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Football Outsiders Q&A: Deep balls remain one of Aaron Rodgers’ best skills

With little granularity about time-to-throw on individual plays, FO’s assessment of the Packers’ QB’s play focuses more on route selection and depth of target.

NFL: NOV 15 Packers at Seahawks Photo by Lawrence Iles/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In 2020, SB Nation and Football Outsiders have partnered once again to take a deep dive into the analytics and numbers of football. This year, Bryan Knowles from FO answered a series of questions from Acme Packing Company about the Green Bay Packers with a stat-heavy focus.

Check out their work at FootballOutsiders.com, where the 2020 Football Outsiders Almanac is now available.


Aaron Rodgers is a bit of a conundrum at this point in his career. He seems to enjoy making a living on broken plays, scrambling and holding the football for a long period of time with an excellent pass-blocking offensive line in front of him. But in 2011, when Rodgers won his first MVP award, the Packers’ line was rather less stout in that regard, particularly at left tackle where Marshall Newhouse had taken over for Chad Clifton.

Now, for whatever reason, Rodgers seems to sit back more often than ever, taking more time to throw the football than just about any other quarterback. And over the last few years, his numbers and efficiency have been significantly lower than in his peak years.

With Football Outsiders’ wealth of information available to us, we decided to kick off our 2020 Q&A with them by asking analyst Bryan Knowles if Rodgers truly is less effective and efficient when he holds on to the football longer. Bryan was not able to give us a clear answer on that, but there is plenty of food for thought here, including on Rodgers’ efficiency on deep balls compared to shorter routes.

Acme Packing Company: A few of us have a crazy theory that Rodgers is more efficient when he is forced to get the football out quicker — whether due to an injury such as early in 2018 or an inferior pass-blocking offensive line like in 2011 — but that his performance dips when he has the ability to hold the football longer. Are there any numbers that might back up this hypothesis?

An interesting theory, and not one we can specifically refute; our charting stats don’t have precise time-to-throw numbers for every play. I will note that the NFL’s Next Gen Stats have time-to-throw numbers back to 2016; Rodgers has always held on to the ball significantly longer than the average quarterback, and that encompasses both his last really good season (2016; an 18.7% DVOA with 2.88 seconds to throw on average) and his last three relatively sub-par campaigns (2017: 7.8% and 2.65; 2018: 8.1% and 2.95; 2019: 9.0% and 2.88). So there’s very little correlation on the macro level, at least.

I will say that Rodgers’ best routes last season by DVOA were seams and deep posts, each with a DVOA over 50%. These were also two of his five longest routes in terms of air yards, and there is at least some correlation between how deep a ball is thrown and how quickly Rodgers can get rid of it. And it wasn’t just “Davante Adams runs deep routes”, either — Rodgers’ best target on seams was Geronimo Allison (28 DYAR on three targets), and his best target on posts was Allen Lazard (62 DYAR on four targets); Adams was more Rodgers’ go/fly route target — and that happens to be his third most effective route. Some of this is deep targets generally being more efficient than short targets — you don’t exactly have a 40-yard post as a checkdown option, and you don’t throw the deep seam route unless it’s open. It’s not enough to prove or disprove Rodgers struggling when holding on to the ball; that would indicate an issue with progressions. But it’s at least food for thought — and your second question can get at the heart of that, too.

This may not be truly surprising that Rodgers seems to excel on deep balls, especially considering that much recent frustration over his accuracy has come in the short-to-intermediate area. Still, his success going long could be one indicator of why the Packers’ coaching staff seems intent on running a more play action-based passing game, where seams, deep posts, and go routes are often utilized.

The comment about deep balls and time to throw is interesting as well. Anecdotally, it would seem that a quarterback would indeed release the football early for a deep shot, seeing his receiver getting separation early and giving him time to get under the football. (Broken plays of course being an exception.) Perhaps where the question really should lie is indeed with Rodgers’ progressions; with teams seemingly more willing to sit back and play coverage against him nowadays instead of bringing pressure, that would seem to be the case.


Speaking of Davante Adams, stay tuned for part two on Wednesday, which addresses the Packers’ top receiver and further examines some potential issues with the Packers’ play and route selection.