 6.6 percent.
Since 2015, however, the Packers have gone a cumulative 30-24-1 with Rodgers under center, and the QB hasn’t been as sharp as he once was. Over the past four years, Rodgers’s yards per passing attempt dropped more than a yard from his previous career average to 7.1,2 and his TD rate fell a percentage point to 5.6 percent. Perhaps more worrying, there are important areas of the field where Rodgers isn’t simply no longer excellent — he’s actually worse than league average.
I looked at all passes charted with a direction that Rodgers has thrown since 2015, as recorded by ESPN Stats & Information Group, and compared his passes with a direction given to the league average in the same area of the field:
Rodgers has particularly fallen short of the rest of the league on intermediate throws. When he threw 11 to 25 yards downfield over the past four seasons, Rodgers completed fewer passes than we’d expect from a league-average QB. Depending on the area of the field, the deviation from expected performance was sometimes alarmingly high. On passes charted as being thrown to the “far left” area of the field between 11 and 20 yards deep, Rodgers completed passes a whopping 17.6 percentage points under expected.
Part of this could be explained by the injury and subsequent decline of Rodgers’s former favorite target, Jordy Nelson, who was an outside threat for most of his career in Green Bay. But Rodgers’s struggles haven’t been limited to outside throws: Since 2015 on throws to the middle-left, middle-right and center of the field, at depths from 11 to 25 yards, Rodgers has a completion percentage 1.4 points under expected.3
What’s notable is that — based on work done by Sarah Mallepalle — the deep middle and intermediate middle areas of the field are among the most efficient places to pass the ball, so Rodgers’s poor performance there is particularly curious.
One possible explanation for the Packer’s underperformance in the middle of the field is the play-action passing game. Play-action fakes are designed to draw linebackers and safeties toward the line of scrimmage to defend the run, leaving the intermediate middle and deep middle areas of the field open. Play-action passes are also among the most efficient types of plays an NFL team can run, so a lack of success on these plays could help explain Rodgers’s recent deficiencies.
When we look at the numbers, it turns out that’s exactly what we find. Since 2015, the Packers rank dead last in the league in yards per dropback on play-action passes. Rodgers started just 55 of those 64 games because of injuries, so it’s only fair to break out his performance separately. But when we look just at games Rodgers started, things don’t get much better. Among quarterbacks in that same span with at least 100 play-action pass attempts, Rodgers ranks last in passing yards per dropback and 32nd out of 41 in Raw QBR, behind the likes of journeymen (Brian Hoyer), much-derided (Derek Carr and Eli Manning) and recently deposed quarterbacks (Blake Bortles and Ryan Tannehill).
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Rodgers and the Packers managed 1.4 yards per dropback less than league average on a play type that is wildly effective for the vast majority of the league. Cincinnati quarterback Andy Dalton — a player no evaluator would claim is Rodgers’s equal on the field — was able to squeeze out 2 yards per dropback more than Rodgers on 71 more play-action passes. When Jacoby Brissett, Trevor Siemian and Brock Osweiler are able to post yards-per-dropback numbers superior to a former Super Bowl winner and league MVP, something unexpectedly terrible has happened.
Many have pointed to the lack of creativeness in former coach Mike McCarthy’s play designs, so perhaps we can put some of the blame there. According to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, Rodgers would routinely change plays he felt were poor calls, and Tyler Dunne of Bleacher Report quoted an unnamed source who claimed that Rodgers audibled to a new play up to a third of the time. The same source claims that those audibles netted very poor results for the Packers. Under new Green Bay head coach Matt LaFleur, early signs are that the incessant audibling will stop. LaFleur said at the NFL combine in February that packaged plays — not audibles — are a staple of the Kyle Shanahan offense he’s bringing to Green Bay.
And perhaps more important to the future success of Rodgers and the Packers is the more aggressive and creative play-action game LaFleur is bringing with him from Tennessee. The Titans averaged 7.3 passing yards per dropback on play-action passes to the Packers’ 6.6 in 2018, and I believe much of the difference between the two teams can be explained by a lack of creativity on the part of the Packers.
Two plays versus the Miami Dolphins from last season help to explain the disparity. In Week 10, the Packers would beat the Dolphins 31-12, but Green Bay gave a glimpse into why their play-action game was so underwhelming in 2018.
The call was a play-action bootleg in which the quarterback fakes a toss to the running back and then turns and rolls out to the opposite side of the field. Despite Rodgers’s strong arm, McCarthy’s play design calls for just two eligible receivers to run routes into the Dolphins secondary, and no routes are run attacking the void created by the two Miami defenders flowing to the line of scrimmage on the far side of the field chasing the fake. Ultimately, Rodgers checks down to tight end Lance Kendricks for a short gain after finding his deep options covered.
Meanwhile a call from Week 1 by LaFleur against that same Miami Dolphins defense offers an interesting contrast. In a game in which the Titans lost 20-27, LaFleur called a play-action boot, but it featured three receivers attacking downfield, including a very sneaky tight end leak route that took advantage of the Dolphins’ over-aggressiveness defending the run. Despite a poor throw by Marcus Mariota, which caused the receiver to stop his route and wait for the pass, the play was good for 30 yards and set Tennessee up with first-and-goal.
For Green Bay fans, it isn’t hard to imagine A-Rod putting enough air under the ball on a similar play call to net the Packers a touchdown. It’s this kind of aggressiveness and creativity that landed LaFleur the Green Bay job this offseason and could help Rodgers return to something close to his early career form.
At 35, Rodgers is on the downslope of his career — which, in fairness, could last five to eight years more based on recent QB longevity. But either way, the Packers need to provide him with every possible edge if they want to win another Super Bowl and avoid the disconcerting reality that sole possession of the highest-rated quarterback in NFL history secured them only one Lombardi Trophy. A revamp of the hyperefficient play-action passing game seems like a terrific place to begin.
CORRECTION (Aug. 15, 2019, 1:10 p.m.): A previous version of this article incorrectly described Aaron Rodgers’s place on the NFL Network’s Top 100 Players of 2019. Rodgers is the fourth-ranked quarterback — behind Drew Brees in addition to Patrick Mahomes and Tom Brady — not the third-ranked QB.