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Making sense of Aaron Rodgers’ statistical season

Even the traditional metrics that once loved Aaron Rodgers now see him as a diminished version of his former self. But he’s not turning it over, the Packers are winning, and Rodgers says he doesn’t care about his stats. What are the numbers telling us?

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Chicago Bears v Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers can still make ridiculous plays, but the consistency hasn’t been there with him this season (or last).
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

It’s enough to give a military codebreaker a migraine. Between QBR, EPA, PFF, CPOE and the mountain of traditional metrics, it can be difficult to decipher what’s actually going on with the numbers for a quarterback. Just this week, I posted a video of Aaron Rodgers’ thought process on a play where he made a throw in under 3 seconds to Jake Kumerow. The video, explaining what was going on in his mind just before and immediately following the snap was nearly a minute long.

Dozens of variables, confounding and otherwise, affect the play. Numbers can tell us what happened; they often fall short of telling us why or how. That’s what Pro Football Focus theoretically exists to do. Sports Info Solutions, a partner with Football Outsiders, attempted to quantify the separation of credit to isolate quarterback play, while stats like QBR and EPA can be useful to tell us the basic “what” of a play (though I’d argue EPA in particular is a team stat).

All of these variables make any metric difficult to assess in terms of its usefulness, though as Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight is fond of saying, Packer fans can’t love numbers when they say Rodgers is great, then scoff at them when they suggest his play has dipped.

This season, that divergence stands out. According to NFL coaches and front offices, Rodgers remains a top tier quarterback based on the annual survey conducted by The Athletic’s Mike Sando. But as Ben Baldwin in The Athletic and Hermsmeyer have pointed out, there are plenty of stats to point to that suggest a dip in play.

Even by numbers where Rodgers normally shines, he’s not in the ultra-elite echelon any longer. He’s 10th in passer rating, 9th in touchdowns, 18th in completion percentage and 15th in yards per attempt. By traditional numbers, the only place he’s truly still elite is avoiding turnovers, where his two interceptions are No. 1 with a bullet among consistent starters.

The advanced numbers mostly follow this trend, with Rodgers 15th in Estimated Points Added (EPA) per play, 22nd in success rate (yikes), and 15th in Completion Percentage Above Expectation, which is different than the Next Gen stat by the same name where Rodgers is 23rd. The first is measured based on depth of target, while the second incorporates factors like distance, coverage, and space along the sideline. By either metric, Rodgers is around or below average.

On the other hand, among quarterbacks who have played at least half the season, Rodgers is 10th by Pro Football Focus grading on offense, behind MVP candidates like Lamar Jackson, Russell Wilson, and Deshaun Watson. He helped the Packers beat two of the quarterbacks ahead him as well, Kirk Cousins and Dak Prescott, each of whom has killed their teams doing the one thing Rodgers is historically great at avoiding: throwing interceptions.

It was somewhat controversial when PFF graded Rodgers out as the 6th best quarterback last year despite a so-called “down” season, but he generated a ton of big plays and avoided turnovers. We know there’s value in each of those things; what the advanced numbers tell us is they’re likely slightly less valuable than we traditionally believe. For a Packers team who needs Rodgers to not turn it over and generate big plays this season — as opposed to last season when Mike McCarthy’s offense asked for more precision — there’s a reason they’re winning more this year than last year.

As stated earlier, these numbers are a measurement of what happened though, not necessarily how, with the exception of grades from PFF. It tracks that a system accounting for drops, pressures and big-time throws would like Rodgers’ 2019 season more than even the advanced numbers.

Sports Info Solutions (SIS) attempted to create a metric that quantified that context, with the goal to be parsing credit in a quantifiable way. According to their calculations, no quarterback has lost more points to drops this season than Rodgers. Just go back to last week and there are prime examples of two third-down conversions dropped as well as a would-be 70-yard touchdown. Geronimo Allison has, statistically speaking, been one of the worst regular receivers in football, actively making the offense less effective. Rodgers and Marquez Valdes-Scantling haven’t been on the same page all season, and Jimmy Graham has dropped at least two would-be touchdowns.

These numbers matter to PFF, but passer rating, for example, views them differently.

The same is true when the argument around ESPN’s Pass Rush Win Rate comes up. We are starting to come to a consensus that sacks and pressure numbers can often be quarterback driven, and for much of Rodgers career, he’s been content to take sacks vs. attempt risky throws. He’s drawn criticism for this, as well as the throw-aways, and now critics point to Green Bay’s elite PWR to show he’s essentially wasting good pass protection.

Total Points, an SIS metric, says otherwise. In fact, by Total Points, Rodgers is effectively tied with Lamar Jackson for the NFL lead among quarterbacks, in part because while they consider the offensive line win rate, they also factor in blown blocks. Anecdotally, it appears that while the Packers consistently wall up defenders, when they lose, it’s generally quickly and devastatingly; a linebacker knifes through unblocked, or a protection call is missed, leaving a defensive end unblocked on the end of the line (this happened with Khalil Mack of all people last week). Total Points attempts to account for those blown blocks by not blaming the quarterback as much for a throw-away or sack as a result.

These efforts are important in attempting to create context for all the stats we have, lest they become an ocean of alphabet soup. We don’t have enough data yet to have a feel for just how effective a stat like Total Points is at telling us what’s happening, but as Baldwin points out, early returns are good.

Still, even a metric like Total Points finds Rodgers’ accuracy dipping. He’s missing players and not putting the ball consistently where we’re used to seeing it. The numbers are telling us what our eyes are already seeing: Rodgers still can make incredible plays and even a diminished capacity as an older player, in a first-year offense, with some limitations at the skill position, he’s still a very good quarterback who could play better with more familiarity with the offense, the coaches, and some revitalized talent at receiver.

No one should be under the illusion this version of Rodgers is 2011, or his MVP 2014 campaign. We’ve only even seen Run The Table Rodgers is brief flashes this season. Does it mean he’s done? Of course not. Does it mean he’s overrated? As one coach said to Sando, “All the guys who think Rodgers dropped off don’t play him.” To his point, Rodgers has done more than enough to help his team win at a rate near his physical apex. But as always, wins aren’t a quarterback stat.

We’ll have a better handle on where he is next year with more time in this offense, and presumably some added firepower. If his accuracy further falls, or this inconsistency persists, we’ll have a clearer picture of him. But as numbers like the PFF grades and Total Points suggest, there is important context to provide with his play.

At a certain point, 11-3 (or eventually 13-3, or 1-0 in the Super Bowl) are the only numbers that matter to the Packers, their fans, and especially to Rodgers.