Film Room: Aaron Rodgers
by Cian Fahey
Sometimes superlatives don't suffice.
That's the stage we're reaching with Aaron Rodgers right now. The Green Bay Packers starting quarterback has regularly been referred to as the most talented player at his position over recent years, but he hasn't always performed better than the other quarterbacks in the league over a 16-game season. Rarely does any player play close to his full potential for a prolonged period, something that Rodgers did through the playoffs when the Packers won their most recent Super Bowl.
Ever since a Week 3 road loss to the Detroit Lions, Rodgers has performed close to his full potential on a weekly basis. There have been some inconsistent stretches during that period, but none significant enough to take away from his overall dominance.
From Week 4 onwards, Rodgers has completed 188 of 278 passes for 2,628 yards, 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions. The 31-year-old quarterback is averaging 9.5 yards per pass attempt and 292 yards per game while throwing a touchdown once every 10.3 attempts and every 7.0 completions. If you prefer advanced stats, Rodgers leads the league with 34.9% DVOA, including 44.3% DVOA since Week 4. (Tom Brady, at 33.3%, is the only other quarterback above 30% since that point.) The Packers have won nine of their past 10 games largely because of his play.
Typically, when a quarterback has a huge gap between his touchdowns and turnovers, a closer examination of his play will reveal a huge amount of luck. Two examples of this came from Josh McCown and Nick Foles last season. Both McCown and Foles had a large number of interception-worthy passes that were either dropped or misread by a defender or knocked away by a great play by the intended receiver. When you look closer at Rodgers' passes this season, you find that yes, he should have more interceptions than he does, but not many.
Save for two plays against the Miami Dolphins when Rodgers threw misguided passes to covered receivers in either flat, and one heave down the right sideline against the Minnesota Vikings, he hasn't had obvious interception-worthy throws that went unpunished. Even Rodgers' actual interceptions were somewhat unfortunate. Each of his three interceptions were initially tipped before being caught by a defender. None were good passes, but each came with some level of misfortune.
NFL quarterbacks can fluke their way into a season of few interceptions and lots of touchdowns, but they can't fluke their way into having very few passes worthy of being intercepted. Rodgers' success this season has nothing to do with luck, a superior supporting cast, or a slate of lesser defenses. Rodgers is simply playing at a level that allows him to take care of the football without missing out on big plays. A huge part of that ability is his accuracy.
This chart tracks the accuracy of every throw that Rodgers has made since the beginning of the season. It discounts throwaways, plays negated by penalty, and obvious receiver-quarterback miscommunications. Whether the ball was actually caught or not is irrelevant; only the accuracy of the throw matters.
As the chart shows, Rodgers is able to consistently complete shorter passes while also throwing the ball accurately down the field.
Accuracy is a singular term, but when it's broken down in analysis it becomes a layered concept. Some quarterbacks are accurate enough to complete simple passes in the NFL with consistency. Others are accurate enough to complete more difficult passes with less consistency. Some settle for throwing catchable passes, while others understand the importance of ball placement, trajectory, and velocity to help their receivers at the catch point.
The best pure passers are accurate regardless of how the term is broken down. Rodgers has proven to be in that class this season.
If he has one flaw, it's that his footwork on some throws can be sloppy. That leads to poor ball placement. These passes are generally shorter, easier throws where Rodgers seemingly believes that his upper body alone can make an accurate pass. To be fair to him, he regularly throws a catchable, if not perfectly accurate pass, so it's not a major problem. It is a notable trend that dates back to the 2013 season though.
Each of these throws fall incomplete because of poor ball placement. They are catchable, but they put a heavy burden on the wide receiver to make catches that are more difficult than they should be.
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When Rodgers does miss, he doesn't miss wildly. You won't see him overthrowing a pass to the point that it goes straight to a deep defensive back, or placing the ball so far behind his receiver that it goes into the chest of a defender trailing him. Having that kind of accuracy makes it so much tougher for defenders to break on the ball. Rodgers could relatively easily erase this minor inconsistency if he showed better lower body mechanics.
Rodgers' footwork may get him in trouble at some point, but right now his arm talent is so exceptional that he can still be one of the most accurate passers in the NFL in spite of this flaw.
That arm talent is what allows Rodgers to complete passes to every area of the field with relative ease. Even when you include the plays he misses because of his footwork, Rodgers' consistency throwing to short and intermediate routes is exceptional. He throws with anticipation and is able to place the ball into tight windows by controlling the velocity and trajectory of his passes from different platforms.
Rodgers is not only able to throw receivers open on shorter routes, but he can throw receivers open further down the field with his precision and touch.
The above image is the deep section of the first chart. It shows all of Rodgers' passes this season that landed at least 10 yards away from the line of scrimmage. Rodgers threw 127 passes that are recorded on this chart; he was accurate on 85 of them for an accuracy rate of 67 percent. That is a phenomenal rate, but it pales in comparison to his accuracy throwing down the right sideline.
As the blue box captures, a significant number of Rodgers' passes go down the right sideline. That is because Jordy Nelson runs a lot of his routes to that area of the field. It's regularly pointed out that Nelson benefits from playing with Rodgers, but the opposite is rarely brought up. Rodgers does benefit a lot from playing with Nelson because the duo have a developed understanding and Nelson has the perfect skill set to take advantage of Rodgers' ability to drop the ball over defenders into tight areas down the sideline.
On throws to this area of the field, Rodgers was accurate on 17 of 21 attempts. That gives him an accuracy rate of 81 percent.
While we don't have specific numbers to compare Rodgers to other quarterbacks in this area, it's blatantly clear that his percentages are bloated. It's not a myth that NFL quarterbacks get less accurate the further they throw the ball down the field, and nobody in the league possesses the same ability to precisely place the ball where he wants like Rodgers does. The consistency with which he shows off that ability is the kind of thing you would only expect to see in a video game.
Furthermore, Rodgers doesn't just make these plays from within the confines of the pocket.
He is the best dual-threat quarterback in the NFL, even though he doesn't scramble down the field on a regular basis. Rodgers is a very good athlete, and he does have 22 runs for 210 yards and a touchdown this season (not including kneeldowns), but he picks his spots when to advance past the line of scrimmage. While Russell Wilson has a huge number of rushing yards, he isn't using his feet as intelligently as Rodgers is.
Having the ability to extend plays with your athleticism into either flat isn't an uncommon trait in today's NFL. It's rare for a quarterback to be able to do it comfortably, but Rodgers may be the only quarterback in the league who understands how to extend plays consistently without migrating too far away from the original design of the play.
Most plays are designed to work from the pocket, so the route combinations down the field break at specific points when the ball is supposed to arrive. Quarterbacks who regularly extend plays into the flat often give up too quickly on making a play from the pocket, so they are more likely to miss open receivers down the field.
Rodgers has a bizarre ability to almost always know when to stay in the pocket and when to leave.
He turns an average group of offensive linemen into an outstanding group of pass protectors because he combines a quick release and instant coverage diagnosis with outstanding athleticism. Rodgers knows how to negate pressure with quick throws, when to subtly move in the pocket, and when to bail out completely. This not only affords his blockers better leverage because of Rodgers' subtle reactions within the pocket, it also means the defensive line can't be too aggressive, lest they risk letting Rodgers escape the pocket too easily.
At times, defensive linemen have even spied Rodgers or overreacted to his initial movement to take themselves out of a play completely.
Rodgers rarely plays the game on his heels. He stays on his toes, so he is always in a position to adjust to pressure or begin his throwing motion comfortably. This allows him to always be one step ahead of the incoming pressure.
Nothing the defense does to Rodgers can catch him off guard or put him in a position he's not equipped to handle. There isn't a clear game plan to slow him down; either he or his teammates need to play a big role in any poor output or performance. All of the smaller traits of his skill set are being executed almost as well as they possibly can be. Save for one minor issue with his accuracy, Rodgers is doing everything anyone could ever expect him to do.
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For that reason, he is the clear favorite for the MVP award at this stage of the season.
J.J. Watt winning the award would provide the best story for the media to sell. Watt is a defensive player excelling in a league that is built for offenses. He has played effectively when asked to on the offensive side and is consistently the best player on the field each Sunday. He is the young player embarking on a potential Hall of Fame career, a player with a back story that fits the underdog description, and the potential for a fairy tale moving forward.
At more than 30 years old, Rodgers is on the other side of his career. He is no longer viewed as an underdog because of his previous success, and he plays the position that is always favored for individual awards. He isn't on pace to break the records set by Peyton Manning last season and he isn't leading the league in every statistical category that is used to measure quarterbacks. There isn't really a story to sell if he wins the award. He simply gets it for being the best player in the league and that's that.
Yet, it still feels fraudulent to even consider anyone else at this point of the season.
Rodgers isn't just playing the best football of any quarterback currently in the league, he's likely playing the best football that you will ever see in your lifetime.
21 comments, Last at 05 Dec 2014, 3:45pm
#1 by mcheshier // Dec 04, 2014 - 12:30pm
If there's one weakness I've seen beyond the footwork, Rodgers tends to struggle against CBs with freakishly long arms (like Browner above, and other 'Seattle-style' CBs). Fortunately for him he doesn't have to deal with that very much.
#2 by justanothersteve // Dec 04, 2014 - 2:16pm
I wonder if some of the poor footwork is from watching Favre for three years. Favre would regularly throw from any position - frequently while falling backward - and had the arm strength to get away with it, though he wasn't as accurate as Rodgers.
#9 by Joshua Northey // Dec 04, 2014 - 5:31pm
I also think that people overate mechanics and footwork. It is very important to be able to have good mechanics, but they are not always necessary and that "quick release" everyone loves so much often comes from just using the arm and shoulder.
I think Rodger consciously chooses to not make a full throw some times for quickness/deception purposes. This of course leads to decreased accuracy on some balls, but might have benefits overall.
I know in hockey some of the most effective shooters have very crummy lower body mechanics and are all upper body. What they loose in accuracy and velocity they make up for in economy of movement, quickness, and deception. Obviously deception is a lot more important versus a goalie than a defensive back, but getting the throw off from a position where your feet are all wrong can be quite valuable for a QB> The defender is subconsciously not expecting the throw because your body position is all wrong.
#17 by nuclearbdgr // Dec 05, 2014 - 11:44am
Rodgers talked about his footwork on his radio program this week - said that he concentrates on moving his feet as soon as the ball is released so they are planted where someone can fall on his leg/knee
#4 by nat // Dec 04, 2014 - 3:48pm
If you prefer advanced stats, Rodgers leads the league with ... 44.3% DVOA since Week 4.
How much of this stat is just fortuitous selection of end point?
Looking at Quick Reads, I can see that including week 4 gives Rodgers a whopping 355 DYAR boost over Brady. Brady's week 4 stinker was that bad. I'm not sure how that plays out in DVOA. But it can't be good for Brady. Rodgers also gets a bump over Brees (+135 DYAR) and Rivers (+84 DYAR)
Meanwhile, excluding week 3 gives Rodgers a 124 DYAR boost vs Rivers and a 117 DYAR boost over Brees. Plus smaller ones vs Manning (17) and Brady (30). Again, I don't know the exact DVOA impact.
So I wonder, does Rodgers even lead the league in DVOA since week 3? Since week 5? Or does this come down to "Brady had a horrible game a couple of months ago the day after Rodgers had a great one, therefore Rodgers is by far the hottest QB at this very instant?"
I can see why you would pick week 4 as the cutoff in a paean such as this. I'm just curious how important that specific cutoff was to this stat.
#5 by kaesees // Dec 04, 2014 - 3:56pm
Per the QB stats page, Rodgers is the leader in DVOA if you include the whole season as well:
Player Team DYAR Rk YAR Rk DVOA Rk VOA QBR Rank Passes Yards EYds TD FK FL INT C% DPI
P.Manning DEN 1,314 1 1,246 1 30.2% 2 28.0% 80.6 2 489 3,618 4,352 36 2 1 9 67.2% 7/112
A.Rodgers GB 1,226 2 1,207 2 34.9% 1 34.2% 86.4 1 407 3,131 3,814 32 5 1 3 66.7% 6/172
D.Brees NO 1,176 3 1,100 3 23.8% 5 21.6% 75.0 6 503 3,627 4,306 27 2 2 11 71.1% 6/128
T.Brady NE 1,098 4 978 4 23.9% 4 20.1% 78.3 3 466 3,134 4,018 28 1 3 6 65.3% 10/165
P.Rivers SD 990 5 927 6 25.3% 3 22.9% 78.1 4 433 3,104 3,540 25 4 1 9 69.5% 6/107
A.Luck IND 939 6 931 5 16.1% 8 15.8% 72.0 7 515 3,865 4,057 34 5 4 11 64.2% 6/114
#6 by nat // Dec 04, 2014 - 4:11pm
Sure. We knew that. Rodgers is ahead of Manning in DVOA by 4.7% so far this season, while trailing him in DYAR by 88. That's a lot less impressive of a lead than the Week 4+ stat Cian felt was worth noting. Although it's still a lead, to be sure.
So is that large lead since week 4 just a result of picking that one specific week? Or does it persist if you move the cutoff to week 3 or 5? If not, who leads since those weeks?
Anyone know? Cian? How 'bout you? Fair's fair. Fess up.
#7 by BobbyDazzler // Dec 04, 2014 - 4:20pm
Yes Rodgers is having a great season, but the Packers will only go all the way if the balls keep bouncing their way.
Rodgers is very likely the best QB in the league when the Packers are in the lead. But when they fall behind or the defense has a bad game, Rodgers very rarely pulls the game out.
Want to see how Rodgers stacks up against the other elite QB's when their team allows 30+ points?
Drew Brees 8-23
Tom Brady 5-12
Peyton Manning 6-19
Aaron Rodgers 2-21
For a QB as great as Rodgers is, that win number should be a hell of a lot higher.
Further, the Packers have forced 23 turnovers so far this season, good for 4th in the league. Therefore Rodgers has had a lot of extra possessions, rather than the defense potentially giving up more points.
The Packers have forced 9 fumbles and recovered 8 of them, while on offense they have fumbled 13 times but only lost 4, so it's quite possible that will even out somewhat over the remaining games. If that happens in the playoffs then the Packers could well lose as the above stats attest to.
#10 by ammek // Dec 04, 2014 - 6:04pm
Those numbers are wrong; Rodgers has won at least four such games:
2011 v NO 42-34
2011 v SD 45-38
2011 v NYG 38-35
2013 v Min 45-31
And "allows 30+ points" is misleading. Rodgers' defenses have given up 35+ points on 14 occasions since 2008. Brady's defenses, by contrast, have allowed 35+ points just five times since 2007. Rodgers is 2-12 in those games; Brady is 1-4. (Brees is 0-9.)
Another way to look at it is that when the Packers have given up between 20 and 28 points, Rodgers is 25-10. Exclude his first season as a starter and he is 23-5. That's an 82% win rate in the games I'd want my elite QB to win. (Brees is 25-19 over the same period.)
Anyway, it's a bit disappointing to have to engage in another clutchy clutch/QB wins argument. The fumbles are a fair point, but nothing to do with this article.
#11 by Thomas_beardown // Dec 04, 2014 - 7:10pm
Green Bay is 6-19 when allowing 30+ points as far as I can tell, since Rodgers took over as QB. I didn't bother to check if he missed any of the games. I would guess he did since he hasn't been super healthy as a QB.
Since that's the exact same record BobbyDazler has for Peyton Manning, I'm thinking he messed up his research in some way.
#14 by Scott Kacsmar // Dec 05, 2014 - 1:49am
It's a fair point to say the Packers don't win many shootouts with Rodgers. Even the 45-38 win over San Diego in 2011, GB led 21-7 thanks to two pick-6's and later led 45-24 before Rivers tried to bring SD back.
But your records for starts allowing 30+ points are way off, Dazzler.
Drew Brees 10-43 (.189)
Tom Brady 10-19 (.345)
Peyton Manning 13-39 (.250)
Aaron Rodgers 4-19 (.174)
And yes, Matt Flynn is 2-3 with Green Bay. Had his chances in the red zone on the final drive against the Pats (2010) and Steelers (2013) too.
What's always interested me about this is we should note how many points the QB had before his opponent scored the 30+. Was it really a shootout or was he winning a blowout where the defense gave up some late scores to make it closer? I mean, Brees won 35-32 in Pittsburgh on Sunday, but I'd say his defense got the job done for the first 55 minutes. Even turned the game completely around with Cam Jordan's tipped INT.
Brees (53) and Manning (52) have very similar number of games, but Brees has 9 games where the opponent scored exactly 30. Manning has one and it's a game he left early in the 2nd QT (30-7 loss to 2009 Bills). Brees is 0-19 when it's 35+ points. Manning is 4-20.
I didn't adjust for incomplete games or more importantly non-defensive scores (this would actually make Brady's record better because the Patriots rarely ever allow 30+ points on just DEF/ST).
I would actually prefer to use net defensive points per drive to control for pace and defensive scoring, but haven't had the time to crunch thousands of games that way yet.
#16 by big10freak // Dec 05, 2014 - 8:17am
A group of average offensive linemen? Josh Sitton is one of the best guards in the league. The rookie center hasn't been directly tied to a sack being allowed by him yet this season and is a down the ballot offensive rookie of the year candidate. The tackles struggle some with speed rushers but have more than held up their end of the bargain this season.
The majority of sacks allowed this season by Green Bay are coverage sacks as Rodgers will hold the ball forever to make a play. And part of that is because Rodgers will only run in tight games. When Green Bay is playing a lesser rival Rodgers regularly pitches the ball 20 yards downfield in a tight window versus running six yards for the first down. That regularly drives Packers batty.
This current line could do a lot better run blocking mostly tied to Bakhtiari being a pure pass protecting left tackle with no push for run plays and both guards playing hurt which limits their ability to pull.
But pass blocking they do more than their share.