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The great Aaron Rodgers “get the ball out” debate too often misses the point

There’s nothing inherently valuable about getting rid of the ball quickly, particularly without capable playmakers to do something with the ball once they have it. The Packers seek balance not quickness in the passing game.

NFC Championship - Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers
Aaron Rodgers wants to hold the ball, but it requires some level of competence in the short passing game.
Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Aaron Rodgers has to get the ball out. He’s holding it too long and trying to play too much outside structure. Still. With his aging legs, Rodgers’ magic act now more closely resembles a street performer’s card tricks trying to make plays out of the pocket. For the second, or even third-consecutive offseason, this narrative dominates the discussion around the Green Bay Packers’ offense and, while there’s some truth to it, much of the criticism misses the point.

This week, Tom Silverstein of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel wrote a column in which he insisted Rodgers must embrace quick passes and a from-the-pocket perspective of quarterback play. Here’s the thing: that’s not how either Matt LaFleur or Rodgers want to play, and it’s not conducive to how the roster is built.

We have to go back to 2015 to find the last season the passing offense significantly improved when Rodgers got the ball out quickly vs. holding onto it. A receiver group bereft of speed or talent accounts for much of that differential from that year. The only way they’d complete a pass was to get it out quickly.

The 2012 and 2011 seasons featured Rodgers The Destroyer off quicker passes, but those seasons also involved the best group of skill players in football at the time. And this is the fundamental problem with this discussion: It’s not about when the ball comes out, but rather to whom it goes and why.

For starters, the “throw it quick” premise lacks logic. Getting the ball out in a hurry, particularly on a team with a great pass-blocking offensive line, provides no inherent benefit. Throwing in rhythm and on time, however, would. And on that note, Rodgers earns his criticism, though it’s always been a part of his game. He wants the shot play. Convincing him to play on schedule more often stands as a reasonable goal. In his prime, Rodgers hit his back foot and fired.

That said, where can he go with the ball on a three-step drop if coverage is shading to Adams’ side and heavy-footed guys like Geronimo Allison are trying to get open quickly on the other side?

One of the reasons the 49ers and Rams can run play-action so effectively is their ability to hit in the quick game with explosive playmakers. On 3rd-and-8, Sean McVay calls a screen pass and he has three receivers who could all pick up the yardage, plus two tight ends capable of the same. Kyle Shanahan could throw it to one of two receivers or the best tight end in football.

Defenses can’t simultaneously defend underneath and effectively take away shot plays. Much like defending James Harden, you can take away the drive or the shot, but it’s nearly impossible to take away both.

LaFleur looks at his call sheet to see No. 17 is the only guy capable of such brilliance. Bill Huber wrote about it for Sports Illustrated: 18 individual NFL receivers had more missed tackles than the Packers had as a team. A.J. Brown and Deebo Samuel were 1st and 2nd in YAC/R, one playing in LaFleur’s system with the Titans and the other with the 49ers. And not for nothing, but either one could be Packers right now had the 2019 NFL Draft gone a bit differently.

The Packers don’t have the guys to get those quick passes and do something with them. How many flat routes did Jimmy Graham and Allison inexplicably turn into no gain or two yards? Yet in total, Allison finished with more yards after the catch per reception than premier players like Amari Cooper and Allen Robinson. Why? LaFleur got him open down the field. This trend extends to playmakers around the team.

  • Jimmy Graham was 11th in YAC/R ahead of O.J. Howard, Eric Ebron and Evan Engram.
  • Marquez Valdes-Scantling finished 24th in YAC/R ahead of guys like Stefon Diggs and Tyreek Hill
  • Allen Lazard finished with more YAC/R than Michael Thomas, Tyler Lockett, and Brandin Cooks.

In fact, the Packers ranked 8th in total yards after catch and 5th in YAC per reception, but their inability to break tackles tells the story. They are getting open down the field with opportunities to catch and run. Usually, plays underneath that turn into YAC opportunities require making an early defender miss and finding open space.

The Packers lacked a player capable of such feats, including Adams, as he was limited physically much of the season by the turf toe injury. When healthy, he can be that guy; we’ve seen him do it.

Once defenses realized the offense didn’t have the guys capable of taking it to the rim, they sat on shooters. No deep balls would normally mean open driving lanes, but the Packers roster doesn’t have someone capable of winning off the bounce. Early in the season, they found some success with screens to running backs in receiver positions, but an offense can’t sustain that way.

And one of the loudest arguments from fans — that Rodgers was throwing it quicker and more decisively without Adams on the field — doesn’t pass the smell test. In fact, the opposite is true: he held the ball more without Adams (44.4% of drop backs) than with him (41.8%). That backs up what we see happening with the offense. If Adams is the lone playmaker who can create after the catch, then it follows the offense would throw it quickly less often with him out of the game.

Rodgers threw the ball in 2.5 seconds or less on 44.2% of his drop backs for the season, more often than players like like Lamar Jackson and Kirk Cousins, who put up career efficiency numbers. Sure, those teams used play action more often, but they were also wildly successful with it, whereas the Packers weren’t. Fixing the quick game is hustling backward. If anything needs work, it’s the play-action shot play game.

Rodgers passer rating when holding looks nearly identical (95.7) compared to when he doesn’t (95.4). In other words, holding the ball wasn’t the “problem” many describe.

Moreover, throwing it quickly isn’t normal. Only seven quarterbacks out of 27 who played half their team’s snaps threw the ball more than 50% of the time in under 2.5 seconds, and Mitchell Trubisky, Andy Dalton, and Ryan Fitzpatrick were among that group. In other words, most quarterbacks hold the ball to try and create down the field.

It’s fair to point out Drew Brees and Tom Brady make that list, but that’s been their offensive MO for years. Their offenses are built that way. (Though it’s also fair to point out that Brady was a mess last year).

Matt LaFleur’s offense wants to hit underneath gimmes and shot plays off play-action. That’s how it’s built. Ideally, LaFleur would rarely throw intermediate passes, and never into tight-window coverage. Screens, swings, and slants lead the quick game, with hard play action on early downs setting up opportunities to hit downfield.

He wants to play like the Houston Rockets. Close in and far out. In Atlanta, Julio Jones boasted such overwhelming physical gifts that the Falcons could call any route to Julio and pick up a first down and at the time, Muhamed Sanu was money on intermediate routes at the sticks with Taylor Gabriel or Jones able to take the top off defenses. They could threaten you at every level.

The Packers can’t right now.

So when people say “Rodgers has to get the ball out quicker” the easy answer is “to whom?” and the better answer is “why?” The Packers, coach and quarterback, want to hold the ball for big plays and Rodgers remains capable of outstanding feats of brilliance, as shown in his playoff performance against the Seahawks and his second half against the 49ers.

Accepting a higher level of variance in that kind of offense falls on our shoulders.

Finding a playmaker capable of giving them the underneath game would offer balance, providing more efficient opportunities to throw it quickly, thus making it easier to take shots. “Play with better balance,” which includes the roster, would be a more cogent argument to make about the flaws of the Packer passing game.