When you witness the extraordinary week in and week out, does it become pedestrian? I’m not one to blow sunshine up anyone’s skirt, but we’re witnessing something truly amazing in Green Bay. And we are spoiled. Packers fans have become accustomed to a level of excellence when it comes to quarterbacks that dates back to 1993. That rarely happens with an organization.
And to quote Aaron Rodgers, he’s only scratching the surface.
Of course there are black box metrics, like PFF tried to pull off this week to try to knock his level of performance down a notch. But let’s face it, it hasn’t been able to hold any water and has been amended not once, but twice since they decided to give his 4 touchdowns, over three hundred yards in the air, and yet again ZERO interceptions was somehow worthy of an F-minus.
Not to badger Pro Football Focus for the absolute disconnect of their analysis. Other people have done a very good job trying to figure that out. Some have been asserted that nebulous metrics like this reward the circus “big plays” (whatever the heck that means) and that more pedestrian, “low risk” plays are scored much lower. So there appears to be a “wow” factor when it comes to rating quarterbacks that is not all that subjective.
But enough about PFF. The disconnect between his score and actual performance on the field perhaps underscores that Aaron Rodgers plays football in a way much different than his peers, and is possible that metrics of this nature penalize a player for not taking unnecessary risks?
Exhibit A: Brett Lorenzo Favre. Arguably one of the best quarterbacks to have ever played the game. No one is going to question that. Yet his style of play was worlds apart from Aaron Rodgers’ technique. And it reflects in his career statistics. In his 302 games in the NFL, he completed 62% of his passes, averaged nearly 3800 passing yards yearly (minus his brief appearance as an Atlanta Falcon), and scored 508 passing touchdowns for a TD percentage (ie, percentage of all attempted passes resulting in TDs) of 5.0%)
And then there were his interceptions. We can’t ignore the fact that he threw 336 interceptions.
Favre is famously known as a gunslinger who took risks. Sometimes they were calculated risks, but other times he seemed to wing it and make it up as he was going along. The circus shows defined some games (ie, Favre to Antonio Freeman in the October 1996 game against Chicago ring a bell.) A lot of times it resulted in heart-stopping plays, but there were also a lot of those throws that seemed to land in enemy hands.
Favre was willing to take risks because his physical abilities whether in the air or on the ground when he’d lower a shoulder with ball in hand and plow ahead for a first down often gave him the advantage and the upper hand in any head to head match up. In other words, plays and ultimately games would tip in his favor because of his innate physicality and Han Solo approach to “Never tell him the odds.”
Now let’s contrast that to the Packers’ current QB Aaron Rodgers.
On paper, they have a very similar completion percentage. Where Favre completed 62%, Rodgers has completed 66% of his passes. Where they dramatically differ is Rodgers has put 6.6% of all his attempted passes in the end zone. Even more striking is his interception percentage. It’s nearly half of Brett Favre’s. Where 3% of all of Favre’s passing attempts ended in interceptions, Rodgers has only thrown for an interception 1.6% of the time.
I know, boring numbers. I have a point, just hang with me.
If Aaron Rodgers was penalized in his PFF rating for not having “the big play” (and honestly, what exactly constitutes a big play? To me it sounds like a vague description where dumb luck is too much of a factor), then let’s look where he actually takes a stab at a big play:
Watch the past couple of game this season. The big, dramatic bombs occur when Rodgers and the rest of the Packers offense have absolutely nothing to lose. He is, undoubtedly, the NFL’s king of exploiting the free play. This season has pointed out a few things about Aaron Rodger as he lines up behind center. He’s constantly counting the number of defenders on the other side of the ball. With the hurry up, no-huddle offense, he’s realized they’ve caught teams with too many players on the field on a more regular basis. If he sees there are 12 men out there, he will hurry things up and get the play off the ground. Same goes for an off sides penalty. If he can draw them into the neutral zone and sees a flag fly up, he’s going to exploit that as well.
Everyone knows the drill. Rodgers and company know it is a free play–in fact they have practiced such scenarios to be ready for the unexpected–and the little three yard pass or run goes out the window. Receivers hustle down field, and he unleashes a bomb. If it falls into the receiver’s hands for a 25 yard gain or into the end zone, Rodgers looks brilliant. If it is intercepted or the play is broken up, there’s no skin off anyone’s teeth and they accept the penalty, the five yards and they repeat the down.
Except PFF penalizes bad throws, interceptions and what they perceive to be a bad throw that should be intercepted. It doesn’t matter if that crap throw didn’t count, they still count it as a hit against the passer.
Perhaps Aaron Rodgers breaks this type of subjective metric because he is very calculating in the amount of risk he wants to assume. He doesn’t force a play like Favre often did, like other receivers do on a regular basis because he simply does not have to. While he’s the quarterback on the field, he thinks a bit like an actuary more than other players. In his many steps of assessing the defense and preps before the ball is placed into his hands, he meticulously assesses the risk to benefit ratio and factors that into his progressions. Sure, he may be very comfortable threading the needle of an impossible pass to James Jones or Jordy because he has experience with that receiver and trusts that they will once again catch the ball. Now watch how he interacts with less-seasoned receivers like Ty Montgomery or a Jeff Janis. That pass may not nearly be so tight because the risk is higher to make a more difficult reception.
This likely factors into why he has a 1.6% interception rate. He isn’t willing to gamble the interception if the risk is high. And if one isn’t going to take unnecessary risk, then the game is going to be a more pedestrian dink and dunk down the field until the ball ends up in the end zone for another six points. It doesn’t mean that Rodgers is not a good receiver, nor does it mean he is not exciting. He just knows when the risk is right and when it is not.
Jason Wilde wrote about recently, how Rodgers–as QB coach Alex Van Pelt described via Scott Tolzien–sees the game much like Neo when he was finally able to read the Matrix. Tolzien recalled Van Pelt musing, “… think he had a good way of describing it: ‘It’s like the game is The Matrix for him, in the slow-motion scenes.’ He can see all the bodies coming at him, and it’s like slow motion for him. He’s just … different.”
There is no metric for brain power or thought processes. Aaron Rodgers is able to multitask on a level that puts on a level with few players. You can’t use a metric to assess a good decision or the suppression of a bad decision. Only the plays that actually transpire. There are no style points for taking a calculated risk that means nothing if the play doesn’t fall the way you want it and a flag nullifies a bad risk.
So perhaps standard metrics don’t apply to him because he doesn’t play a standard game. That, in my opinion, is a good problem to have. Aaron Rodgers isn’t playing for style points. He isn’t competing in a popularity contest either. At the end of the day, he wants to win games even if it means he’s breaking the mold of a traditional quarterback.
And a week or two from now, will it really matter that he received a crap score from Pro Football Focus?
It’s Aaron Rodgers’ world, and we’re just living in it.--------------