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Chemistry was biggest driver of Aaron Rodgers’ struggles in 2018

When Rodgers threw to receivers he knew in 2018, his numbers look like the Rodgers we know. When he didn’t ... yikes.

NFL: Green Bay Packers at Minnesota Vikings
Jimmy Graham’s inability to make an impact on this offense has been a major factor in Rodgers’ inconsistencies.
Harrison Barden-USA TODAY Sports

When Aaron Rodgers throws to Davante Adams, he’s still Aaron Rodgers. For all the discussion about Rodgers’ struggles—Is he the same after the collarbone? What’s the deal with his mechanics Does he believe in Mike McCarthy? Is he a leader? Does he kick puppies when he goes to the mall?—when he lines up a shot to Adams, good things happen. Only two other players have a better passer rating when targeted among receivers with at least 100 targets, according to Pro Football Focus.

In fact, when Rodgers has thrown it to receivers he knows, players he trusts in this offense, he’s still extremely successful. When he’s thrown it to rookies or new players on this team, the results have been Josh Allen disastrous. That disparity, as much as almost anything else going on with this offense, has held back this team.

Things might have gone different for Mike McCarthy and the Packers had Geronimo Allison and Cobb simply stayed healthy. When targeting one of Adams, Allison, or Cobb this season, Rodgers completed over 66% of his throws on 8.2 yards per attempt for 16 touchdowns and no interceptions. That’s a 115.1 quarterback rating on 232 of his 537 throws (and remember, over 50 of those total attempts are throwaways).

That’s Aaron Rodgers. That’s why he insisted after Sunday’s game that Cobb is so important to this team and should be back despite underperforming his last contract.

The initial counter would be, “Well, Adams is awesome, of course,” but even accounting for Adams’ enormous share of that production, Rodgers still has a 106 quarterback rating throwing just to Allison and Cobb, completing over 67% of such throws. Perhaps that number would fall over the course of a season if they had played more snaps, but there’s no reason to suspect it would. If anything, Allison and Cobb likely would have caught more touchdowns, improving those numbers, not pushing them down.

When targeting the “other” pass catchers in this offense, Rodgers completes just 59.4% of his throws for 7.6 yards per attempt and a dismal 89.25 passer rating. Part of what drags this number down is the tight ends being included here, but Jimmy Graham was brought in to be a difference maker and he hasn’t. Lance Kendricks dropped a handful of big-play balls, and Marcedes Lewis isn’t used enough to impact these numbers very much.

If we just accounted for throws to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, and Graham, the numbers actually get worse. In throws to that trio, Rodgers completes just 56% of balls on a slightly lower 7.6 yards per attempt basis (rounding), and a brutal 83.8 passer rating.

What does this mean? First and foremost, this indicts Mike McCarthy and his offensive scheming. The Patriots can sign guys off the street and immediately find ways for them to contribute. Sean Payton’s offense has helped Drew Brees turn bartenders and car salesmen into touchdown makers in the NFL. Everything in this offense requires elite precision or the play isn’t going to work.

So when Rodgers looks for a player with knowledge of the system, who can execute it, things work. When the team has talent like Adams or Jordy Nelson and prime Randall Cobb, that’s enough. But add in rookies, new players, guys who aren’t used to having to be so precise, the offense bogs down. A timing and rhythm-based scheme insisting on so many individual wins just isn’t sustainable or preferable given today’s league.

There’s also the obvious, “Graham, MVS, and EQ aren’t as good as Adams, Allison and Cobb,” counter, which is true, but the contrast shouldn’t have to be this stark. Continuity reigns supreme in this offense. Rodgers expects a slant to look the same every snap, for the post to be bent just so, and for receivers to understand how to sit down in certain coverage situations. He also expects them to win contested catch situations, something Graham hasn’t done since he arrived in Green Bay and a trait Valdes-Scantling just isn’t strong enough to possess at this point in his career. Adams wins those balls and even Cobb has made some adversity catches this season, including for a touchdown last week against the Falcons.

It’s easy to look at this disparity and believe Jordy Nelson would have made a world of difference, and he certainly would have been more comfortable than the rookies. On the other hand, no one has thrown deep more often this season than Rodgers (78 times) and Nelson simply can’t get open down the field anymore. He may have helped some on third down and in the red zone, but the team decided they’d be fine with Allison and Cobb in the lineup with Adams.

The numbers say they were right, at least for as long as that lasted.

None of this should paper over the obvious accuracy inconsistency Rodgers battled this season. Plenty of throws sailed wide or deep of their mark that we expect him to make. He has to get that part figured out for himself. But the reality is those throws happened far more often when targeting receivers he’s not as familiar with, the product of a flawed offensive philosophy and a coach refusing to adapt to it.

A new coach with a more adaptive, creative approach should mitigate these concerns in the future, although each game will be the least amount of time Rodgers has spent with these players moving forward. In 2019, MVS and EQ will get a full offseason after nearly a full season playing an essential role in this offense. Their talent isn’t in question, but their attention to detail, as Rodgers put it, has been.

Other teams, and by extension other coaches, find a way to put less on the plate of their talented playmakers, getting them the ball with far less work. An offense that looks like that could be exactly what Rodgers and his accuracy woes need in 2019 and his talented “new” playmakers could see their numbers skyrocket as a result.