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Aaron Rodgers loves to heave it deep, but he wasn’t particularly consistent doing so last season.
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

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Creating more big plays for the Packers starts with Aaron Rodgers, not Matt LaFleur

Matt LaFleur says play-calling has to be better to create more chunk plays in 2020, but Aaron Rodgers’ scuffling connection with Marquez Valdes-Scantling last season represents a bigger issue with the deep passing game. Let’s dig in.

No one would confuse Aaron Rodgers with a chuck-and-duck quarterback. His accuracy, the ability to place the ball in a perfect landing spot from bizarre and biology-defying arm angles, is the stuff of legend. Only Patrick Mahomes threw more touchdowns on shot plays last season, but the usual Rodgers surgical efficiency disappeared. Balls sailed uncharacteristically off the mark. Although a cavalcade of unproven or sub-par receivers contributed to the deep passing games’ vicissitude, a closer look reveals opportunities gone begging not because of receiver talent or playcalling, but due to play below the usual Rodgers standard. His connection, or more specifically in the second half of the year, missed connection, with Marquez Valdez-Scantling exemplifies a problem in need of fixing, as well as the potential path forward.

Still, Matt LaFleur, like a leader ought to do, took the responsibility.

“One area we really need to improve upon is creating more explosive plays,” LaFleur told reporters back in May.

“I think it does start with the playcalling. Maybe taking a few more chances to generate those plays down the field. Typically, if you’re getting explosive, you have a much better chance at scoring points.”

But Rodgers is not some parapatetic, journeyman quarterback. He’s one of the greatest to ever don cleats and shoulder pads. The standards for him are too high for him to accept the results of the last two years. According to Pro Football Focus’ Adjusted Completion Percentage metric, which accounts for batted passes, throwaways, and drops, Rodgers’ adjusted completion percentage on throws 20+ yards down the field came in under 38% last season. Among players with at least 20 deep attempts, Rodgers finished 10th from the bottom in that category and the only names below him are a who’s who of the NFL’s punching bag starters.

Rodgers’ failing connection with MVS

So what happened? The battery between Rodgers and the team’s best true deep threat tells the story. Marquez Valdes-Scantling started 2019 scorching hot, but fell off as the season went along. Injuries and a seeming confidence loss contributed, but more than anything, Rodgers’ own inconsistencies subverted MVS’ scant opportunities

The obvious rejoinder, with the ugly drop on a beautiful deep ball in the Bears, starts with Rodgers’ faith in his receivers. “Oh well, he probably ran the wrong route,” or “Rodgers was throwing it away because he wasn’t where he was supposed to be.” A closer look at the tape doesn’t bear that out nearly as often as some fans insist.

This is one of those ugly plays that looks like Rodgers chose to bail on the play and threw it to no one, but the Fox cameras caught the quarterback saying “over the top” after this ball harmlessly hit the ground.

This is the archetypal example of a quarterback and receiver not being on the same page, the precise reason players like Rodgers preach details and believe in the importance of repetition. This play wouldn’t have happened with Davante Adams or Jordy Nelson or Randall Cobb. They’d have known to seek out the green space, especially with the safety sitting in the middle of the field and a linebacker carrying him to the sideline.

From the All-22 view, we can see the safety not at all positioned to handle MVS if he breaks to the corner and there’s no way Leighton Vander Esch, as athletic as he is, can run with the 4.37 speed Valdes-Scantling boasts in his rocket boosters. If quarterback and receiver had been on the same page, this might have been a touchdown.

This, however, was the exception, not the rule last season. Of the 16 shot plays of 20+ aimed in MVS’ direction, this kind of miscommunication showed up only once. By contradistinction, poor throws from Rodgers accounted for at least seven of the missed opportunities. In all, the Packers connected on five of those 16 plays, which points to a clear shortcoming on the part of Rodgers. Find the mark with two or three of those plays and all of a sudden they’re looking at a connection rate closer to 50%.

In fact, that 31% completion percentage to MVS closely mirrors Rodgers’ overall shot-play inefficiency from last season. Five of the misses were pure overthrows, but here is an example of poor placement dooming an otherwise good release from MVS to fail.

Despite off coverage from Ross Cockrell, the speedy Valdes-Scantling dusts him easily. The free safety keys on Geronimo Allison in the middle of the field and once G-Mo cuts across field, turns his hips and bails. This is a touchdown, or at least, it deserved to be. It was the perfect call for the coverage, the safety took the bait in the middle of the field and once Rodgers saw that, he made the right read.

The throw is well off-target.

In Rodgers defense, we’re talking about heaving the ball from the 15 to inside the opponent 35, about 50 yards in the air. The percentage of hitting on a play like that stands relatively small, no matter what the context. Still, Rodgers made sure the safety got back into the play, forcing MVS to play above the rim and making contesting catches — which isn’t what he does well.

Efficiency despite inconsistency

The plays are there to be made and too often, the Packers two-time MVP didn’t make them. It’s a troubling trend our study on play-action also revealed earlier this offseason. LaFleur demonstrated leadership by putting the onus on himself, but these are well-designed and smartly called plays. They’re poorly executed and, all too often, the reason started with the player who used to be so good he could single-handedly supersede any playcall with any personnel.

The wisdom of LaFleur’s desire to be more efficient creating big plays goes without saying, but there’s a particular reason to encourage this offense with this version of Rodgers to attack more downfield. Given the relative lack of skill talent and the fading consistency of the two-time MVP quarterback, becoming a more high-variance offense provides an effective path to scoring more points. He was, after all, one of the most productive deep-ball throwers in the league despite his lack of efficiency. When they did hit on those moon shots, the Packers hit big.

On all throws though, Rodgers was the 21st most accurate quarterback in the NFL with at least 200 attempts last season by Adjusted Completion Percentage, behind guys like Jacoby Brisseett, Marcus Mariota, Mason Rudolph, and tied with *gulp* Kyle Allen. Rodgers finished 26th in 2018 despite finishing 6th in 2017 before the collarbone injury. Two years isn’t enough for a trend, but it’s far from confidence-inspiring. With a lackluster group of receivers outside of Davante Adams and a quarterback whose accuracy appears to be waning, expecting to march down the field for 12-play 80-yard drives would be a fool’s errand.

One reason a quarterback like Jameis Winston scores so well in metrics like EPA stem from his aggressiveness pushing the ball down the field. Interceptions, it turns out, aren’t as harmful to outcomes as commonly believes, at least in a vacuum. Rodgers famously avoids interceptions as well as any quarterback in the league, but lately it’s come at the cost of completions. The solution? Call more plays deep and even without high effectiveness, the offense can still be efficient, like shooting threes in the NBA.

Even with an adjusted completion percentage under 40%, Rodgers averaged nearly 9 yards per attempt on throws over 20 yards, far more efficient than his overall passing profile. His 111.1 passer rating on deep attempts was good for 7th last season, ahead of players who put together more consistent overall seasons.

In other words, if Rodgers remained status quo in 2020 in terms of his own effectiveness but the Packers merely attempted more deep shots, the offense would likely be better overall. The play design and receiver talent was good enough last year to create myriad quality chances to hit home runs. Even a slight uptick in downfield accuracy from Rodgers, coupled with added aggressiveness, would provide the kind of boon for this scoring attack that many expected from a splashy receiver addition.

So while chunk play creation this season starts with Rodgers being more like Rodgers, LaFleur plays a pivotal role. The play-action game relies heavily on explosives and the productivity there last season came up short. These ideas and their efficacy are interconnected. Instilling a mindset and then living out that ideology, the go-for-broke mentality, gives the Packers the best chance to win as well as the chance to play the way coach and quarterback want to play.

All gas, no f*ckin’ brake.

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