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What If Chasing Rivals Keeps Aaron Rodgers In Green Bay? We Made A Metric For That.

Aaron Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks of the past 20 years, he’s a future Hall of Famer … and it looked for a while like he might not play in 2021. Although recent reports indicate he’ll be suiting up for the Green Bay Packers this season, it’s been a struggle to reach an agreement. Why? As a refresher, let’s recap the litany of reasons Rodgers is reportedly galled at Green Bay:

  • In 2018, the Packers fired quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, a coach Rodgers was close with personally, without consulting Rodgers.
  • After drafting Rodgers in 2005, the Packers had spent only a single first-round pick on offense (offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga, 2010), until last year — when they traded up and selected Jordan Love, another quarterback.
  • During training camp in 2020, Rodgers went on Sirius XM and called wide receiver Jake Kumerow “a fantastic, steady player, who’s very heady on the field.” “He makes plays,” Rodgers said, “and he’s a guy who you love having on the squad.” Less than 48 hours later, the Packers cut Kumerow.
  • Longtime Green Bay center Corey Linsley was Rodgers’s teammate and friend for seven years. This offseason, the Packers allowed him to walk. Linsley was a prized free agent, signing a contract with the Chargers that made him the second-highest-paid center in the NFL.

Faced with a mess at the most important position in football, Green Bay doesn’t have many options. More money isn’t likely to do the trick. Green Bay reportedly offered Rodgers an extension this offseason that he quickly turned down. Rodgers is already wealthy and has prospects outside of football — like hosting “Jeopardy!” — that can occupy his mind and burnish his ego. Rodgers reportedly wants GM Brian Gutekunst fired, but it seems unlikely that the GM of a publicly owned franchise would fire himself. So beyond a complete renovation of the Packers’ front office, there’s really only a few factors that might entice Rodgers to report to camp willingly. 

One might be a trade of some sort that affirms Green Bay’s commitment to trying to win now, perhaps with key input from the star QB himself. But as the season gets ever closer, that seems increasingly unlikely. Extending Rodgers’s favorite receiver to a long-term deal might have helped, but news came out Friday that Green Bay and Davante Adams broke off negotiations.

The other factor may be Rodgers’s, um, competitive spirit. Rodgers has a famously mercurial personality, and personal vendettas seem to motivate him. Could those vendettas include overtaking some of his rivals in certain statistical categories? 

We think so. Improving on some of his impressive career marks may provide him just the right motivation to return.

But which of his statistical records should he focus on improving for maximum motivation? To figure out which might fire him up the most, we calculated a metric we call PETTY: the Personal Enmity Toward These Yahoos index. It takes the likelihood of Rodgers improving his ranking in a statistic enough to overtake a longtime rival and combines it with an arbitrarily assigned psychic benefit on a scale of 1 to 3.1

To calculate the likelihood, we assume that if he plays this season, he will continue to play through his age-41 campaign — or four more years. We used his career seasonal averages since he became a starter and discounted his final year to account for the typical QB aging curve we see in elite, long-tenured QBs.

Could trumping Favre bring Rodgers back?

Passing categories for Aaron Rodgers by PETTY Index score, with his regular-season stats through 2020 vs. stats for a rival ranked above him

Rodgers competitior
Stat value RK player value PETTY
Passing TDs 412 7 B. Favre 508 85
TD % 6.3% 7 P. Mahomes 6.8% 75
Completion % 65.1% 12 P. Manning 65.3% 69
Passing yards 51,245 11 B. Favre 71,838 40
YPA 7.8 10 P. Mahomes 8.4 20
AY/A 8.42 3 P. Mahomes 9.1 15
ANY/A 7.42 2 P. Mahomes 8.49 10
Passer rating 103.9 3 P. Mahomes 108.7 10
Game-winning drives 25 T-28 B. Favre 43 5
4th-qtr. comebacks 17 T-48 B. Favre 28 5
Interception % 1.4% 1 None 0

The Personal Enmity Toward These Yahoos index takes the likelihood of Rodgers improving his ranking in a statistic enough to overtake a longtime rival and combines it with the psychic benefit we assume would come.

AY/A is adjusted yards per pass attempt and ANY/A is adjusted net yards per attempt.

Source: Pro-football-reference.com

According to PETTY, most of the incentives for Rodgers revolve around his uncanny ability to throw lots of touchdowns. He’s seventh in NFL history in both total touchdown passes and TD rate. Rodgers is also No. 1 in NFL history in interception rate, throwing a pick on just 1.4 percent of his pass attempts. But since he’s already first, playing more seasons and potentially throwing more interceptions will only endanger his place at the top of those rankings, so it earns a PETTY index score of 0.

Because of his high touchdown totals and low interception rate, Rodgers shows well in adjusted yards per pass attempt (AY/A) and adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A), both of which reward touchdowns and punish interceptions. It’s likely that Rodgers would be happy to end his career at the top of these lists, but there’s a small problem: Just last year, Patrick Mahomes passed the minimum thresholds for inclusion on both lists, and he instantly claimed the top spot. Rodgers and Mahomes have never faced off against one another (though the Packers and Chiefs are slated to face off in Week 9 of this season), and it’s unlikely an aging Rodgers will outperform Mahomes in his prime, so the PETTY index for these stats is also low.

Rodgers does have one high PETTY score against Mahomes: TD rate. It’s mostly driven by how small the statistical difference is between the players, rather than some deep-seated rivalry. Just half a percentage point separates the two. Another strong 8 or 9 percent TD rate year for Rodgers (like 2020) coupled with four merely normal years for Mahomes (TD rates around 6-7 percent), and Rodgers could pass the Kansas City phenom before Rodgers retires.

But the highest PETTY score and biggest potential statistical motivator for Rodgers involves a former teammate: Brett Favre — a man Rodgers sat behind for the first three years of his career and who infamously offered the young QB little help or mentorship. To pass Favre on the all-time TD list, all Rodgers needs to do is stay relatively healthy for the next four years.2Based on his career average of 31.6 TDs per season as a starter, and Favre’s lead of 96, Rodgers would need to slightly outperform his historical norms to pass Favre in three years. Rodgers just set a career high in touchdowns in 2020 under his current coach and offensive system.3 Overtaking Favre would allow Rodgers to claim the title of most TD passes by a Green Bay QB and secure the fourth slot on the all-time list.

Perhaps more importantly, Rodgers would have a credible case as the greatest Packer QB of all time. That would be quite a flex for a guy the world watched drop to the end of the first round on draft day and who was then forced to sit for three years behind an insecure superstar who belittled and disrespected him when he wasn’t ignoring him. 

Rodgers’s return seems to hinge on the question of which set of enemies motivates him more. The current Packer management will most likely come and go quietly — at best it will be remembered for averting disaster by mending a broken relationship with one of the league’s greatest QBs. But Favre is another story. For Rodgers, passing his early career rival in the record books and becoming a Packer legend seems like a more compelling provocation — and could get Rodgers back under center in 2021.

Footnotes

  1. To calculate the benefit, I asked myself how much satisfaction I would feel if I defeated the worst person I know in a battle of skill and wits. I pictured their face and their beady little eyes. I reflected on their lack of a coherent set of morals, and reminded myself of their terrible critical reasoning skills. For Rodgers rivals that I felt belonged in this category, I scored them a 3. Next I imagined a person who I respected but often disagreed with. A worthy nemesis, like Tom Brady and Drew Brees. I imagined them grudgingly admitting defeat, shoulders slumped in resignation. I scored these a 2. Everyone else earned a score of 1.

Josh Hermsmeyer is a football writer and analyst.

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