Let’s get right to it. Here are some preliminaries and assumptions.
I love and admire Aaron Rodgers as much as any other loyal Packers fan. I want him to excel and succeed, but that’s not the trajectory his career path is on. Changes are needed – for his own good and for the good of the team. No one is perfect.
As shown over the past three years, Aaron has not been able to maintain his standard of excellence. All of the team’s coaches, coordinators, and quality control guys haven’t been able to stop the bleeding. Coach Mike McCarthy gave Aaron an unusual amount of independence and freedom to do his thing – the new coach now needs to rein in that independence a bit.
Matt LaFleur is a smart guy. At this point in the season, he very likely has a good grip on where the faults lie in Aaron’s game – and everyone else’s for that matter. He must have a good idea of what areas of his QB’s game need improvement. It’s understandable that a young new head coach would assert himself cautiously into modifying the game of a future Hall of Famer, but it’s past time to begin to undergo the process in earnest.
The sports world, as does the overall business world, relies heavily on past and current performance data. Targets or goals are established for motivational purposes, as a way of focusing, and in order to measure progress. It’s called benchmarking, or best practices benchmarking, which Wikipedia defines as “the practice of comparing business processes and performance metrics to industry bests and best practices from other companies. Dimensions typically measured are quality, time and cost.”
How does this translate to the NFL, and specifically to NFL quarterbacks? The predominant rating for NFL quarterbacks has come to be the league-approved passer rating. Aaron formerly had no equal when it comes to this benchmark, but his passer rating has been on a descent ever since his high-water mark of 122.5 in 2011. This year he has struggled to keep his rating in triple digits, and his current number, 100.4 is only tenth best among his peers.
However, passer rating, which consists of a variety of components, isn’t something a quarterback can hone into and focus on as a guide to his play. It’s a cumulative result of several factors.
Almost everyone from the casual fan to the most astute football minds seem to agree: Aaron has over the years become hesitant to make his throws. He holds onto the ball too long, and goes through too many progressions in trying to decide who best to throw to. One popular theory is that he’s become obsessed with avoiding interceptions. Another is that he overthinks things.
Whatever the reason for hesitation, this allows pass rushers to pressure him, force him out of the pocket, make him throw on the run, and all too often get sacked. His style of play also exposes him to serious injury. I will credit him with doing a bit better in 2019: his 32 sacks is only 12th worst so far this season.
Aaron’s hesitancy has undoubtedly contributed to his steadily eroding completion percentage. From a high of 68.3% in 2011, it has sunk to below 65% the last three seasons. Currently, it’s at 63.3%, which ranks him only 18th best in the league.
There’s a wealth of data out there, but which one or ones might we look to as a key yardstick to apply to Rodgers? I believe there is one particular performance indicator ideally suited to Aaron’s situation. If our beloved but beleaguered quarterback would focus on – and commit to bettering – this particular performance indicator, I’m confident it would turn his game around.
Time to Throw
NFL Next Gen Stats, as the name implies, has been creatively coming up with non-standard ways of measuring pro football performance for some time now. Since 2016, they’ve been keeping track of several new quarterback statistics.
Go here to view their quarterback chart, with its 15 columns of data. The very first statistical column, labeled TT, records time to throw, which is the time from the snap from center to the QB releasing the ball.
By clicking on “TT,” you’ll get the TT numbers arranged from quickest to slowest release time. Check it out, and you’ll find that Rodgers so far this season has an average TT of 2.91; tied for 34th out of 37 qualifying QBs. In 2018, Aaron’s number was 2.95 (35th); in 2017 it was an uncharacteristic 2.65 (15th); and in 2016, it was 2.86 (34th).
If we can agree that being hesitant to release the ball has come to be a major problem in Aaron’s game, then if he and the coaching staff were to concentrate, successfully, on shortening his TT, his performance across the board should improve dramatically: fewer sacks, higher completion percentage, more passing yardage, more third-and-short downs. As a bonus, he wouldn’t be exposing himself as much to serious injury.
The Role Model
For those who peruse the TT column of Next Gen statistics, it makes sense to see where the most productive passer in NFL history – who happens to be a contemporary of Aaron – rates. The great Drew Brees is also the league’s most accomplished “quick draw” passer.
Aaron had his most productive year in 2011, when he passed for 4,647 yards. From 2011-2016, Drew never passed for fewer than 4,870 yards. Drew has exceeded 5,000 yards five times – no one else has done it more than once. It’s no coincidence that Drew, the NFL’s greatest-of-all-time thrower (I didn’t say winner or most valuable player), is always at or near the top of the TT column.
To date this season, Drew’s TT is 2.53 seconds, which ranks him second fastest among the 37 qualifiers. In 2018, it was 2.59; in 2017 it was 2.58; in 2016, it was 2.42. Drew conclusively proves that one can consistently release the ball quickly and still be the best there is.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, a quick release time doesn’t mean a low completion percentage. Drew also rules the completion percentage column (third from the right). So far this season, Drew is again number one, with an astonishing 73.6% completion rate. I have no doubt that if Aaron can reduce his TT, he’ll have a corresponding increase in his completion percentage.
Nor does a quick-release time mean one is confined to mostly short passes. On the season, Aaron’s yards per pass attempt is 7.4, 17th best; Drew’s is 8.2, tied for sixth best.
There could be a corresponding increase in his interception rate, though I doubt it would be very significant. Despite Drew being a high volume thrower, his interception totals from 2017 to the present have numbered only 8, 5, and 4.
The Saints’ Receivers
Maybe you’re thinking that Brees has been blessed with a much better stable of wide receivers than Rodgers? I don’t see it. In Brees’s illustrious 19-year career, here are the only wide receiver names that stick out to me: Marques Colston (2006-15), Brandon Cooks (2014-16), and Michael Thomas (2016-19).
Colston was an average athlete, out of Hofstra, but a very disciplined and focused player. Cooks is blazing fast but also a troublemaker, who’s already with his third team in six years. The youthful Thomas was a first team All-Pro last year, and leads the league in passing yardage again this season.
To digress briefly, the parallels between Michael Thomas and Davante Adams are striking. Thomas has 4.57 dash speed (29th percentile), he weighs 212#, has a 35” vertical jump, a 6.80 3-cone drill time, and a 4.13 20-yard shuttle time. Adams’s corresponding marks are 4.56, 212#, 39 ½”, 6.82, and 4.30. Thomas is two inches taller than Adams.
In sum, Brees has shown throughout his 19-year pro career that he can excel with whatever supporting cast he’s provided. He certainly made Jimmy Graham an All-Pro, whereas Russell Wilson and Rodgers haven’t had nearly as much success with him.
I wish I could compare Aaron’s time-to-throw averages in his best years (2011-14) with his more recent TTs. I’ll bet they were notably lower. Aaron’s hesitancy in throwing the ball, especially to receivers who aren’t wide open, is a bad habit he’s acquired over the years. It will take a strong commitment, and lots of patience, to fix it.
An Intervention Plan
Aaron has been unable to reverse the trend by himself, so it’s time for a strong coach to intervene. I would hope that Aaron – for the good of the team – would buy into such an idea.
My remedial plan is simply to establish “time to throw” as the primary yardstick of Rodgers’ performance. It should be the main focus at practices, and diligently graded and studied following each game.
As part of the plan, Aaron should watch Brees highlight films incessantly, like this one. What he’ll see is a rhythm thrower, one who trusts (not second-guesses) his play caller, one who hits receivers shortly after they’ve made their break and established maximum separation, and one who’s not reluctant to throw into tight coverage.
And Brees does it, almost every pass play, in about two and a half seconds. And yes, Drew is considerably smaller than Aaron, not nearly as athletic, he doesn’t possess a rifle-like arm, and he’ll be 41 in less than a month.
Put succinctly, Aaron has become too slow in making his throws. He needs to grip it and rip it. Maybe the above proposal, or some version of it, would help.