After Sunday’s discouraging loss, Aaron Rodgers is now clearly under the microscope – as he should be. One can’t help but look for explanations why the league’s 2014 MVP has declined so rapidly in less than two years.
Let’s try to rule in or out a number of theories.
First, I’d argue that the team around Rodgers has not declined – it’s one of the best in Rodgers’ eight years as the starting QB – on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball. Rodgers has had decent pass protection so far this year – certainly better than that of the Minnesota Vikings’ Sam Bradford. Though the Packers’ rushing game wasn’t given much work, it again was superior to what Bradford had to work with. Rodgers’ supporting cast is just fine.
It’s not a physical problem. Rodgers had surgery to address a slight problem with his knee right after last season. He said that he is several pounds lighter this year, and coach Mike McCarthy added that he’s never seen Rodgers in better shape. At age 32, Rodgers should be physically in his prime.
There has to be a significant mental component to this decline in performance. There’s a lot of chatter about Rodgers having lost his confidence. Rodgers’ body and facial language seem to confirm this. The televised camera shot from behind the defense into the face of Rodgers on nearly every play against the Vikings showed that the projection of assuredness – swagger, even – of past years has vanished. But is this a cause or effect of his poor play?
It is by now a strong consensus that Rodgers has become reluctant to throw the ball as he works through his progressions. This has become more obvious each game, going back to at least week 6 of last year. Whether it’s a lack of confidence in himself or loss of trust in his receivers, one or both must be contributing heavily to this problem. The reluctance to let the ball go has gone from being a trend to almost an embedded habit. The question that we can’t adequately answer without viewing the coaches’ film is whether there are often open receivers when this is happening.
Though it’s less remarked on, Rodgers is also having a harder time than ever making completions when he breaks off a play and scrambles. I’m not sure if that’s due to failure to spot the open man or increased reluctance than in the past to make a risky throw.
Maybe he has lost some of his great ability to throw on the run – though his accuracy is off even when he standing solidly and not under great pressure. Rodgers was pressured 11 times by the Vikings and had no completions on these plays. Is “hearing footsteps” starting to get to him?
Is there a loss of concentration or focus? Late in the Vikings’ game, Rodgers threw to his immediate right to tight end Jared Cook, who was well behind the line of scrimmage and under 10 yards away. There was no defender around either player – yes, I could have completed the throw. The pass floated to Cook’s knees, where he failed to haul it in. I couldn’t see the entire field, but the broadcaster said there was room to run.
One last thought on accuracy: do we agree that Rodgers has lost his touch on deep throws? If so, why would that be?
In week 1, Rodgers repeatedly threw low or behind on passes toward the sideline. In week 2, there were some passes going way over the receivers’ heads. Does the inaccuracy suggest the quarterback is tightening up?
Can we at least stop with the excuses that are being made? One that I hope to never hear again is that it can take years for receivers to develop a relationship with Rodgers and earn his trust. However, in less than two weeks Sam Bradford seamlessly learned both the Vikings’ playbook and got in near-perfect sync with his new receivers. It’s not rocket science.
Nor do receivers have to be superstars. Adam Thielen went undrafted in 2013, and had only 335 yards in his NFL career going into Sunday’s game. Bradford worked as smoothly with him (four completions for 41 yards) as he did with Stefon Diggs – who is also no superstar at this point in his short career. There are countless examples of great quarterbacks, such as Peyton Manning, who excelled regardless of the quality of their receivers.
Can we throw another faulty notion into the dust bin? We’ve been told that Rodgers, in his 12th year in the league, no longer needs the preseason or tune-ups. McCarthy even believes he doesn’t need a lot of practice of any kind – the Packers had the most days off (13) from practice during training camp, and Aaron and several other veterans were excused from the final three days of minicamp in June.
Rodgers has looked anything but in-tune and sharp these first two games. The no-huddle offense is particularly not up to speed. There has been a lot of confusion over play calls and formations. Have team practices been too lax or too few?
I don’t have a lot of answers. What I do know is that a player who has known little criticism in his career is now going to have to face up to it, accept it, deal with it, and use it to make himself better. There’s an unprecedented weight on the two-time league MVP right now.
I don’t think Rodgers’ fabulous run from 2008 through 2014 is over. It’s just been interrupted – but time is of the essence if the 2016 season is going to be saved.