All offseason long, it appeared the Green Bay Packers were setting up Aaron Rodgers to fail.
With a glaring hole at wide receiver, Green Bay refused to bring in notable weapons Their only veteran addition at receiver, Devin Funchess, opted out of the season because of COVID-19. The Packers also lost their starting tight end and a Pro Bowl right tackle in free agency.
To make matters worse, in what NFL Network draft guru Daniel Jeremiah deemed as “the deepest WR class he’s ever scouted,” the Packers continued to make life harder on Rodgers. The club didn’t spend any draft capital this past April on a receiver. Instead, they used their first-round pick on a quarterback – and traded up to do so — and their second-round pick on a short-yardage backup running back.
All signs pointed to a team that was not satisfied with their 36-year-old quarterback. Boy, were we wrong.
While Russell Wilson and Josh Allen have captured most of the attention, Rodgers’ performance has to be the most surprising development of the 2020 season. He has stunned his detractors with two vintage performances, and may have reinvented himself in the process.
The biggest change so far for Rodgers is in his approach. He has made a clear effort to get the ball out of his hands quicker, an area that hampered him over the last few seasons. According to Pro Football Focus, Rodgers is averaging just 2.39 seconds between snap and throw so far in 2020, a stunning improvement from 2.75 he posted last year — a clear indication he was trying to do too much when his receivers weren’t open. And the adjustments seem to be working.
Aaron Rodgers has been more comfortable in the structure of his offense this season, throwing from inside the tackle box and "in rhythm" (2.5 - 4 sec) at 5-year highs.
➤ 84% in tackle box, 36% in rhythm (last in NFL)
➤ 89% in tackle box, 43% in rhythm#GoPackGo pic.twitter.com/p8RfTQ8DXs
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) September 23, 2020
The Packers have blown out NFC North rivals in back-to-back weeks, while Rodgers ranks second in the NFL in touchdown passes (six) and has the highest Pro Football Focus grade (96.4) of any player in the league.
He is first in completions on passes thrown over 20 yards in the air, and his adjusted completion percentage, a sign of his improved accuracy, is over 80 percent, per PFF. On top of that, Rodgers has yet to throw an interception and leads the NFL, ahead of Wilson and Allen, in QBR, ESPN’s reliable measure of quarterback efficiency.
Packers coach Matt Lafleur, the one being accused of making life harder on Rodgers, is helping as well. There is more pre-snap motion in order to give Rodgers easier reads and identify open receivers quicker. The same receiving group that was the laughing stock of the offseason is doing quite well. Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Allen Lazard have combined for 32 catches, four touchdowns and 460 receiving yards.
No one saw this coming. Even as the Packers went 13-3 and made it to the NFC Championship Game in 2019, their success was considered to be fraudulent. They were winning in spite of Rodgers. Green Bay’s point differential, a usual measure of overall quality, was closer to a .500 team. They won an unsustainable level of close games, and every time they played quality competition such as the San Francisco 49ers, they were blown out.
Rodgers’ decline had become one of the worst-kept secrets in the analytics community. The numbers told the story of a below average quarterback. Rodgers ranked 20th last season in QBR, just 0.3 percentage points ahead of Colts QB Jacoby Brissett, who only played because of Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement. He was right there with Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff and Philip Rivers, who all had terrible 2019 production.
It looked like another all-time great was slowing down, just like his counterparts Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, Rivers and Tom Brady. It’s why Rodgers’ resurgence has defied logic.
Rodgers has dialled back the clock and his renowned arm strength remains his most dominant feature. He has hit on accurate deep passes in both of Green Bay’s victory, a stunning contrast to his opponent in Week 3 on Sunday Night Football, who is no longer able to get the ball down the field. Brees has become what everyone thought Rodgers was: a limited player. It was painfully obvious in New Orleans’ loss to the Las Vegas Raiders this past Monday.
Rodgers, who was the gold standard of QB play prior to Patrick Mahomes joining forces with Andy Reid, will get his chance on Sunday to show a national audience that his accuracy and quick passing game is for real. All of a sudden, the Packers don’t look so fraudulent any more.
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