The ugly numbers could easily be overwhelming. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers posted the most overthrows in a game since 2013 with a whopping 16 against the lowly Detroit Lions. Open receivers ran under pass after pass, only to watch the ball fall harmlessly just a yard or two out of reach. Aaron Jones had a touchdown at the end of the first half go begging. Allen Lazard leaped for a deep shot with his 6-foot-5 frame and 38-inch vertical, but Rodgers’ pass missed well wide.
If it seemed like the Packers pushed the ball down the field more than normal, they did, but that might not actually be a bad thing for Matt LaFleur and the offense. Rodgers, for his inconsistencies the last two seasons, still slings it deep as effectively as any quarterback in football. Basically every highlight reel play from 2018 came off ridiculous deep balls to Davante Adams, much to the chagrin of fans who pull their hair out at 40-yard passes on third down.
Rodgers was abnormally bad on Sunday against the Lions, going 3-for-17 on throws over 20 yards according to Pro Football Focus, but 17 is a preposterous number, easily the most this season for any quarterback. As The Athletic’s Ben Fennell noted, Kirk Cousins has 18 such throws in the last five weeks combined. It’s twice as often as the Packers normally throw deep, but according to coach and quarterback, that was part of the plan.
“We wanted to try and stress them down the field and when we had the looks, you know, he takes the chance,” LaFleur said after the game.
“The further you throw the ball down the field, the odds are the completion percentage goes down. But that’s just the way we felt we had to attack these guys.”
In other words, the Packers are willing to live with variance in order to capture the upside of these shot plays. Rodgers doesn’t have to go off script to take those risks downfield; they’re built into the game plan. In fact, as LaFleur pointed out, nearly every passing concept the Packers have involves a vertical element. Given the way the Lions play coverage, Green Bay felt it had an advantage going downfield, particularly after Detroit traded safety Quandre Diggs to Seattle.
“We wanted to stretch the field for sure,” Rodgers said Sunday.
“We felt like especially on third down they’d be sitting at the sticks. So we wanted to take some shots early, and had some opportunities. [We] missed, obviously, a few of them, and didn’t come down with a couple of them as well, but that was the plan.”
It’s important to point out that the plan worked. Tyler Ervin got free on a sluggo down the sideline that Rodgers missed. The interception featured a rare underthrow, where Jake Kumerow had a step down the left sideline. For all the complaints about Rodgers not wanting to throw into coverage, he played with aggressiveness all day and said he felt like the ball was coming off his hand well, even too well at times.
But one particularly bad game shouldn’t deter the team or its fans. This is like Steph Curry going 0-for-8 in the first half from three. Not only is that going to turn, the variance comes as a baseline expectation. And three-point shooting provides the ideal metaphor. Shooting 33% from 3 provides the same point per shot as 50% from two. As LaFleur notes, the expected completion percentage falls the longer the throw, much like the expected make rate of a jump shot, but the value of deeper shots go up.
Among quarterbacks with at least 30 deep attempts, Rodgers threw 20 or more yards down the field the third-most often, at 16.3% of his throws in 2019, behind only Russell Wilson and Matthew Stafford. His adjusted completion percentage, accounting for drops, fell in under 38% on those deep shots, 23rd out of 31 qualifying quarterbacks.
On the other hand, his passer rating on those throws came in at a robust 111.2, ahead of players like Dak Prescott, Lamar Jackson, Drew Brees, and Deshaun Watson. Rodgers produced with a high degree of variance, but he produced.
James Harden may actually be a more apt metaphor because he’s a volume shooter who doesn’t offer the same efficiency as Curry, but the point is the same.
Of Rodgers’ 93 attempts, four were dropped (among the most in the league), and at least two of those were walk-in touchdowns against divisional opponents. Marquez Valdes-Scantling dropped a would-be 70-yard bomb and Aaron Jones dropped a beautifully designed running back fly. This represents one reason Sports Info Solutions projects Rodgers to have lost the most added value via drops this season. Drops on downfield throws hurt more than underneath attempts.
And Rodgers, though inaccurate at times, didn’t turn the ball over despite the aggressiveness pushing the ball down the field. Among quarterbacks in the top-10 in deep attempts this season, Rodgers threw the fewest interceptions, with the lone pick coming against thee Lions. Other top quarterbacks, guys like Watson and Carson Wentz, threw five of more interceptions on shot throws. Philip Rivers threw a whopping nine to lead the league.
This comes while Rodgers led the league in shot-play touchdown passes. It’s a microcosm of his game.
And this is a continuation of Rodgers’ deep ball success from 2018 under Mike McCarthy. He threw 12 touchdowns and no interceptions on 20-plus-yard throws last year, finishing second in passer rating on those throws despite taking the second-most shots. His statistical accuracy wasn’t significantly better (19th in adjusted completion percentage), but his efficiency was.
It’s worth adding the caveat “statistical” to Rodgers’ accuracy from last season because his true accuracy looked more impressive. In fact, a Football Outsiders study measured Rodgers as the third-most efficient downfield thrower in 2018 despite not being the most accurate, but he finished No. 1 in the NFL in accuracy from a clean pocket and No. 2 off play-action.
Take the bigger sample size over the one-game stretch. During this season, like last season, Rodgers’ accuracy on deep throws, or lack thereof, hasn’t stopped him from being one of the most efficient players in football creating big plays. Giving him more opportunities makes sense as a philosophy, particularly as his accuracy wanes overall with the idea being simple: Rodgers is less likely to make down-to-down throws anymore, so give him more chances to hit chunk plays, erasing the need to make 3 accurate throws to get 40 yards rather than just one.
If anything, it’s the underneath and intermediate passing game where Green Bay can’t get on track. Once they found the quick game against the Lions, as they did against the Vikings, the offense finally go going, putting up 20 second-half points and creating two deep touchdown passes, underscoring the value of the risk/reward philosophy. Sure, it will hurt third down efficiency to take shots, but it can create touchdowns too. And on days when Rodgers is feeling it, the plays are there to be made with Adams, Lazard, and even guys like Jones getting open down the field.
If they can find the balance with the rhythm passing game, the shot plays open up. It’s no coincidence the two touchdowns came on double moves. One makes the other easier, the same way Giannis driving to the rim makes it harder to defend the shooter in the corner. It’s the Packers version of three-point shooting and Rodgers still has a sweet enough stroke to create for this offense. Green Bay’s playoff success could very well hinge on whether or not they can get together and make sure a couple of those shots go in.
If Sunday is any indication, LaFleur and Rodgers look like they’ll take the James Harden approach: just keeping shooting.