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Football Outsiders on ‘striking’ recent change in Aaron Rodgers’ game

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During Aaron Rodgers’ statistical peak, he led the NFL in yards per attempt by a sizable margin. Since 2015, he falls slightly below the league average. Football Outsiders discusses this regression and what could reverse it.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Carolina Panthers Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Though much has changed about the Green Bay Packers over the past decade, Aaron Rodgers has remained a constant throughout. Rodgers first became the team’s starting quarterback in 2008 following the much-publicized and controversial departure of franchise great Brett Favre, becoming an icon in his own right as he earned MVP awards and a Super Bowl ring.

But while Rodgers ranks as one of the NFL’s best players at any position, his game has undergone significant change during his tenure as Green Bay’s signal-caller. We asked Football Outsiders, who recently released their 2018 NFL almanac, what they see as the most significant change in Rodgers since his early days as a starter.

APC: Based on Football Outsiders’ research, what have been the most significant changes in Aaron Rodgers’ game between his first few seasons as a starter and more recent years?

We have a table in the Green Bay chapter that compares Peak Aaron Rodgers (2009-2014) to Recent Aaron Rodgers (2015-2017), and it’s probably one of the most striking tables in the whole book. Yards per pass attempt (YPA) is a stat that Rodgers has historically dominated in his career. At his peak, his YPA was 8.41, a mark that’s higher than anyone born after World War II. But since 2015, his YPA is just 6.99, which ranks 25th in that time and is below the league average (7.24). It hasn’t stopped Rodgers from throwing touchdowns at the highest rate since 2015, but there’s never been a quarterback to do that well in touchdowns and so poorly in YPA in a three-year period since the 1980s.

These are comparisons of Rodgers in YPA between his peak and recent years. On first downs, he was at 8.30 and is down to 6.53 since 2015. Only three quarterbacks are lower than Rodgers on first down since 2015, and it’s the company you would never want to see with him (Joe Flacco, DeShone Kizer, and Brock Osweiler). In the first quarter of games, Rodgers’ YPA has gone from 8.81 (best in the league) to 6.71 (31st since 2015). This is part of the reason why we see the Packers fall behind so often now when they used to dominate games from the start.

A huge part of this is the decline of the play-action pass in this offense. Rodgers’ peak YPA on play-action was 10.80, an incredible, league-high number. But in recent years, that play-action YPA has fallen to 6.41, which ranks 40th in the NFL. The play-action passing game is broken in Green Bay. This offense also doesn’t handle quick pressure well. Rodgers’ YPA against the blitz has fallen from 8.58 (second in the NFL) to 6.76 (ranked 29th). He’s also had his three highest pressure rates since 2015, so the protection hasn’t been as good, forcing him to hold the ball more and try to create backyard football too often.

Does bringing offensive coordinator Joe Philbin back and adding Jimmy Graham do enough to change the recent years to start looking more like the peak? I’m skeptical, but anything that can get Rodgers looking more like the peak years would be huge for this team. There’s also the possibility that, going on 35 years old and twice with a broken collarbone, we’ve already passed the peak of Rodgers’ career.

Though the numbers seem shocking at first, they mesh with how the Packers offense has performed from 2015 to present. The long completions remain a part of the passing attack, but they don’t occur with the same frequency as in the past.

The changes in the receiving corps can account for at least part of that change. In 2011, the Packers had arguably more vertical threats than any other team in the league, a group headlined by Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson. By 2015, Jennings had long departed Green Bay while Nelson suffered a season-ending ACL tear. The remaining wideouts simply couldn’t fully replicate the vertical element peak Jennings and Nelson provided.

Looking at Rodgers’ current receivers, there doesn’t appear to be many established vertical threats. Davante Adams can take a top of the defense on occasion, but he does most of his damage on breaking routes at more intermediate distances. Randall Cobb has lost a step from his 2014 peak. The Packers’ rookie wideouts offer more speed, but it could take multiple seasons before J’Mon Moore, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, or Equanimeous St. Brown become reliable weapons. Those factors could make it difficult for Rodgers to regain his pre-2014 passing efficiency.

Still, the Packers’ offensive scheme must shoulder some of the blame. In recent years, Rodgers has thrown more quick passes at shorter route depths. While that strategy has reduced the pressure on the offensive line, it has also cut into the team’s passing efficiency.

Meanwhile, the drop-off in play action efficiency too has cut into Rodgers’ numbers. Misdirection has become the order of the day in the NFL, with the Philadelphia Eagles using play action, run-pass options, and other related tactics to become a dominant offensive force. The Packers and Rodgers need to do a far better job of deploying misdirection moving forward. If they do, the two-time MVP should see a noticeable spike in passing efficiency.

As Football Outsiders points out, Joe Philbin’s return could help the Packers reclaim some of the lost vertical element. The team has spent much of the offseason promoting its “scrubbed” playbook, and perhaps that will create more deep-strike opportunities. Still, Rodgers will have to make adjustments to his game to help push the Packers’ passing attack to the next level.