Play-action, turn, hitch, fire, touchdown. Snap, step up, roll right, dart, first down. Snap, spin left, roll, dart, first down. Snap, buy time, roll right, dart, corner of the end zone, touchdown.
It all felt so automatic. It was so easy. For years we were spoiled with some of the best play the game has ever seen. The 2009-14 Aaron Rodgers era was perhaps the most beautiful football ever. It was quarterbacking at its finest. There was nothing he couldn’t do. He was a hero. He was Superman. Hell, he might as well have been God.
And now those memories seem like another lifetime. Each sequence I talked about earlier too often has a much different ending now. In the glory days, every play-action pass brought on a level of excitement that is akin to Christmas morning when you were a kid. You were pretty sure your parents had gotten you exactly what you wanted, but the suspense was just enough to keep you excited at the prospect. That’s how it felt when Rodgers hit the bottom of the drop. As you pull apart the ribbon, Rodgers winds. The first tear at the paper, and the camera pans. There it is, exactly what you wanted, Jordy Nelson running open deep, and Aaron hitting him in stride for six.
Instead of play-action touchdowns, we’re left to watch him overshoot an open receiver. Instead of carving up teams outside of the pocket, he now throws it at his receivers’ feet or into the second row. I often struggle to believe that I’m even watching the same person. What once was somehow the perfect combination of gunslinger and caretaker has now been relegated to some weird bizarro-world version of Alex Smith.
Before I delve into why I am so distraught, I think it’s important to admit my own errors. I, like many, thought Mike McCarthy’s system was a major problem. It too often relied on receivers to beat their man, and as the receiving corps deteriorated from the SI Perfect Pack to Davante Adams and a slew of has-beens or never-weres, Rodgers’ job became increasingly more difficult. At this point everyone is well-aware of the mid-2015 change in Rodgers’ efficiency. I don’t need to belabor that point or walk through the inconsistencies of 2016-2018. That ground has been covered plenty of times by plenty of people. What I am here to do is try and add some clarity to what we’ve seen in 2019, and then throughout the next couple of months, try and work through how Green Bay can make their passing attack click again. The first step to solving a problem is to admit you have one, and it saddens me deeply to say that Aaron Rodgers is a pretty sizable part of that problem.
There really are a full litany of stats to measure quarterback effectiveness. They all have their respective benefits and drawbacks. To try and overcome each of their drawbacks, I have done something incredibly irresponsible. I’ve taken a bunch of them, ranked them, and then averaged those ranks to try and draw a rough ranking of quarterbacks in the NFL in 2019. This is not great science, but it should serve the purpose of this exercise.
The name for this stat will be QBF (Quarterback Frankenstein). I took the rankings of these major quarterback evaluation stats: DVOA, QBR, ANY/A, PFF Grade, IQR, 538 ELO QB (for a primer on some of these, check here). There are of course limitations to this, primarily being that rankings do not show differences. For example, the difference between the 8th and 9th ranked QBs via DVOA is pretty similar to the difference between 11th and 17th. With those limitations acknowledged, this is how the “leaderboard” for QBF looks, with their rank on the left, and average on the right:
Rodgers ranks 11th. In individual rankings, he ranked as high as 6th (IQR) and as low as 18th (QBR), but the 11th position seems appropriate given the data points taken. 11th isn’t terrible, but it certainly isn’t great. One thing I noticed in the data was just how far Rodgers was from the great QBs. For example, in DVOA, there is a clear line of demarcation after Russell Wilson at 7th. The difference between Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers (16.1%) is about the difference between Aaron Rodgers and Case Keenum. QBR tells an even grimmer story, with the difference between Rodgers and the top seven being the same as Rodgers and Kyle Allen or Andy Dalton. With ANY/A, the difference from the top seven is similar to the gap between Aaron Rodgers and Josh Allen. It’s not even so much that Aaron Rodgers is a bad NFL starting quarterback. He isn’t. None of the stats show that he is bad, and we’re all quite confident he isn’t. The problem is that he’s also not that close to being actively good, and THAT is the problem.
And this problem is only getting worse. Recently, in fact, he’s been flirting with bad:
Aaron Rodgers' last four weeks:— rcon14 (@rcon14) December 30, 2019
9 sacks for 67 yards
5.21 ANY/A (Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton, Mitch Trubisky stuff)
Rodgers has been nothing short of awful for four weeks now.
And it's not like he has faced some murderer's row of defenses either. By DVOA, the opponent's pass D ranks:— rcon14 (@rcon14) December 30, 2019
This level of play is unacceptable.
So, the passing game isn’t clicking all that well, especially for a team with big goals, but is it all Aaron’s fault? Passing offenses are primarily driven by quarterbacks, but not solely driven by quarterbacks. The first thing we can tackle off-the-bat is the offensive line. They’ve been nothing short of absolutely outstanding this year. Their Pass Block Win-Rate is #1 in the NFL.
The main complaint about the passing game, outside of Rodgers, has been the lack of receiving talent. To try and find out how much the receivers were impacting this, I put together a table with some numbers I like to use when trying to quantify receiver talent: Paul Noonan’s WROPS, PFF Grade, and DVOA:
It’s color-coded with dark green being elite, light green being good, yellow being average-ish, orange being below-average, red being terrible. As I touched on in my article about a month ago, Geronimo Allison is terrible. Jake Kumerow does very well with rate metrics, but his volume is so low that it kind of skews it, and he’s probably a rotational receiver. What we can see from the data here is that Rodgers has two good wide receivers in Davante Adams and Allen Lazard. The much-maligned Jimmy Graham is deservedly maligned, but he’s probably an average receiving tight-end at this point, mostly because only elite tight-ends really help you in a meaningful way.
We can see that this isn’t a good receiving corps, but it’s also not abysmal. For example, compare this group to what Carson Wentz has been throwing to the past two-and-a-half months. Green Bay’s group doesn’t look particularly bad when compared to other quarterbacks that have had more success. New Orleans’ group has been the Michael Thomas show, but there isn’t a lot outside of that and Jared Cook. Tannehill has had the AJ Brown breakout, but the rest of the receiving corps is fine, not great. Russell Wilson has Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf (who is about average by DVOA), and a never-ending cast of soon-to-be-injured tight-ends. Now I will say that Green Bay doesn’t have a reliable deep threat, and that is a roster problem that must be addressed in the off-season, but Aaron isn’t being an answer to the problem, he’s making it worse.
The reason I say that is the chart below:
Rodgers excels on pushing the ball down the field, particularly to the middle and right. He is not as productive of a passer in the short passes outside the hashes, which if you’ve watched a Packers game in 2019, you know that is where a lot of his passes go. I invite you to check out Next Gen Stats charting for 2019 for Rodgers here to get a better look at where his passes are primarily attempted to.
Another point against Rodgers is his Completion Percentage Above Expected (Completion % minus xComp% via Next Gen Stats) is porous at -1.7% (28th out of 39 QBs). One thing that could impact this is drops. So, I looked up where GB ranks as far as drop percentage in the NFL. According to pro-football reference, GB ranks 10th best in the NFL in drop percentage at 3.8%. Drops are an imperfect way to measure receiver error, and there are sites that try and track it in better ways, but unfortunately the primary one, nocheckdowns.com, has not charted a Rodgers game since week 12, so their stats are currently unreliable.
I want nothing more than Rodgers to bring that feeling back. It bordered on invincibility. It was knowing that no player had ever been as good at it as he was. I hope he goes on an absolute tear in the playoffs and makes me look like an idiot. I hope I’m an idiot!
What makes me sad is that I fear I’m not an idiot this time. There are reasons why Green Bay’s passing attack is not firing properly, and Rodgers has some excuses for that. The primary one is that the receiving corps is mediocre. But Aaron used to be a solution to the problem, and now I’m afraid he has become part of it.