Any number of sad stories can be told in the wake of the 49ers’ thrashing of the Packers, but I’ll start with one that fits a very broad perspective. Put bluntly but honestly: the days of Aaron Rodgers being an elite quarterback appear to be over.
The evidence is compelling, if not conclusive. For example, did you notice which of Aaron’s receivers failed to have a pass completion of more than seven yards? Think about it. I don’t think many would deny at this point that the team’s receiving corps is the weakest in memory. This certainly is a partial explanation of what’s gone wrong with the passing game, but it doesn’t begin to account for what we witnessed Sunday evening.
Here’s that list of receivers: Valdes-Scantling, Graham, Allison, Lazard, Kumerow, Jones, Vitale, and Tonyan. And the only exceptions, Davante Adams and Jamaal Williams, didn’t catch a pass of over 15 yards. Geronimo Allison’s tally in the past four games has been 43 yards – I don’t even see him being on an NFL roster in the next year or two. Marquez Valdes-Scantling, over that same time span has two catches for 11 yards. Aaron’s only interest in him seems to be as a deep-ball threat, and Aaron’s deep ball expertise has waned.
Over the last three games Jake Kumerow has two catches for 23 yards. Of course I’ve been following the usage of Aaron Jones: in his last three games, and he’s managed one catch, for minus yardage. Aaron had the league’s fourth highest ranked running back receiving yardage just a month ago. It’s gross negligence on LaFleur’s and/or Rodgers’ part.
Chargers Game Redux
Before we leave the subject of receivers, I had hoped we learned something from the Chargers loss earlier in the month: that some semblance of a reasonable offensive start to a game is vital – like, say, at least a couple of first downs instead of a bunch of three-and-outs.
After the Chargers put up a 15-play drive to start that game, a screen for minus yardage, a false start by Brian Bulaga, and a sack on third down put the Packers in a mental state from which they never recovered – the announcer pretty accurately called it a case of “nerves” – it’s largely metal at any rate. The next four drives were for 6 plays, 9 plays, 3 plays, and 5 plays – and punt, punt, punt, and punt. It took till under a minute left in the third quarter for Green Bay to put three points on the scoreboard.
So how did the Packers start off against the Niners? On the game’s second play, Davante Adams gets a first down, but is penalized 15 yards for unsportsmanlike conduct – he chest bumped his defender after the play, and right in front of a referee. Davante’s head obviously wasn’t in the game or focused on winning. Unfortunately Adams is the only receiver Rodgers seems to trust – he got targeted 12 times on Sunday, and produced 43 yards – a measly 3.6 yards per play.
With Adams having set the pattern, Rodgers then fumbled, with San Francisco falling on the ball on the 2-yard line – and scoring on the next play. The Packers then followed up by going three and out three times in a row, before Jones got stuffed on an utterly predictable fourth-and-one plunge up the middle. What happened to the illusion of complexity? Similarly to the Chargers’ game, the Pack didn’t get on the scoreboard until under four minutes remained in the third quarter.
The Over-the-Hill Gang
I digress. But moving on to the quarterback upheaval in the NFL, one could say it began in September when 38-year-old Eli Manning, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, got yanked by the Giants after just two games. 37-year-old Ben Roethlisberger also lasted but two games before undergoing elbow surgery. Also in Week 2, arguably the greatest thrower in league history, the Saints’ Drew Brees, injured his hand and didn’t return until week 8. At age 40, Drew is still at the top of his game.
Due to a few quarterbacks like Brees defying the aging odds, we all got to thinking that QBs should routinely be able to excel up to around age 40, or even longer. Brett Favre did so (though in a purple uniform) and so did Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady is still well above average at 42. Rodgers has made it clear he wants to play at least till he’s 40.
But these are the exceptions. The Falcons’ Matt Ryan, named the league’s MVP in 2016, has led his team to a 3-8 record – and he’s only 34. The Chargers, and their 37-year-old 8-time Pro Bowler, Philip Rivers, are at 4-7. Joe Flacco, a former Super Bowl MVP who is now with Denver at age 34, has spearheaded the Broncos to just three wins on the year. Andy Dalton is winless for the Bengals – the 8-year veteran appears washed up at 32.
How about the passer ratings of these guys? Ryan, who led the league with a 117.1 rating in 2016, sits at 93.3; the venerable Brady is at 88.5; Rivers is at 85.5; Flacco is at 85.1, and Dalton is at 79.2. Aaron Rodgers is hanging on to triple digits at 100.4, a mediocre 12th best. Every year from 2008-2014 Rodgers achieved a higher rating, capped off by a league-record 122.5 in 2011.
A-Rod turns 36 the day after the team’s next game, against the Giants on December 1. His slippage is pronounced, prolonged, non-subjective – and natural. It’s not a knock on the guy – it’s human nature and he’s human.
The New Wave
The reigning league MVP, Patrick Mahomes, 24, the third-year Chiefs star, is the current cream of the quarterback crop – he sports a 110.0 rating, 4th best. Other youngsters on the rise are Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson (106.3, 6th), Houston’s Deshaun Watson (103.4, 8th), and Dallas’ Dak Prescott (100.8, 10th).
Quarterbacks in mid-career who are enjoying great success at the moment include: Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins, who after Sunday leads the league with a 114.8 rating; Seattle’s Russell Wilson (112.1, 2nd); and the currently sidelined (with spinal fractures) Matthew Stafford (106.0, 7th).
By almost any standard, Aaron Rodgers is no longer a top-tier, or elite, NFL quarterback. Yes, he can still turn in a dazzling performance, as he did with his “perfect” 158.3 passer rating game against the Raiders on October 20. But game in and game out, his performance has been in a gradual descent for the last five years. His passer ratings from 2011 through 2018 unmistakably reveal the downward trend: 122.5, 108.0, 104.9, 112.2, 92.7, 104.2, 97.2, and 97.6. It’s seldom that such numbers reverse themselves.
At another time we might want to debate his increasing inaccuracy, his throw-away tendencies, his susceptibility to sacks, his decreasing mobility, his failure to convert third downs, and his emotion-less lack of response when things turn bad – an example of non-leadership that will receive increased scrutiny in the aftermath of the 49ers takedown.
For now, let’s just look at one simple example: timely execution of play calls. I think I read where the Packers lead the league, by a wide margin, when it comes to delays of game – something like 25 such penalties This doesn’t count the many time outs that were wasted in lieu of drawing a penalty. These continual 5-yard walk-offs are a primary reason the Packers so often find themselves in third-and-long situations.
With a new head coach and offensive schemes, we knew before the end of preseason a problem existed. Even during the bye week, Coach LaFleur was still stressing the need to clean it up. The coach had earlier on accepted a portion of the blame, but more recently what I’ve seen is Rodgers continually intent on changing formations and plays while the play clock is on the verge of hitting zero.
Not only does the problem remain, but Rodgers has caused the problem to become worse as the season has unwound. Inexcusable.
Because Rodgers is Rodgers, Green Bay fans have come to embrace the notion that he defies the aging process. We know he’s a health nut when it comes to both training and nutrition. Regardless, one distinctly loses speed, quickness, strength, and coordination by the mid-thirties.
I assume that one’s reaction time, all important for a pro quarterback, also suffers. I’m also concerned about aging and vision – could this help to explain why Aaron so often fails to get off throws to open receivers before that narrow window of openness closes?
In other words, we should expect the decline in Rodgers we have all been observing. It’s the norm, not something unusual. Aaron doesn’t possess super powers – though Drew Brees, with his 106.6 passer rating (5th best) and incomparable completion rate (75.7%) might – he’ll be 41 in January.
Team’s Response to Its Aging QB
If they don’t properly address the decline in their quarterback, GM Brian Gutekunst and the rest of the front office will fail to do so at their peril. Assuming their plan is to replace Rodgers via the draft, I would think that they should devote their top draft pick following either this season or the next season to selecting a quarterback. They ought to also look into moving up in Round 1 if they want to have confidence they are selecting someone capable of becoming the team’s next “franchise” quarterback.
The other option is of course to keep an eye out for a trade for a promising, or overlooked, young NFL quarterback – it’s how the Pack acquired Brett Favre, and how the 49ers obtained Jimmy Garoppolo. Gardner Minshew, anyone? – I never said this is without any risk. Or you could wait until Round 3, and locate a Russell Wilson type.
Packer fans should well know that the timing of going after a future starting QB is tricky. The front office couldn’t have known that Favre would hang on forever – you might recall that he’d talk of retirement year after year, even as training camp approached.
As it was, had the Packers not elevated Rodgers to be the starter in his fourth year, Aaron surely would have moved on to another team when his rookie contract expired. On the other hand, starting signal callers have been known to go bonkers when their team uses its top draft pick on a QB.
It’s common practice now to have a high draft choice QB start from Game 1 of his first season.
At any rate, if Green Bay is to learn anything from this season’s two stunning defeats in California, it should be that the search for Rodgers’ replacement – if not already underway – needs to begin in earnest. It’s called planning ahead.