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Aaron Rodgers lost big “air yards” to drops in 2016, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing

This stat might make you think that the Packers’ receivers struggled last year, but there are multiple factors contributing here.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Chicago Bears Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The Green Bay Packers got an exemplary season from quarterback Aaron Rodgers in 2016. Rodgers finished in the top five players in the NFL in nearly every conventional passing statistic last season, including the following:

  • Completions (4th, 401)
  • Attempts (4th, 610)
  • Passing yards (4th, 4,428)
  • Touchdowns (1st, 40)
  • Passer rating (4th, 104.2)

However, Rodgers apparently also led the league in one other stat: most air yardage lost to his receivers’ drops. That number comes from Pro Football Focus, who revealed the top three quarterbacks in that area on Friday afternoon:

Obviously, eliminating drops entirely is impossible. However, a league-average rate could have cut this number down significantly and given Rodgers and even more impressive total for overall yardage and yards per attempt. This also includes only yardage in the air at the point of the failed catch — there could have been additional yardage after the catch that was negated by these drops as well.

On its face, this appears to cast a shadow over the performance of the Packers’ receiving corps last season. Leading the league in these “air yards lost” means they dropped a lot of balls and negated a bunch of big plays, right?

One way of interpreting this is that the Packers actually had more opportunities for big yardage than they did in the past, and that this was the result of significant improvements by the receivers, not just a case of the dropsies.

I believe this is best illustrated by looking closer at the three quarterbacks listed here, particularly at a stat that the three all had nearly identical values in: yards per completion. Rodgers and Carr ended the 2016 season at 11.0, while Stafford’s was 11.2. Furthermore, all were in the bottom half of the NFL in this value last year, suggesting that they threw more short passes, which rely on YAC, than their peers.

This makes sense; Carr has been more of a checkdown-type player throughout his career, Jim Bob Cooter has helped reined Stafford in to focus on shorter throws, and Rodgers plays in an scheme that retains many West Coast offense concepts.

However, while the other two passers kept their Y/C values relatively consistent throughout 2016, Rodgers’ year was a tale of two drastically different seasons (something APC’s Paul Noonan was quick to point out when discussing this topic). He was extremely short pass-focused in the first half of the season, averaging over 11.0 in a single game just twice in the team’s first seven games (week 3 vs. DET and week 4 vs. NYG). However, his Y/C ballooned after that, but was under that mark just three times in his last ten games, including the playoffs. In fact, he posted four games over 13 Y/C in that stretch, compared to just one in the first half.

All of that suggests that in the second half, Rodgers was much more willing to throw deep passes than he was early in the season. This likely resulted from regaining trust in his receiving corps rather than any significant scheme adjustment. Still, a greater proportion of deep balls compared to short throws would naturally lead to bigger “air yards lost” numbers when a receiver drops a pass.

In addition, Rodgers has remarkable accuracy on deep throws. He likely throws a much greater proportion of deep passes that would be deemed “catchable” than your average quarterback, and we certainly expect that it would be a higher proportion than for Stafford or Carr.

Finally, there’s a sample size issue here. When considering air yards, one or two fluke drops on long passes would make a huge difference on a QB’s ranking in this value.

One final item is worth mentioning, even though it is unclear if PFF included it in their analysis. That factor is Rodgers’ propensity to throw deep when he thinks that he has drawn a player offsides or caught the defense with 12 men on the field. Those free plays are almost all deep passes, and Rodgers has more of those opportunities than any other quarterback in the NFL.

So what does this all mean? It’s difficult to say, but it probably is one of those numbers that does not really reflect poorly on anyone in particular. Rodgers throws deep when receivers get open, so the fact that he started throwing more deep passes late in the year suggests that they were doing so with much more regularity. I’m betting that the Packers — and Rodgers in particular — would rather have receivers who can get open consistently but drop balls occasionally instead of guys with perfect hands who cannot separate. Just look at the second half of the 2015 season to see what happens when the Packers’ wideouts cannot get away from coverage.

To be fair, Rodgers would not have reached the top three in 2016 even without a single drop. Drew Brees led the NFL with a ridiculous 5,208 yards, while Matt Ryan and Kirk Cousins finished 2 and 3 with over 4,900 apiece. Rodgers, in 4th place, was about 500 yards behind Cousins.

Ultimately, this is one of those numbers that makes the Packers’ receiving corps look bad. However, the true meaning of this stat is much more nuanced than it appears on its face.

Writer’s note: thanks to APC’s Paul Noonan for helping with some of the statistical and qualitative analysis performed here.