Over his career as an NFL starter, Aaron Rodgers has generally been an accurate quarterback. The Green Bay Packers star has a career completion percentage of 64.6%, good for sixth among active qualifying quarterbacks and tenth all-time. He also has finished among the top ten passers in completion rate in nine of his 12 seasons as a starter.
In recent years, however, those numbers have dipped a bit. Rodgers’ high-water mark came in a five-year stretch from 2010 to 2014, over which time he completed just over two-thirds of his passes. But since then, Rodgers has his only three seasons outside the top ten, which not coincidentally are the only three years where he completed fewer than 63% of passes. The fact that Rodgers is sitting at 62.3% and 62.0% over the past two years does give some cause for concern, and anecdotally he appears to be missing on more short passes than he ever used to before.
But has Rodgers’ accuracy really slipped overall? He certainly is capable of marvelous ball placement at times, but one of the best ways to assess a quarterback’s accuracy is by looking at CPOE: completion percentage over expected. Football Outsiders recently published the numbers for the 2019 season, and it suggests that while Rodgers is not at the peak of his powers, he is hardly becoming an overly inaccurate quarterback.
In 2019, Rodgers essentially finished at expectation. His CPOE came in at +0.1%, and by multiplying that rate over the total number of qualifying attempts, he ended up completing 0.5 passes more than expected given his usage. That made Rodgers the only quarterback within one completion of his expected total.
That’s good, right? Well, not quite so fast. CPOE is based on estimates of completions from an average quarterback. Rodgers, as Packers fans will surely be quick to argue, should not be viewed as an average quarterback. Indeed, Rodgers is in company that he might not like to find himself with: the other QBs who finished with a CPOE inside +/-1% include Jameis Winston, Kyler Murray, Sam Darnold, Jared Goff, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Carson Wentz. Meanwhile, Drew Brees, Ryan Tannehill, Kirk Cousins, and Derek Carr all finished with a CPOE above +6%, while MVP Lamar Jackson was at +2.4% and Patrick Mahomes ended up at +2.7%.
Indeed, this does indicate a dip in Rodgers’ overall accuracy from earlier in his career. Over the entire decade from 2010 to 2019, he finished 5th among 344 qualifying quarterbacks (more than 150 pass attempts) with a total +/- of +138.7 completions. Moreover, his overall CPOE was +3.1%, much more in line with the other quarterbacks considered to be elite over the past decade. That includes a 2015 season that saw him post a CPOE of -2.3% in a season where the Packers’ entire passing game fell apart.
It’s clear that there is a difference with Rodgers, even from as recently as 2016 and 2017. In each of those two seasons, his CPOE stayed around +3%, near his career average. However, both 2018 and 2019 saw it within a tenth of a percentage of zero (-0.1% in 2018). Yes, Rodgers’ overall accuracy has dipped from its previous heights, but his big-play ability still makes him dangerous from an efficiency perspective, as he has ranked better in DVOA than in CPOE each of the past two years. And importantly, he has not tanked entirely, unlike a certain other aging quarterback: Tom Brady.
Brady’s trajectory offers a potentially concerning trend line that Rodgers will want to avoid following. Like Rodgers, Brady remained excellent through 2017 with consistent CPOE values around +3%. In 2018, both players dropped down to expectation level — Brady actually hit a perfect zero that year against Rodgers’ -0.1%. But while Rodgers maintained his level into 2019, Brady tanked entirely, plummeting to -3.8% — the third-worst number among any of the 34 qualifiers — and giving him a last-place finish in total passing +/-.
There are of course mitigating factors here, however, the largest being Rob Gronkowski’s one-year retirement that ended this offseason as he elected to reunite with Brady in Tampa Bay. Indeed, Gronk finished the decade second among all tight ends in receptions above expected, so his return should help Brady’s numbers. In addition, the Patriots had only one non-running back catch more than 30 passes in 2019 due to injuries and other factors. It is entirely plausible that Brady will boost his CPOE back up with the Buccaneers, particularly since his two new wideouts, Chris Godwin and Mike Evans, have both put up big receiving plus-minus numbers over the years.
Rodgers, for his part, will not seem to get the benefit of having a vastly improved receiving corps in 2020 like Brady will. It will largely be on him and the Packers’ coaching staff to maintain or improve his measure in this area. It would seem that if Rodgers can be more accurate on shorter passes — which tend to have a higher expected completion rate — his overall CPOE would increase dramatically, and his overall efficiency with it.
Hopefully the 2020 season will occur so we can find out if that happens.