Aaron Rodgers and Growing Weary With Greatness

Aaron Rodgers had more failed receptions last year than any other quarterback. Rodgers had 64, one more than Cam Newton and Ryan Tannehill. A failed reception is an accurate throw that resulted in an incompletion or interception because of receiver error. It expands on drops to include plays that aren’t drops but are plays where the receiver ruins a good throw from the quarterback.

So far this season, Rodgers has 28 failed receptions. He is on pace for one fewer failed reception this year than last.

More importantly, Rodgers has lost at least 405 yards and at least four touchdowns to failed receptions this season (We have to say at least here because we can’t account for the yards that could have come after the catch). Rodgers is on pace to finish this season (16 games) with 810 lost yards and eight lost touchdowns. In 2015, only Cam Newton lost more than 810 yards and he played in 19 games whereas Rodgers’ 10 lost touchdowns led the NFL with nobody else eclipsing seven.

In other words, Rodgers’ receivers are ruining his output for the second season in a row.

There is nothing coincidental about the perception of Rodgers’ performance slipping the same time as the quality of his supporting cast disappears. His receivers are the primary culprits, Jordy Nelson has lost his athleticism in return from his torn ACL, Randall Cobb is being exposed as a limited receiver in a scheme (we’ll get to it) that doesn’t help him, Davante Adams needs to be schemed open and even then he doesn’t offer much upside with the ball in his hands if he catches it, Richard Rodgers can’t get open on his own or make contested catches so he’s a hindrance rather than a help.

Long gone are the days when Rodgers had Jermichael Finley, Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Nelson, James Jones and Cobb on the same team.

As he was last season, Adams has been a serial offender. Take the above play for example. It came in Week 1 against the Jacksonville Jaguars. Rodgers extends the play by breaking the pocket but he is moving left so any throw he makes will be tougher. Rodgers makes a sensational throw. The arm talent alone to get the ball there is impressive but the technique to stay as square as possible so he can be as accurate as possible is also rare.

The throw isn’t perfect. It doesn’t lead Adams downfield and hit him in stride so he has a chance to run underneath the ball. It does clear the recovering defender though and it doesn’t ask Adams to make a difficult adjustment. He doesn’t have to reach or extend fully to touch the ball. He can stop its momentum away from his body before cradling it into his chest.

Maybe the defender disrupts the receiver at the catch point?

Nope. Prince Amukamara tracks the ball and reaches out for it but his right arm is on the wrong side of Adams’ arm. Adams tracks the ball relatively well, he could have been stronger in attacking it but he was in a good position to make the play. He simply lets the ball bounce off of his hands in a way that has become all too familiar for eagle-eyed Packers fans.

A week later, Adams cost Rodgers a 44-yard touchdown reception when he failed to pull in an even more outrageous deep throw. He had been interfered with on the play but still should have caught the ball.

Each of those plays cost Rodgers more than 40 yards. This past week against the Indianpolis Colts, Jeff Janis cost Rodgers at least 55 yards when he let a perfect throw bounce off of his hands. Those are the three longest plays Rodgers has lost this year. He has 14 other plays where he lost at least 11 yards to a failed reception.

Rodgers has been accurate on 80.2 percent of his throws. That would have ranked seventh in the NFL last year.

80.2 on its own is impressive but the singular number can be misleading if the quarterback isn’t throwing the ball down the field. That’s not the case with Rodgers this year. Entering last week when the Lions had the same first eight game sample as the Packers have right now, Matthew Stafford’s average depth of target was 6.85. Rodgers’ right now is 8.45.

1,225 of Stafford’s yards at that point had come after the catch, 56.9 percent of his yards. 1,011 of Rodgers’ yards have come after the catch, 49.6 percent of his yards.

The Packers receivers don’t create YAC of their own, it typically comes from well executed schemes or route combinations. They also don’t offer Rodgers much help at the catch point. In his eight game sample, Stafford had 15 inaccurate passes caught by receivers for 214 yards. Rodgers has four for 42 yards. Having Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, Anquan Boldin and Theo Riddick instead of his current supporting cast would have a huge impact on Rodgers’ production.

Blaming the receivers alone isn’t fair. They are the main problem right now but the scheming is terrible also.

Mike McCarthy calls an offense that relies heavily on isolation routes and predominantly uses the same personnel package (three receivers, one tight end and a running back). He features a fullback more often than most offenses do, he even motioned his fullback into a receiver position to throw a screen to him last week. McCarthy doesn’t create any easy yardage for his quarterback and he rarely ever looks to scheme his receivers open with route combinations or how they release off the line of scrimmage.

What McCarthy’s gameplanning does is take a group of receivers who are incapable of getting open on their own and gives them no help getting open. Rodgers is then expected to complete passes into tighter windows while throwing further downfield than his peers.

Over recent weeks, McCarthy appears to have made some slight alterations. They are using some more motion and have bunched receivers together more often. The pick plays they have tried to run on underneath designs haven’t worked because of the receivers. It’s still an offense that is far from creative. It lacks diversity, creativity or a clear thought process like that of Kyle Shanahan’s scheme in Atltanta.

The above play comes on Second-and-10 from the Falcons game two weeks ago. It’s not the quintessential McCarthy play because he has a fullback on the field instead of his third receiver. He motions his running back out into the position of a receiver so the play uses his favored alignment. Once the play begins, you can see how all four of his receivers release vertically downfield. None cross each other or even come close to each other until they have travelled at least five yards past the line of scrimmage. The fullback releases into the flat where he is easily covered.

Rodgers is put in a difficult position. He has no quick routes so he has to hold the ball by design. None of his receivers show great urgency or sharpness in their routes for him to throw them open early in the play. He holds the ball until pressure comes and he has to release it.

When he does release it, Rodgers makes a throw that only he can make. Despite sliding left he releases the ball into double coverage to Nelson running a deep crossing route. Nelson is down the right seam as he catches the ball 33 yards downfield. Rodgers dropped it over the underneath defender and beneath the covering safety.

Nelson didn’t need to break stride.

These are plays we just expect Rodgers to make. When he makes them, we don’t marvel at them or talk about them the next day. He’s Aaron Rodgers, it’s what he does. Rodgers has reached that Lebron James level where we are bored with his spectacular so we under-appreciate it. Therefore, Rodgers is dealing with an unfair disadvantage when it comes to his perception. He has to be great to be considered good and he has to be god-like for us to credit him for being great.

No other quarterback is held to that standard right now. No other quarterback could make this offense work as it is currently constructed either. Yet, while Rodgers is having a bad season, he is on course for over 4,000 yards with 40 touchdowns and 10 interceptions while throwing to receivers who drop the ball at an unbelievable rate.

The one legitimate criticism of Rodgers right now is that he is throwing the ball to defenders more often than he has in previous years.

Even then, our criticism is being warped by our expectations. Rodgers doesn’t turn the ball over regularly. We’re not used to him throwing the ball straight to defenders to the point that when he has done that this year it has been received with shock. Normal quarterbacks, even the best ones, make those throws every year. Rodgers has slipped from his usual standards but he’s not fallen to disastrous levels. He’s not fallen far enough to overshadow everything else he is doing.

Last year Rodgers threw an interceptable pass once every 70.2 attempts. The second-ranked quarterback threw one every 44.3 and nobody else eclipsed 40 attempts. This year he is throwing an interceptable pass once every 28.9attempts. That would have ranked 16th in the NFL last year. Five of his 11 interceptable passes came in one game against the New York Giants.

Will this go down as Rodgers’ best season? No. Far from it. His individual performances haven’t been what they were last year or even the year before but he’s still outperformed every other quarterback in the league. He won’t win the MVP because we don’t actually give it to the best player even if we like to pretend that we do (If we gave awards to the best each year Bill Belichick would win coach of the year every season).

Maybe Tom Brady will outperform him over the second half of the season and stake a rightful claim to Rodgers’ mantle as the best quarterback in the NFL. For right now though, it’s hard to argue against Rodgers’ class.

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