To understand how great Aaron Rodgers is, one needs to look at historical context for his numbers. The NFL is far more of a passing league now than ever before, and that requires raw passing yardage, touchdown, and interception totals to be examined with a critical eye.
One way to evaluate the best players at the quarterback position is on a per-pass basis. Statistics like yards per attempt, touchdown percentage, and interception percentage are the easiest of these stats to find and can take at least the volume aspect out of the equation.
One of the interesting things about the yards per attempt stat is something that Paul Nooonan and I have discussed at length: essentially, it encompasses two separate stats that have more easily-definable meanings: yards per completion and completion percentage. Thus, if you complete passes for more yardage, that will be reflected in YPA, but you are also rewarded for completing those passes at a higher rate.
That will be a common theme in this discussion of Rodgers’ all-time numbers and those from his magnificent 2011 season, both of which illustrate just how hard it is to achieve and maintain truly elite YPA numbers.
Career YPA: T-6th all-time (7.9)
In the early days of the NFL, quarterbacks didn’t throw the ball very much, and when they did they usually went deep. This led to more touchdowns per pass, more interceptions per pass, and often more yards per pass, since the dirty work of moving the football methodically down the field was left to the running game. The pass was a chance at a big play, but that chance was often there for both teams.
Now, NFL teams prioritize being careful with the football, which lends itself to shorter passes at a higher frequency.
How does that affect YPA? In short, the yards per completion were generally higher in the earlier days of football, because the passes tended to be deeper, but the completion percentage was significantly lower, as you’ll see in a bit. These two contributing factors can sometimes balance out a bit when looking at YPA, but ultimately the top of the leaderboard is littered with players from every era.
The leaderboard for career YPC is here, and you have to scroll a very long way before finding an active quarterback. Cam Newton is the active leader in this stat at 12.7 YPC, which makes sense when you think about it. Newton runs an offense predicated on running the football and then using his big arm to throw over the top for big plays. Rodgers’ offense absolutely does not fit that mold, but he still comes in fifth among active QBs behind Newton, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, and Andrew Luck. (If you count Michael Vick as active, that bumps Rodgers to sixth.)
Here’s where the equation flips. Rodgers ranks seventh all-time in completion percentage, and the names at the top of the list bear out the discussion above. You have to go down to Steve Young at 11th place to find a player who retired before 2009, let alone one whose heyday was in the 1980s or 90s. In fact, Young, his predecessor, Joe Montana (15th), and Troy Aikman (T-29th), are the only three quarterbacks in the top 36 all-time who played the bulk of their careers before the new millennium.
And it’s not just that the top of the leaderboard is modern - it’s the sheer difference between the modern standard and that of the players who lead in YPC. Let’s use Rodgers as the modern comparison: he has a career completion percentage of 65.1% and a YPC of 12.1. Johnny Unitas, for example, put up 14.2 YPC, but completed just 54.6% of his passes. That difference in completion rate is massive and more than makes up for the difference in YPC, though that difference is still significant.
Getting YPA is actually simple math when you have the above two stats. Multiply them together and there you are, yards per attempt.
In overall YPA, therefore, Aaron Rodgers is among the very best of the modern breed of quarterbacks, tying for second among active players in YPA (just 0.1 behind Russell Wilson) and sitting in a tie for sixth place all-time. Do you remember from our earlier installments how Tom Brady was close to Rodgers in INT%? He’s almost a full 1% behind in TD%, but Rodgers also makes a big distinction in YPA, as he has a 0.4 YPA advantage on the longtime Patriot.
However, the early days of the NFL were dominated by the guys who chucked it deep: Otto Graham, Sid Luckman, and Norm Van Brocklin are the top three on the career leaderboard thanks in part to the styles of offense that they played in. Graham was a monster in his day. His 9.0 YPA is more than a half-yard better than second-place Luckman and his 8.4 mark and he’s third overall in YPC behind Luckman and someone named Ed Brown. But Graham also had one of the higher completion rates of his era.
So in short, the two contributing factors can sometimes balance out, but Rodgers is the model of what the modern NFL quarterback should be - completing passes at a high rate while still maintaining a hefty yards per completion average.
Best season: 2011, 16th all-time (9.2)
You’re probably thinking “wait, how was Rodgers’ insane 2011 only good for 16th?” The answer, once again, lies in the fact that modern offenses utilize much more of the short passing game than offenses in the early days of the NFL. In fact, Rodgers’ 2011 ranks tied for 4th among all qualifying years by a QB since 1977. Only Kurt Warner (9.9, 2000), Chris Chandler (9.6, 1998), and Matt Ryan (9.3, 2016) averaged more in that time span.
The real king of YPA back in the day was Graham. He has two of the top three YPA seasons overall and four of the top 15 during his time with the Cleveland Browns. It should come as no surprise, then, that he is tops on the all-time leaderboard.
Like with TD% and INT%, however, we find that it’s often very difficult to sustain elite numbers in YPA for multiple seasons. Graham is the outlier, as only Graham and Johnny Unitas have ever posted multiple seasons of 9.0 YPA or more.
Thinking about this in this stat brings us to a sample size question. With modern QBs throwing many more passes per game and playing more games per year than their predecessors, the larger sample size per year tends to smooth out the numbers more. On the other side, a quarterback who throws fewer passes but has more high-risk/high-reward throws could have a season or two of magnificent stats, buoyed by an unusually large number of big plays.
This is likely also the reason why there are so few players with multiple seasons near the top of the leaderboard. Seeing Rodgers’ 2011 season on that list really underscores just how exceptional it was, and how unlikely it is that he will be able to repeat that level of production over a full season again. It took a perfect storm for Matt Ryan to match that YPA number a year ago, and it would require a similar stroke of good fortune and good health across the Packers’ offense for Rodgers to do it in 2017.