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Aaron Rodgers has an incredible aversion to throwing to the middle of the field

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Is Rodgers making his life harder than it needs to be?

NFC Championship - Green Bay Packers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

In a seemingly never-ending stream of articles, we are once again back to talk about Aaron Rodgers and his decline. Well, sort of. Instead of talking about Aaron Rodgers’ decline, I’m going to talk about how Matt LaFleur can get more out of the aging star, but first we have to start with some negatives.

Instead of discussing exhausted platitudes and tired stories of chips and their respective shoulders, let’s dig into some data. In fact, let’s get into some studies. A study of 2017 and 2018 passing data looked at the locations on the field that are the easiest to complete passes to. As you can see in the graphic below, the easiest place to complete passes appears to be the middle of the field. The colors used on the graphic are a bit counter-intuitive, so make sure you check the scale on the right-hand side. This graphic is taken from the study linked above.

SOURCE: Extracting NFL Tracking Data from Images to Evaluate Quarterbacks and Pass Defenses, 2019

If attempting passes to the middle of the field is going to be the easiest way to complete passes, you would think you would want your offense to attempt more passes to that part of the field, especially when the depth is the same. If you can attempt a pass 15 yards downfield over the middle, you have a much better chance of completing it than a 15-yard pass to the sideline. This makes intuitive sense as well. Throws to the sidelines must cover a greater distance, leaving a smaller margin for error both in terms of accuracy, but also in terms of the ball being in the air longer, giving defenders more time to react. If a quarterback doesn’t throw to the middle of the field, or a team doesn’t prioritize throwing to the middle of the field, they make be making the game harder than it needs to be.

So how does Aaron Rodgers stack up in this department? To get the answer to this question I needed help from an outside source. While the NFL does track individual passing games with Next Gen Stats, full-season passing profiles aren’t publicly available. Fortunately, Sports Info Solutions does provide datasets that take some finagling to make useful, but it is useful data, nonetheless. The data I pulled was only for the 2019 season. In order to reduce the effects of small samples, I only pulled quarterbacks who attempted more than 200 passes last season. That left me with 32 quarterbacks.

Since I wanted to know where players were throwing the ball, I had to create some percentages for each part of the field. The way the data is broken down from a depth perspective is “Behind the line of scrimmage,” “short,” “intermediate,” and “deep.” Behind the line of scrimmage is fairly self-explanatory. Short is defined as throws within ten yards of the line of scrimmage. Intermediate throws are those of at least ten but less than twenty yards, and deep throws are those of at least twenty yards. Directionally, the field is broken down as “left,” “middle,” and “right.” Left are throws to the left of the hashmarks, right to the right of the hashmarks, and middle in between the hashmarks.

Now that the data itself is defined, it is time to create some type of methodology for analyzing middle-of-the-field usage. Given the graphic above, I’m not going to include the entirety of the middle third. Throws behind the line of scrimmage are largely screen passes, shovel passes, or checkdowns, which are either purely scripted or last-ditch efforts to get something out of a play. The deep middle doesn’t appear to have a substantial value versus the sidelines deeper down the field, so I will also not include that section of the field. That leaves the short-middle and intermediate-middle. There isn’t anything super complicated at this point, I merely added the short-middle throws and the intermediate-middle throws and divided them by the total dropbacks (note: Dropbacks does not include throwaways or spikes).

While the methodology is not complicated, the results are telling.

2019 MOF Usage

Name SI M
Name SI M
M. Ryan 49.4%
D. Carr 46.8%
J. Garoppolo 46.2%
R. Fitzpatrick 45.9%
L. Jackson 45.7%
P. Rivers 45.6%
R. Tannehill 45.4%
D. Brees 44.7%
J. Flacco 44.4%
D. Watson 44.3%
J. Goff 43.8%
K. Allen 43.7%
D. Jones 43.3%
D. Prescott 42.5%
C. Keenum 42.1%
A. Dalton 41.2%
M. Trubisky 40.6%
T. Brady 40.4%
B. Mayfield 40.2%
J. Brissett 39.8%
J. Winston 39.7%
M. Rudolph 39.6%
G. Minshew 38.6%
C. Wentz 37.7%
P. Mahomes 36.6%
K. Cousins 36.2%
K. Murray 36.2%
J. Allen 36.0%
S. Darnold 35.3%
M. Stafford 33.2%
R. Wilson 31.5%
A. Rodgers 24.6%
Data from Sports Info Solutions

To say Aaron Rodgers has a phobia of the middle of the field would be an understatement. Among the 32 qualifying quarterbacks, Rodgers ranked dead-last in middle of the field usage. His 24.6% is not only last, but last by a large amount. The difference between Rodgers and the second lowest number is a similar distance to the second lowest and the tenth lowest. To put it into perspective even further, the 25th percentile for this statistic is 37.4%. The league leader was Matt Ryan at 49.4%. The 25th percentile was closer to the league leader than Aaron Rodgers was to the 25th percentile by nearly a full percentage point. I can’t overstate it enough; Rodgers is truly an outlier here. Here is what it looks like in graph form, note that Rodgers is the red dot:

Not only is Rodgers not throwing the easiest part of the field often, but the Packers are near the league leaders in throwing to the most difficult part of the field. A recent article by Josh Hermsmeyer of FiveThirtyEight included an important data point that describes just how often Green Bay is throwing to the sidelines. In this case “sideline” throws were marked as those in where the target was outside the numbers. Much like what was shown in the heat map earlier, throws to the sidelines are very difficult to complete. The NFL’s completion percentage on those throws is only 47.3% whereas the average of all other areas of the field is 69.4%. The table below is pulled from the article, albeit in an altered format.

2019 Sideline Targets

Rank Team Attempts
Rank Team Attempts
1 SEA 112
2 LAR 112
3 GB 111
4 CHI 109
5 CIN 104
6 TB 102
7 DAL 99
8 BUF 98
9 JAX 98
10 NYG 97
11 MIA 96
12 ATL 92
13 ARI 92
14 CAR 89
15 PHI 86
16 IND 84
17 DET 83
18 CLE 83
19 HOU 82
20 DEN 80
21 LAC 80
22 NE 79
23 MIN 74
24 NYJ 72
25 PIT 71
26 KC 69
27 NO 68
28 OAK 64
29 TEN 63
30 WAS 61
31 BAL 55
32 SF 46
SOURCE: ESPN Stats & Information Group

While Green Bay ranks third in attempts to the sideline, you’ll see the difference between them and the highest mark is only one attempt. The table above is represented in chart form below to show you just how heavily GB is relying on these throws compared to their counterparts. Note that GB is once again marked by the red dot.

One thing to note is that this chart only covers gross attempts, so it does not account for volume. In order to do that, I took the total number of sideline passes attempts and divided them by the total number of pass attempts for the team to determine their sideline-throw percentage. GB moves up from third to second when that is taken into account, as shown here:

I don’t know why Aaron and the Packers are eschewing the middle of the field for more difficult throws both outside the hashes and to the sidelines, but this counter-intuitively does provide some cause for hope.

I compare this to shot selection in basketball. Rodgers is making life harder on himself by taking too many mid-range jumpers. If he shoots more threes his efficiency will rise, even if he’s not inherently any better. The middle of the field is the three-point shot, and it’s time for Aaron to take a step back and take the low hanging fruit.

Coming up later in this series, I’ll delve into how I think Matt LaFleur plans to fix this problem, so stay tuned for that!