When a player goes into a slump, we, as a society, have gotten pretty good at determining the cause. In baseball, slumps are often just bad luck. For his career, Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun’s career batting average on balls in play (henceforth, BABIP) is .302. In 2018 it seemed like every single scorching liner he hit happened to find a glove, and it showed in his stats, as his BABIP hit a career low .274. For his career, Ryan Braun averages a line drive 18.9% of the time, but last year he vastly exceeded that with a LD% of 23.1%. Line drive percentage usually correlates closely with BABIP, and even though age has gotten to Braun a bit, it’s a near certainty that he was extremely unlucky last season, and should bounce back, at least a bit.
Braun’s flaws are there, but if you watched the Brewers in 2018 the eye test told you that Braun was getting a raw deal. His average exit velocity was 18th best in baseball, just below MVP Christian Yelich. In other words, even though he wasn’t producing, it was pretty clear that Braun was mostly the same old good hitter.*
(*Note: The more nuanced view of Braun is a bit different, as his fly ball rate decreased a bit in an era where most are attempting to elevate the ball more, and shifts are becoming more prevalent. It’s also clear that nagging injuries have taken their toll on the slugger, and he requires regular rest for his thumb. He’s not MVP Braun, but to the extent he struggles, injuries are the clear cause, and when he’s right, he hits as well as ever. Now on to football.)
Now we have Aaron Rodgers, coming off one of his worst seasons, and not having really been an MVP-caliber player since the end of the 2014 season. While his production has dropped off, he has plenty of excuses from stale gameplans to poor wide receivers. It’s possible that this new regime and some new talent will get things ship-shape in no time. Except…
When Braun slumps, he still hits the stuffing out of the ball. Rodgers’ issues seem to run deeper, because it’s hard to argue that Rodgers is getting unlucky. From 2008 to 2014 Rodgers averaged 8.3 Y/A with 225 TDs and 56 INTs. From 2015 onward Rodgers’ Y/A plummeted to 7.1. Furthermore, while he has been more careful with the ball in terms of interceptions, reducing his 1.8% INT% to a frankly ludicrous 1.1%, his completion percentage has dipped from 65.9% to 63.2%. We know he’s not as efficient as he once was, but the big question remains: Is he still hitting the cover off the ball and getting unlucky, or has something underneath fundamentally changed?
The Specific Skill and Its Decline
Rodgers used to play the position is a completely different way than he does now. If you’ve watched him you probably know this, or at least suspect it in your heart of hearts. The fundamental problem is that Rodgers holds the ball forever. In 2011, Rodgers, on average, took 2.76 seconds to pull the trigger and throw the ball, 11th-quickest in football. In 2018, Rodgers took 2.95 seconds, which was 5th-slowest. That raw number likely understates the problems as the Packers did run a high number of inefficient quick throws, but on anything down the field Rodgers took forever to get the ball out.
It’s not just that Rodgers holds the ball longer than he used to, because there could be perfectly fine reasons for doing so. The problem is that he holds the ball longer because he will only throw to receivers he sees open. Anticipation throws were all but gone from the offense, and the extremely high number of “comeback” routes kills the opportunity for yards after the catch. Earlier in his career, he would take his drop, plant, and get the ball out, sometimes even to covered receivers.
He would routinely hit receivers perfectly in stride as they burst through the middle, racking up huge YAC numbers.
One, two, three, throw.
Instead, since the 2015 season where Jordy Nelson went down, we get this, all the time.
This is all perfectly logical, by the way. It is completely true that the Packer receiving corps isn’t anywhere close to as good as it was in 2011, and so trusting them to be open for anticipation throws is riskier. When you hear any modern analysis of Rodgers and his receivers, trust is a big issue, and Rodgers can often be seen excitedly explaining to his receivers why they were wrong. It’s also clear that Rodgers has an extreme distaste for interceptions, and that strategic choice forces him to wait longer to make throws. Logical decisions sometimes have unintended consequences, and I think that these multi-year developments in his game will have lasting negative effects.
Use it or Lose It
Let’s go back to the simple fact that this guy from 2016:
Is playing a different game from this guy in 2010:
Even though the 2016 version of Aaron Rodgers is different for some good and logical reasons, he is also not using a specific skill, and not using that skill routinely is going to seriously degrade that skill. Making a quick read and a quick throw isn’t easy. It’s not a conscious thought process. Aaron Rodgers doesn’t sit back there and think about who he is looking at and whether he is covered, at least not in the way you just read that sentence. At their peaks, good quarterbacks take in all of the information about the play and almost instinctively, based on thousands of reps in practice and in games, know whether a player will be open or not. Rodgers was, many years ago, the best at using this specific skill. He would diagnose a play immediately and make a perfect throw with perfect ball placement. Unfortunately, for this to work, you need confidence in your ability, confidence in your receivers, and a ton of continued practice.
Rodgers hasn’t made regular quick-read throws in years, and because of this, he is very likely to be rusty on these throws. We actually saw some of this on his shorter throws this year, which is one of the reasons he had a career-low completion percentage. And this is dangerous territory for Rodgers because making quick throws is the key to a quarterbacks’ longevity.
Old Player Skills
Certain skill sets age more gracefully than others. In baseball, athletic players who do everything well tend to age gracefully. As their speed declines they can still rely on their power and contact skills to provide some value. There are two types of players who don’t age particularly well. The first type are players who are young, but only have old-player skills to rely on. Prince Fielder is probably the prototypical example, but there is a long list going back to Boog Powell. Fielder was still one of the best players in baseball at 28, but was out of the game by the time he was 33.
The other type of player that does not age well is that “all athlete” profile, and the best recent example is former Brewer center fielder Carlos Gomez. Gomez was incredibly valuable as one of the most athletic players in the league, making spectacular catches in the OF, stealing a ton of bases, and annoying then-Braves’ catcher Brian McCann.*
(*Fun fact! Gomez actually scored on this play without ever touching home plate. It’s probably happened before, but I don’t think it’s happened much.)
Gomez even hits well, and sometimes very well, but his contact skills have always been dicey, and at age 32 coming off of one of his worst seasons, and noticeably slowing, the end is likely in sight. This type of trajectory is what worries me about the current version of Rodgers. He hasn’t really needed to make quick throws because he’s so good at moving in the pocket and buying time, but we saw that agility and speed begin to fade just a bit last season, and with that decline comes some added hits, added injuries, and ineffectiveness. This tendency has already hurt Rodgers, and if he didn’t play behind what is essentially an elite offensive line, things would be even worse. Rodgers is currently incapable of hitting big plays without his mobility. If he doesn’t put serious work into developing an old man’s game, he will simply not age well. He has already not aged particularly well.
Analysts like to compare Rodgers to Tom Brady and Drew Brees when projecting longevity, but Brady and Brees are masters of creating big plays from quick throws. In 2018, both held the ball an average of under 2.61 seconds before throwing (top 5 among qualifiers). Both quarterbacks play the old man’s game as well as it can be played, and Brady especially has feasted on an entire offensive roster constructed to facilitate a quick-strike, YAC-based scheme that keeps him upright and healthy. Rodgers averaged just 7.4 yards per attempt last season despite (or because of) holding onto the ball forever, and that was his highest mark in five years. Brees averaged 8.2 Y/A with his quick strike execution. Brady averaged 7.8.
Rodgers’ current game developed naturally, in response to changing circumstances with the team, including the loss of Nelson, the presence of a truly great line, and a distaste for risky throws. It has also instilled terrible habits that result in more frequent hits and a style that simply doesn’t age well. If the new regime can coach up his old man skills that will help the current and future Packers immensely, but it won’t be easy. For Aaron Rodgers to really last, he’s going to have to make some throws that make him uncomfortable, and maybe even see a momentary dip in his turnover efficiency. If he can’t adjust, I think many will be surprised at just how quickly he hits the cliff.