This is a story about two very different quarterbacks, two different offenses, and about where that difference lies. It’s a mystery about 105 points. In 2016 the Packers scored 432 points while the Vikings scored 327. That’s an enormous difference both in real terms and in raw terms, as the Packers and Vikings ran almost the same number of offensive drives (176 and 174 respectively). You probably don’t think it’s that unusual that a team lead by Aaron Rodgers would massively outscore a team lead by Sam Bradford. I don’t think it’s that unusual. No one in their right mind would.
The funny thing is, when comparing Aaron to most other quarterbacks, he will be statistically similar to the good ones and vastly superior to the bad. However, with Bradford, who I maintain is bad, the two were statistically similar in 2016, and that fact is hard to get around. It’s been vexing me since the end of last season because, like I said before, Aaron Rodgers is much much better than Bradford, and my goal in using statistics isn’t to make stupid counter-intuitive arguments that fly in the face of the eye test (unless it’s about running backs). Anyway, stats are just data represented as numbers, and somewhere, buried in the data, there is a quantifiable way to show why Rodgers was better, so let’s dig in.
You are probably looking at their stats right now and noticing that Aaron Rodgers threw for 20 more TDs than did Bradford, and then preparing to yell at me in the comments. Here’s the thing; Rodgers didn’t have a very explosive year passing overall and in terms of rate stats, he was pretty similar to Bradford. While he did surpass Bradford in Yards per Attempt, he did so just barely (7.3 v. 7.0), and he was worse than Bradford in completion percentage (71.6% v. 65.7%) and interception percentage (1.1% v. 0.9%). Rodgers had a 107.6 rating inside the Red Zone, but Viking quarterbacks (mostly Bradford) were even better with a 109.7 rating in the Red Zone. The Packers started 24 of their 176 drives in opposing territory, one of the best marks in the league, but the Vikings also started 24 of their drives in opposing territory in 3 fewer possessions.
Rodgers vs. Bradford
The Packers went 3-and-out 33 times, which was better than the Vikings, but only marginally as they went 3-and-out 36 times. The Packers combined to fumble 21 times v. 20 for the Vikings and Aaron Rodgers, as previously stated, threw more picks than Bradford. The two were also extremely similar in terms of sack totals, with Aaron taking 35 v. 37 for Sam. Forget that you’re dealing with Bradford and Rodgers. Forget that you’re dealing with a one-time bust and an all-time great. If Bradford was so similar to Rodgers over the course of almost the same number of drives, while equalling his red zone play, what happened here? How did Bradford throw only 20 touchdowns if he was completing a league-leading 71% of his passes and not dinking and dunking much more than Aaron? How does this make any sense and what makes Aaron...Aaron?
When Good Stats Lie To You
In its initial form QBOPS, a fun little stat I made up last year, used Yards per Attempt as one of its components. Y/A is one of the gold standards in terms of simple quarterbacking metrics, and it generally does an excellent job of telling you who has played well, and who has not. I used it as a proxy for “slugging percentage”, the simple baseball metric (total bases/at bats) that measures a hitter’s power, however, there are a few problems with this approach, and Rodgers and Bradford get to their Y/A in very different ways.
Some very smart commenter on the QBOPS post pointed out that when you combine completion percentage with Y/A, you end up double counting incompletions. Aaron Rodgers is close to Bradford in Y/A mainly because Rodgers has a higher percentage of incompletions - of zeroes - than does Bradford. We can solve this problem by looking at the often denigrated Yards per Completion, and all of a sudden things start to make a lot more sense. Rodgers wasn’t great in terms of Y/C last season with a solid 11.0, but among starters, no one was worse than Bradford who averaged only 9.8 Y/C, 30th out of 30 players with 200+ attempts. Bradford may be completing more passes than Rodgers, but a lot of those passes are ineffective.
There is another big difference in how the two accumulated those similar Y/A numbers. Bradford was extremely consistent throughout the season. In the first half he averaged 7.06 Y/A and 10.33 Y/C while in the 2nd half he took a very small step back, averaging 7.00 Y/A and 9.44 Y/C. The drop-off in Y/C is notable, but generally speaking Bradford was the same consistent, conservative QB all year.
Rodgers is another story entirely. With a still recovering Jordy Nelson and a more power-focused running game centered first on Eddie Lacy, and then on a bunch of replacement-level castoffs, Rodgers averaged only 6.41 Y/A and 10.09 Y/C in the first half, numbers that are worse than Bradford across the board, but in the back half of the season, with a fully recovered Nelson, a healthy Jared Cook, and Ty Montgomery in the backfield, Rodgers took off averaging 8.18 Y/A and 12.0 Y/C
|Name||Y/A First Half||Y/C First Half||Y/A 2nd Half||Y/C 2nd Half|
|Name||Y/A First Half||Y/C First Half||Y/A 2nd Half||Y/C 2nd Half|
It’s fair to say that Rodgers played like, well, Sam Bradford in the first half, and for a few games, that was still good enough to win. In the back half, Aaron Rodgers fully returned to being Aaron Rodgers and Sam Bradford became Sam Bradford-ier than ever. The Packers exploded on offense winning their last 6, and the Vikings struggled mightily on offense against any non-terrible defense.
As it turns out, you can in fact survive being Sam Bradford for a while under certain circumstances, and the Packers were actually set up well to do just that in their first 4 games, winning 3. The Vikings, on the other hand, regressed once people figured them out. You see, sometimes…
The Running Game Is Important
While he was healthy, Eddie Lacy posted a 20.2% DVOA, which would have put him at 4th in the NFL if he had enough carries to qualify. When you have a quarterback playing like Sam Bradford, it’s imperative that you get good, efficient production out of your running back to put that quarterback in a position to pick up first downs. The Packer offense was not good with Lacy in the backfield, but they did win games, and they looked like what the Vikings strive to be, with an effective run game complementing a high-percentage, conservative passing game. Unfortunately for the Vikings, they employed a completely washed up Adrian Peterson and a bunch of replacement level backups who averaged well under 4 yards per carry.
There are a lot of people who think I hate running backs and the running game in general, but they have me all wrong. When Rodgers is being Rodgers, I greatly dislike running. I’d rather give him 3 shots at 12 yards per completion to pick up a first down than 2 shots (or, gasp, 1 shot) to pass for 6 yards. This is a completely different story if your quarterback is picking up under 10 yards a completion consistently, and hovers around 7.0 in Y/A. If you have Sam Bradford playing conservatively, you need good production out of your running game, because you’re throwing the ball before the sticks so much more frequently. The Vikings probably did themselves a disservice running as much as they did given how terrible they were on the ground, and the worst thing you can do with a conservative passing game is to run ineffectively at a high volume. That strategy cost them many middle-of-the-field first downs that they otherwise could have picked up.
The template for Minnesota is probably the Chiefs, where Alex Smith (7.2 Y/A, 67.1 completion percentage) plies his extremely conservative trade. Unlike Bradford, he at least had Spencer Ware (and the amazing Tyreek Hill), to help set him up. The Chiefs, facing much tougher defenses, put up 389 points while holding opponents to 311. They had basically the Viking defense with a better offense, and went 12-4 as a result.
The running game is part of the difference here, but there are 2 aspects of Aaron Rodgers that were crucial towards making the Packer offense vastly superior to the Viking offense.
The Vikings converted 81/213 third downs (38%) on the season which put them slightly below average in the category at 19th. The Packers converted 98/210, or 46.7%, good for 2nd in the league. That 17 third-down difference is huge, as each missed 3rd down outside of scoring territory is essentially a turnover, and each unconverted third down inside of field goal range is a potential lost touchdown.
Aaron Rodgers is a great scrambler. In fact, 11% (and coincidentally, 11 total) of all Packer 3rd down conversions in 2016 came on the legs of Aaron Rodgers. Sam Bradford, on the other hand, is a statue in the pocket and converted only 1 first down on the ground all season. More than half of the difference between the Vikings and Packers 3rd down conversion numbers is simply due to an immobile quarterback versus an extremely mobile quarterback, and those extra conversions are the functional equivalent of cutting out 10 additional turnovers. The Viking punter, Jeff Locke, punted 74 times last season. Jacob Schum was only called on 56 times. If Sam Bradford could move a bit, Jeff Locke would have gotten quite a bit more rest.
Inside the 10
I was a bit cavalier before about Aaron’s gaudy touchdown total, so let’s come back to it for just a minute. Rodgers was a wizard within 10 yards of the end zone last season, and this is an area that we probably don’t focus on enough. The “red zone” as a whole doesn’t actually make a lot of sense. As you move down the field, the defense has to guard less and less space, and consequently, things get more difficult for the offense as they get closer to scoring. This effect increases as you draw extremely close to the end zone, and the difference between being 20 yards out, 10 yards out, and 5 yards out is huge.
It’s instructive to look at the talented but soft-armed Kirk Cousins of Washington. Cousins was generally brilliant last season, completing 67% of his passes for 8.1 Y/A, but when Cousins gets close to the end zone, things go downhill in a major way. Inside of 20 last season, his completion percentage fell to 45.7%, and inside of 10 it cratered to 31.58%. Cousins is so bad that Washington should seriously consider a specialist backup inside the 10 (a sort of QB-Closer) This is an extreme example of what most analysts expect of quarterbacks, and Sam Bradford is no different, if a bit better. Inside the 20 Bradford completes a still very good 64% of his passes, but inside of 10 he tumbles to 54.8%, 15.8% worse than his overall average. When your running backs and offensive line are terrible, a decline of this magnitude that makes scoring touchdowns very difficult.
Aaron Rodgers is a miracle worker in many ways. Considering that the Packers do not really employ a tall “box-out receiver” his most impressive statistic may be that while he takes a small completion percentage dip in the red zone (59.26%), somehow inside of 10 yards, he is one of the deadliest players in the game. In the small space nearest the goal line, Rodgers actually completes a higher percentage of passes than anywhere else on the field at 67.35%. Inside of the 20 last season, he had 31 TDs and 0 Picks. Inside of the 10 he had 24 TDs and 0 picks. Only Marcus Mariota was more accurate that close in at 69.5% (but with only 14 TDs) and only Drew Brees was even remotely close on TDs with 22. Inside the 10, 73% of Rodgers’ completions, and just under 50% of his attempts, were TDs. Bradford, on account of his lack of running ability and lack of supporting running game, made far fewer trips into the red zone and into the 10-yard zone, and when he did get there, 58.8% of his completions, and just over 1/3 of his attempts went for TDs.
Rodgers’ legs and his incredible patience behind the line pay huge dividends close to the goal line, as DBs are forced to traverse the end zone multiple times locking receivers down, and if they slip up for an instant he can fit the ball into almost any window, or take it in himself as he did 4 times last season.
Why Rodgers is Special
Rodgers ability to literally save drives single-handedly, and then punch it in with unrivaled efficiency are what made him special last season. Even early on, when the offense was struggling, he was still able to routinely save drives and points like no other. To some extent, the deep game returned with the health of Nelson and Jared Cook, but it’s worth noting that Rodgers had an even split, throwing 20 TDs in the first half, and 20 TDs in the second. Rodgers’ greatness is easy to see with the naked eye, and something will separate him from any average quarterback. He’ll blow some guys away on accuracy, others on arm strength, and when the personnel is there, on the deep ball as well, but no matter how he happens to be passing at any given moment, his mobility is a huge factor in making him great instead of good, and a lack of mobility is an underrated liability for players like Sam Bradford.