Eleven months ago, Aaron Rodgers looked like the best player in football. He’s been regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL for so long that only a sustained period of below-average play could make us ask, What’s wrong with Aaron Rodgers?
Since the start of the 2015 season, Rodgers has 34 touchdowns and just nine interceptions in 18 games. Even for Rodgers — who has been otherworldly when it comes to touchdowns and interceptions — that’s still very good. From 2008, Rodgers’s first year as a starter, to 2014, he averaged 39 touchdowns and 10 interceptions per 18 games.
So if you look at only touchdowns and interceptions, Rodgers has looked a lot like, well, Aaron Rodgers. But to anyone who has watched the Packers of late, that’s obviously not the case, as Danny Kelly of The Ringer wrote this week. That’s because touchdowns and interceptions are just about the only categories in which Rodgers still looks like, well, Aaron Rodgers.
From 2008 to 2014, Rodgers averaged 7.34 yards per dropback,1 according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. Rodgers’s rate was the second-best during that time period and just 0.01 yards per dropback behind Peyton Manning’s. That sort of dominant play earned Rodgers two MVP awards and helped the Packers win a Super Bowl.
Recently, things haven’t gone quite so well. Rodgers has averaged 5.79 yards per dropback since the start of 2015. Since November of last year, the Packers are just 5-7. And Rodgers is in the middle of a cold spell prolonged enough to prompt his coach to chip in with a vote of confidence — never a great sign. But what’s to blame for the decline — a change in scheme? Rodgers’s skills? The steady physical destruction of his most trusted receivers? That’s tough to untangle, but we can give it a try.
|YEAR||RANK||YARDS / DROPBACK|
Before this stretch, Rodgers had been consistently excellent at gaining yards per dropback, ranking as one of the top three quarterbacks in that stat four times between 2008 and 2014. But as this table shows, Rodgers has suffered a precipitous decline since then.
The chart below shows Rodgers’s average yards per dropback in each regular-season game since 2008, along with a trailing eight-game trendline:
So what has caused Rodgers’s numbers to decline so steeply? The two biggest components of yards per dropback are completion percentage and yards per completion, and Rodgers has seen massive declines in both metrics. His completion percentage has dropped from 65.9 percent (from 2008 to 2014) to 60.3 percent since the start of the 2015 season, and his yards per completion has gone from 12.5 to 10.9 over that same period.
Those statistics can be murky when they don’t take into account what type of receiver the quarterback is throwing to. Rodgers has actually been better since the start of 2015 on throws to his running backs. While data from ESPN’s Stats & Info shows that his completion percentage dropped slightly (78.6 percent from 2008 to 2014; 76.0 percent since), his yards per completion has jumped from 7.8 to 9.3. Eddie Lacy and James Starks have been very productive over the past two years, so don’t blame them for Rodgers’s decline. On the other hand, the tight end position does bear some of the blame. From 2008 to 2014, Rodgers’s average pass to tight ends gained 7.8 yards; that figure has since dropped to 6.7. Losing Jermichael Finley seems to have hurt the Packers’ passing game, although the offense was just fine without him in 2014.
The unit most responsible for Rodgers’s decline, however, appears to be the wide-receiving corps. From 2008 to 2014, Rodgers completed 66.5 percent of his passes to wide receivers and averaged 14.2 yards per completion. Since then, he’s completed 57.8 percent of such passes and is averaging 12.0 yards per completion. In other words, his throws are being completed significantly less often, and when they are completed, they aren’t gaining as many yards.
This isn’t because of a change in the types of throws Rodgers is making. Other than the very shortest passes, his decline has come across the board. The table below shows Rodgers’s completion percentage and yards per completion to his wide receivers based on the length of the throw, both from 2008 to 2014 and since the start of the 2015 season. Rodgers’s completion percentage has fallen over most distances and plummeted on throws that range from 11 to 20 yards, from 58.1 percent to 44.2 percent; his yards per completion has fallen regardless of the length of throw.
|COMPLETIONS||YARDS / COMPLETION|
Assigning responsibility for the passing game’s struggles between Rodgers and the Green Bay wide receivers isn’t easy, but it’s pretty clear that Rodgers shouldn’t bear sole responsibility. Jordy Nelson caught 69.3 percent of his targets before 2015, with an average gain of 15.4 yards; he missed all of last season with a torn ACL, and the Packers’ offense hasn’t been the same since. Davante Adams, selected in the second round of the 2014 draft, replaced Nelson in name only: Since the beginning of the 2015 season, he has caught just 53.8 percent of passes thrown his way, according to Stats & Info, and he’s averaging just 10.0 yards on those completions. To put those terrible numbers in perspective: Rodgers averaged 10.8 yards per pass attempt on passes to Nelson before 2015. Among the 52 players with at least 100 targets since the start of the 2015 season, Adams ranks 51st in yards per target.
Randall Cobb has seen his numbers fall, too. Through 2014, he caught 75.2 percent of passes from Rodgers and gained 13.5 yards per catch. Since then? Passes from Rodgers to Cobb have connected only 63.4 percent of the time and for only 10.3 yards per catch. Cobb used to be one of the most dynamic players in the league, but since Nelson’s injury, he’s been both less explosive and less consistent. And the return of Nelson this season hasn’t helped the Packers’ passing attack yet: Through two games this year, he’s caught only 55.0 percent of his 20 targets for a tiny 9.5 yards per catch.
Last season, just about the only time that Rodgers looked like the old Rodgers was when he was throwing to James Jones, particularly in the first six games. During that stretch, Jones was incredible, catching 21 of 29 targets (72.4 percent) for 424 yards (20.2 yards per completion) and six touchdowns. But that wore off: He caught just 41.4 percent of his targets the rest of the season. And passes by Rodgers to just about every wide receiver and tight end in the Green Bay offense have been less effective than they used to be.
There will never be a clear answer to what’s causing the problem: Are Rodgers’s best days behind him? Have defenses figured out Green Bay’s offense? Are the receivers just that much worse? Has the play-calling or offensive line been a hidden culprit? When a passing attack goes from the best in football to the worst in football, as measured by yards gained per pass, there is no shortage of blame to go around. But it’s clear that the problems in the Packers’ passing offense are not just deep, but widespread: Rodgers is completing a much lower percentage of his passes and those passes are going for significantly fewer yards.