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Aaron Rodgers deserved better, then and now

Aaron Rodgers has made a career of being let down by his teammates in the playoffs.

NFC Championship - Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Green Bay Packers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Green Bay Packers’ loss in the NFC Championship Game has created plenty of discourse, discourse that I don’t have much interest in. What does interest me is looking at Aaron Rodgers’ playoff career. The discourse around playoff performances always comes down to QB Winzzzzzz which is of course ridiculous. Aaron Rodgers doesn’t play cornerback, Tom Brady doesn’t play defensive end, and Dan Marino didn’t play wide receiver. Quarterbacks are super important, but they’re not everything.

We can also separate quarterback performance better than pretty much every other position in the sport. I’ve always had some interest in this, but it was peaked with these two charts:

So I’m going to go back and look at each playoff game and see how well Aaron played and also figure out if his teammates cost him to an even greater extent than we commonly think.

2009 Wild Card Game, @ Arizona Cardinals, 51-45 loss

As you’d imagine by the score, Aaron Rodgers played extremely well in his first ever playoff game. He completed 67% of his passes, had nearly 11 AY/A, and four touchdowns. His EPA/dropback is a little less glamorous (but still very good) at 0.25, but that comes with a very important caveat: the fumble in OT. Of course, said fumble was a disastrous play, except it should not have counted.

If this is correctly called a facemask, the Packers retain possession, pick up fifteen yards, and given how offensively-driven this game was, likely win. Alas, they did not. This one play cost Rodgers 6.6 EPA. If this play is simply removed, Rodgers would have had 0.47 EPA/dropback, a truly stellar performance. The reason Green Bay lost this game, aside from the missed facemask call, was that a defense that was #2 in DVOA failed to prevent the Cardinals offense, which was just walking through them. This one is decidedly not on Rodgers.

2010 Wild Card Game, @ Philadelphia Eagles, 21-16 win

This is an underrated Aaron Rodgers game. He only threw for 180 yards but put up three touchdowns and a very good 0.32 EPA/dropback. He did fumble twice, losing one, which dings his overall EPA/play down to 0.28. The biggest reason this game was as close as it was was the run/pass ratio. Despite putting up 0.33 EPA/dropback on early down passes, compared to 0.01 EPA/rush on those early downs, Green Bay ran on 48% of early downs. There isn’t too much to say about this one.

2010 Divisional Round Game, @ Atlanta Falcons, 48-21 win

This is perhaps my favorite football game ever, and may be Rodgers’ ultimate masterpiece. He put 0.71 EPA/dropback and a +19 CPOE. The baseline numbers match the advanced ones: 31/36, 366 yards, and three touchdowns. By quarterback rating, flawed as it is, it is Rodgers best postseason game. It’s his second best by AY/A. Very little is up for debate here as this was a masterclass.

After Greg Jennings’ fumble on their first drive, Green Bay would score touchdowns on every one of its remaining first half possessions and five straight drives in total. The score actually flatters the Falcons as Green Bay completely took their foot off the gas in the fourth quarter.

2010 NFC Championship Game, @ Chicago Bears, 21-14 win

This is one of Rodgers’ worst playoff games, but he did make a touchdown saving tackle in it, so some silver lining.

As you can see in the tweet, Rodgers played quite poorly in the latter part of the game after they got off to a great start. His 0.1 EPA/play actually looks better than his final standard numbers, but this was not a well-played game, particularly regarding game control once Caleb Hanie came in for Chicago. His tackle of Urlacher is probably the best thing an offensive player did in the second half.

Super Bowl XLV, Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-25 win

If the Falcons game isn’t his masterpiece, this game is. None of the underlying numbers will show it to be on the same plane as the Falcons game, but his PFF grade from this game is the highest for any Super Bowl. He still put up a strong 0.2 EPA/play against the league’s #1 defense by DVOA, but it should have been much better. This excerpt is from PFF:

The best Super Bowl performance by a quarterback we have ever seen belongs to Rodgers in his one and only appearance — and it’s not even close. Rodgers had a 94.2 passing grade in his Super Bowl 45 victory over Pittsburgh and gathered up nine big-time throws while going without a single turnover-worthy play. Five of those big-time throws came on third down, where he completed six of 11 attempts for 138 yards (four of those five incompletions were dropped). For perspective on how great this performance was, Rodgers hasn’t recorded a higher passing grade in a single game since. No quarterback has come close to as good of a game as this in the Super Bowl, and it’s hard telling if anyone else will anytime soon.

As is said in the excerpt, the Packers receivers tried their damndest to hang Rodgers out to dry with drops. Nothing was going to stop Rodgers though as he put together an all-time performance.

2011 Divisional Round Game, v. New York Giants, 37-20 loss

This is a game where Aaron Rodgers didn’t play exceptionally well, but oh boy did the rest of the team just implode. Here’s a list of things non-Rodgers players screwed up in this game:

  • Charlie Peprah attempts to “lay the wood” over the middle, fails to tackle Hakeem Nicks, which leads to long touchdown, -6.1 EPA
  • Greg Jennings fumbles down 10-3 at the Giants 32 yardline, -3.7 EPA
  • James Starks and Tom Crabtree drop passes on back to back plays, forcing Green Bay to punt, -2.2 EPA
  • John Kuhn fumbles on a FB Dive in Packers territory, -4.5 EPA
  • James Starks fails to effectively pick up the blitz on 3rd and 5. This is always a tough ask for running backs, but this is what you need to do in the playoffs, -0.9 EPA
  • Green Bay defense allows 23 yard run to Ahmad Bradshaw to get into Hail Mary range, -0.8 EPA
  • Green Bay allows successful Hail Mary to end half to go down 20-10, -6.0 EPA
  • Left side of the OL completely caves on a double-move play, Rodgers is sacked and fumbles. This is partly on Rodgers for ball control, but it was also a designed pump fake on a double move, so the protection has to hold there. Jennings was wiiiiiide open as well. -5.3 EPA
  • Greg Jennings drops touchdown down 20-10, Green Bay has to settle for a field goal. This cost Green Bay four points.
  • Jermichael Finley drops pass for first down while losing 20-13 on 3rd and 5, Packers then fail to convert on 4th and 5. -1.7 EPA on the drop
  • Ryan Grant fumbles down 23-13 effectively ending the game, -7.1 EPA

These instances cost Green Bay a combined 42 expected points. This loss is not on Aaron Rodgers. It is absolutely on everyone else, particularly a supporting cast that could not stop putting the ball on the ground.

2012 Wild Card Game, v. Minnesota Vikings, 24-10 win

This is the infamous “Joe Webb game.” The Vikings offense was inept and Green Bay spent much of the game in cruise control. Rodgers put up a cool 23/33, 274 yards, two touchdown line and a solid 0.22 EPA/dropback.

2012 Divisional Round Game, @ San Francisco 49ers, 45-31 loss

I hate this game so much. Dom Capers got absolutely pantsed in this one as the Packers defense was unable to figure out how to defend the read-option. Kaepernick put up an asinine 0.84 EPA/rush as San Francisco rushed for over 300 yards. The Packers offense was able to put up points and Rodgers put up 0.22 EPA/play and a +4.7 CPOE. The reason the Packers lost this game is that their defensive coordinator couldn’t figure out how to defend a high school offense.

2013 Wild Card Game, v. San Francisco 49ers, 23-20 loss

The rematch was a much less explosive affair. The reason for the loss, however, is much the same. Kaepernick put up 0.85 EPA/rush as he rushed for 98 yards on seven attempts. The Packers largely bottled up the 49ers passing attack, but those big plays in the QB run game killed them. The real sin of this game was the game script on the Packers side. Despite posting 0.11 EPA/dropback to -0.07 EPA/rush, the Packers ran the ball 31 times to 32 passes. The combination of those things led to Green Bay’s defeat. Rodgers was by no means outstanding in this game, but he was respectable against a good 49ers defense.

2014 Divisional Round Game, v. Dallas Cowboys, 26-21 win

This is a classic very good Rodgers playoff game. 24/35 for 316 yards and 3 touchdowns. A botched snap blew up a play on him, but that was about it. His throw to Randall Cobb near the end of the second quarter to setup a field goal is awesome, and his go-ahead touchdown to Richard Rodgers remains an all-time great throw. He stacks a few other great throws in this one and it’s an appropriate tribute to his MVP season.

2014 NFC Championship Game, @ Seattle Seahawks, 28-22 loss

This may be the worst game in Packers history and Rodgers bears some of the blame. Rodgers threw to rookie Davante Adams while he was covered in the end zone against prime Richard Sherman, thinking he had a free play. It led to an interception. Thankfully it didn’t matter because Ha Ha Clinton-Dix picked Wilson off shortly afterwards. The offensive line failed to get John Kuhn and then Eddie Lacy in from the one yard line on successive plays, and then Mike McCarthy made the disastrous decision to kick a field goal from the half yard line. McCarthy would do it again on the following drive. Despite this, Green Bay would be up 13-0 after the first quarter.

Rodgers’ second interception appeared to be some type of miscommunication between he and one of Randall Cobb or Jordy Nelson. It’s hard to say who messed up, but someone did. It didn’t lead to a Seahawks touchdown, but it at least took away a field goal chance from Green Bay.

In the middle of the third quarter, Dom Capers called a one-man rush and two-man contain on Russell Wilson. It left him with an obnoxious amount of time and he found a receiver on a possession that would lead to a field goal to make it 16-3. Oh wait, that was the fake field goal for a touchdown, 16-7. A.J. Hawk really messed up on that play.

The Morgan Burnett interception up 19-7 hurts. Burnett slides down at the Packers 44 yard line for no real reason. Green Bay would then play prevent offense: run, run, run, punt. The old read option would make an appearance on the goal line for a Russell Wilson touchdown.

Then it happened. You know what I’m talking about; I know what I’m talking about.

The Seahawks would score a touchdown and then convert quite literally the dumbest two-point play in the history of football. I’m still wondering what Clinton-Dix was doing. Rodgers would lead the Packers down the field for game-tying field goal, but would not touch the ball in OT as the Seahawks would score a touchdown on their drive.

This was not a good Rodgers game. His -0.13 EPA/dropback was not a performance you can have out of the league MVP. This is the biggest blemish on his playoff career, and yet Green Bay was still just a competent onside recovery from winning.

2015 Wild Card Round, @ Washington, 35-18 win

By this point, Aaron Rodgers was broken. The mid-season adjustments by opposing defenses would go on to permanently break the Mike McCarthy offense. This game was a bit of a throwback as Rodgers put up 0.35 EPA/dropback. This still wasn’t an incredibly efficient game though as he completed only 58% of his passes and 5.9 YPA. The lack of weapons and the simplicity of the offense was still a problem.

2015 Divisional Round Game, @ Arizona Cardinals, 26-20 loss

This is such a weird game. Rodgers only put up 0.03 EPA/play, but this is a list of his wide receivers who received more than three targets: Jared Abbrederis (13), Jeff Janis (12), Richard Rodgers (8), and James Starks (4). I don’t know what you’re supposed to do with that. We’ll always have this throw though.

Rodgers would of course never touch the ball in OT as was tradition. It’s hard to say Rodgers played poorly despite the very mediocre numbers because there was just no receiving talent to work with. His interception in the game is a bad one though. I think he was trying to throw it away but underthrew it? It was bad. It’s this game where you really start to see his frustration with the offense.

The entire last half hour of this game was so stupid. Damarious Randall broke up a pass into another Cardinals receiver for a touchdown. Then Rodgers completes two Hail Marys to Jeff Janis. Then the Cardinals win the game immediately when old man Carson Palmer spins out of a sack by Mike Neal and throws it across the field to old man Larry Fitzgerald who would break four tackles to set up Arizona at the four yard line. Just the dumbest game.

2016 Wild Card Game, v. New York Giants, 38-13 win

This was an awesome Aaron Rodgers game. Amidst the “Run the Table” run (pardon the pun), this was a great tribute to that superhuman stretch. A cool 0.36 EPA/dropback matches the great 25/40, 362 yards, and four touchdown line. Another Hail Mary completion right before half (thanks to a little nudge by Randall Cobb) really was needed to fully accentuate the style of play Green Bay was operating with though. While Rodgers was Super Saiyan, the offense was still quite vanilla.

2016 Divisional Round Game, @ Dallas Cowboys, 34-31 win

This is an incredibly impressive Rodgers performance. With Jordy Nelson out, Green Bay had to rely on secondary options Davante Adams and Jared Cook, but it worked out just fine. Rodgers would put up 0.37 EPA/dropback and 8.26 YPA. Good Geronimo Allison even made an appearance. We also got this meme out of the game:

And this bonkers throw:

2016 NFC Championship Game, @ Atlanta Falcons, 44-21 loss

The “Ladarius Gunter has to cover Julio Jones” game. Green Bay was so decimated by injuries at the cornerback position that this was never a fair fight. Aaron Rodgers put up a decent performance with 0.32 EPA/play, but so much of the game was garbage time. Julio Jones averaged 1.25 EPA/target. It’s tough to put any blame on Rodgers, or anyone, for this one. Green Bay just didn’t have any horses left for this game, as Jordy Nelson was relegated to decoy duty by injury.

2019 Divisional Round Game, v. Seattle Seahawks, 28-23 win

This was a great Aaron Rodgers game. Completing 64% of his passes and putting up 0.42 EPA/play, Rodgers was on one. He and Adams decimated the Seahawks secondary. Rodgers put up 10.5 AY/A and effectively ended the Seahawks season with a beautiful slot fade to Adams. This game was a preview of what we were to see in 2020: Two elite players at the top of their game.

2019 NFC Championship Game, @ San Francisco 49ers, 37-20 loss

This game was over from the word go. Mike Pettine’s defense was absolutely pulverized by Kyle Shanahan’s running game and despite a pretty good second half from the Packers offense, it was all garbage time.

Green Bay’s offense spent the entire first half running the same game plan that had gotten them smacked by San Francisco in the regular season, and it didn’t work at all. Despite what the raw numbers would tell you, this wasn’t a good Rodgers game, nor a good passing game. It was virtually all in garbage time.

2020 Divisional Round Game, v. Los Angeles Rams, 32-18 win

This was an awesome Aaron Rodgers playoff game. He completed 64% of his passes for 296 yards and two touchdowns. It really was a masterclass for the entire offense, but the passing game in particular. Rodgers put up 0.47 EPA/dropback as they carved up the league’s top defense.

2020 NFC Championship Game, v. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 31-26 loss

Pain. Rodgers issues in this game aren’t really on Aaron Rodgers. The offensive line was completely overwhelmed.

Rodgers’ interception in the game also should not have happened as the defender was committing a pretty egregious hold.

Removing the 1.8 EPA that Rodgers lost on this interception, Rodgers would have averaged 0.17 EPA/dropback, a completely respectable number against a defense as good as Tampa Bay’s. Factor in that Green Bay’s line couldn’t give him any time all day and I think it’s pretty clear that Aaron Rodgers is not why Green Bay lost this game.

Conclusion

As you read at the very beginning of this long essay, Aaron Rodgers is the best high-volume playoff quarterback in modern NFL history. Patrick Mahomes will likely pass him. It is unfair to Rodgers to saddle the playoff failures of the Packers over the past decade at his feet, or on his arm. His 0.27 EPA/dropback in the playoffs over his career far exceeds anything done by any other quarterback with more than a small handful of games. No quarterback has been let down more by his supporting cast.

In his twenty playoff games, Rodgers has had ten elite games, another six pretty good games, a few mediocre performances, and one dud in Seattle. Aaron Rodgers deserved better. In those ten elite games, the Packers have gone 9-1. However, even in games where he played just a “good” game, the Packers were only 1-5. They only won one of the other remaining games (2010 NFC Championship Game). The Packers have not only relied on Rodgers for the past decade and change, the Packers have required him to be the best player in football in every single game. The fact that he hasn’t delivered that in every game against the league’s best is not Aaron Rodgers’ fault. The fact he has had to be that player is an indictment on everyone else. He deserved better.