R-E-L-A-X; those five letters may have turned around the Green Bay Packers season following a 19-7 week 3 loss to the Detroit Lions. The Packers sat at 1-2 carrying big losses on their back; one to the reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks with whom they would likely be fighting for the number one seed and the other to their division rivals the Detroit Lions with whom they would likely be fighting for the division crown. Despite the slow start to the season Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers knew there was no cause for panic or concern, and why should there be? After all the Green Bay Packers have under center a man who is not only the best QB in the game, but a man who is head and shoulders above anyone else at the position.
Aaron Rodgers had a slow start to his career but not for any fault of his own; in the 2005 NFL draft with Rodgers on the board San Fran decided to take Alex Smith with the first overall pick. This decision led to Aaron Rodgers drifting back and being passed on by 22 teams (how many of those would love to have that pick back?) before finally being selected as the eventual successor to Hall of Famer Brett Favre in Green Bay. With Favre still deciding if he would retire, or if he would not retire, or if he would play, or if he would not play, or maybe he would retire, Rodgers was left on the bench to start his career. In his rookie season Rodgers appeared in only 3 games throwing a grand total of 16 passes in relief of Favre and in his only extended action of his career he threw his first career interception. It would take Rodgers two full years before he would throw his first career touchdown but it would prove to be the first of many.
Prior to the 2008 season the Packers choose to make the difficult decision to move on from the greatest quarterback the franchise has ever known and take a chance on the youngster they drafted 3 years earlier; it proved to be the right decision. Rodgers came out in 2008 and threw for over 4,000 yards with 28 TD to a modest 13 INT and a strong QB rating of 93.8. To this point those numbers still stand as Rodgers career high in INT and career low in QB rating with the only season he threw fewer TD’s being his injury plagued 2013 playing in only 9 games. Rodgers was the perfect quarterback to take over for a legend in Green Bay, he provided the team the same grit, talent, and winning ways as his predecessor but he also brought with him another skill, on that would set him apart and build his own legacy. Favre, as good as he was, had one flaw in his game; the old gunslinger loved to sling the rock but wasn’t always the best at protecting it. In 19 years as a starter in the NFL Brett Favre threw a phenomenal 508 TDs but complimented them with 336 INTs. In those 19 years he led the league in INTs 3 times, threw over 20 INTs 6 times, and had single digit INTs only once (as a Viking 2 years after leaving the Packers). Aaron Rodgers since taking over the starting job in Green bay has thrown 225 TDs to only 56 INT, a ratio almost 4 times better than Brett Favre. In addition to this Rodgers has added 20 rushing TDs in his 7 years as the starter in Green Bay; Favre had a total of 14 rushing Touchdowns in 20 years in the NFL, 19 of those years as a starter.
So clearly the Packers made the right call in 2008 as they moved on from the legend who brought the title back to title town but that’s an easy call right? Favre was pushing 40 and if they didn’t turn the game over to Rodgers they risked losing the future of their franchise just so they could hang onto another year or two with Brett. The question that remains is; how does Rodgers stack up against the best of his generation? Where does he fit in the infamous “Elite” discussion debating the merits of guys named Brady, Manning, and Brees? Well for me it’s a simple answer… right now in the NFL he is the best, he’s number 1 and it isn’t even close.
Protecting the Football
Rodgers has thrown as many as 45 TDs in a season and he’s thrown over 30 in 4 of his 7 years as a starter. While this number is impressive what’s more impressive is that Rodgers can be this productive while still protecting the football throwing only 56 interceptions since 2008. In this same time period only 4 quarterbacks have thrown over 200 TDs, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, and Philip Rivers. Of these quarterbacks Rodgers has the second most touchdowns at 226 behind only Peyton Manning’s impressive 262 but comparing these QBs by interceptions Rodgers is significantly below the field with his 56 INTs compared to 81 from Manning, 97 from Rivers, and 112 from Brees. His TD:INT ratio of just over 4:1 isn’t even in the same stratosphere with these guys the closest being manning’s 3.23 TD per INT. While Tom Brady’s numbers are close he misses the cut slightly with 195 TDs despite missing the entire 2008 season, but even Brady’s 195 TDs to 57 INT can’t compare to Rodgers. Since 2008 Brady, one of the best at protecting the football, has thrown one more interception than Rodgers in 6 less total starts and his TD:INT ratio of 3.42 TD per INT is still significantly lower.
Aaron Rodgers hasn’t thrown an interception at home since December 2, 2012, a streak that’s stretched over two full seasons and nearly 500 pass attempts, while throwing an impressive 36 touchdowns. Despite how impressive this streak is it’s not the only impressive stretch that Rodgers has going. AR has single digit TD totals in each of the past 4 seasons; looking back to the group of “elite” QBs with 200 or more TD’s since 2008 none of them have had even 4 single digit INT seasons in their career, let alone 4 consecutive. Peyton Manning and Drew Brees each have had 1 while Phillip Rivers has had 2. Tom Brady who fell just short of the 200 TD benchmark (but I’m sure we can all agree is elite) has had a total of 4 single digit INT seasons scattered through his career but never two in a row. The only starting QB in the NFL who even rivals Rodgers interception rates is his 2005 draft mate Alex Smith who has thrown only 45 INTs since 2008. Smith is a notorious game manager who plays conservative, makes smart decisions, and avoids turnovers. That mentality limits mistakes but will never allow him to reach Rodgers productivity as Smith has thrown only 103 TD’s since 2008, less than half the production of AR.
Quick Release/Quick Decisions
In addition to his ability to protect the football Aaron Rodgers has one of the quickest releases in the NFL. He has a unique ability to get the ball out of his hands quickly to avoid a blitz or beat coverage and make plays down the field. According to a breakdown performed by Pro Football Focus Aaron Rodgers leads the NFL in highest percentage of drop backs which end in 2 seconds or less. Not only is the speed at which he gets rid of the ball impressive but also take into consideration his efficiency on these passes. On drop backs of 2 seconds or less Rodgers leads the NFL with an 87.4% accuracy percentage and maintains a stellar 114 QB rating. Not only does Aaron get the ball out quick but he reads the defense, makes quick decisions, and gets the ball out on time and in the right location. Rodgers’ ability to make quick decisions and his quick release along with his ability to be productive while protecting the football makes him the best pure passer in the NFL.
While Rodgers does get the ball out quicker or as quickly as any other quarterback in the NFL he is certainly not afraid to test defenses down the field. Over the course of the 2014 season Rodgers completed a total of 59 passes 20 or more yards down the field and a total of 15 passes 40 or more yards down field. Those 15 passes of 40+ yards tie Ben Roethlisberger and Andrew Luck for the most in the NFL ahead of Manning’s 11, Brees’ 10, Rivers’ 9, and Brady’s 8. On plays of 20+ Yards down field Rodgers was 4th behind only Luck, Manning, and Matt Ryan with his 59 still greater than Rivers’ 57, Brees’52 and Brady’s 44. Rodgers quick decisions and quick release help him get the ball out of his hands but it’s not quick and cheap dump offs. Rodgers is dissecting and exploiting defenses on a weekly basis and efficiently getting the ball down the field.
Looking at all comparable QBs in the NFL and comparing them statistically to Aaron Rodgers can seem fair to the other “elite” quarterbacks but when we start breaking down other aspects of his game Rodgers separates from the pack. Players like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees are great passers from the pocket and from a clean pocket; they possess a great ability to set up into an opening to buy time and make big time throws down the field. The ability they lack is lateral movement inside and outside of the pocket, the ability to outrun defenders, and the ability to throw on the move. While Rodgers does not have the dynamic speed or rushing ability of players like Michael Vick, Cam Newton, or Colin Kaepernick, his ability to move within and outside of the pocket far and away exceeds the other dynamic passers in the NFL. Since coming into his starting role in 2008 Rodgers has 20 rushing touchdowns in 7 seasons. In comparison Philip Rivers has 3 total rushing TDs, Brady has 14 in his 14 seasons, Manning has a total of 18 over 17 NFL seasons, and Brees has a 13 in his 14 seasons. Aaron Rodgers the passer may be able to be compared with the likes of Manning, Brady, and Brees but the rushing ability of Rodgers rivals that of Donovan McNabb who rushed for a total of 29 TDs over 13 years in the NFL, an average of 2.23 per game compared to Rodgers average of 2.85. Unlike guys like Kaepernick, and Vick who run in an attempt to make dynamic plays with their legs, Rodgers runs with his eyes down field in an attempt to make plays with his arm, and he’s done so with precision over his 7 year career. He’s constantly looking to make plays with his arm, but when the play breaks down he’s as dangerous as anyone with his legs.
Aaron Rodgers is hands down the most dynamic player in the NFL right now, his ability to make plays inside and outside of the pocket can be matched by no other quarterback in the league. He’s able to avoid turnovers and costly mistakes despite still pressing the ball down the field and putting pressure on the defense. He can make every throw with precision from within the pocket but when the play breaks down he can escape and make plays with his arm and his legs. He also possesses the ability to release the ball quicker and more accurately than anyone in the game. The only question with AR is at 31 years old will the 3 years he sat behind Brett Favre affect his legacy? Will those three years of lost stats and lost productivity keep him from being in the same statistical categories as his colleagues? I for one don’t care if the TD totals match Manning or Favre. I don’t care if the yardage totals get anywhere near Brees or Marino. When Aaron Rodgers hangs it up he will have punched his ticket to Canton, taken his place on the Mount Rushmore of Quarterbacks, solidified himself as the greatest of his generation, and maybe… just maybe… proved to be the greatest the game has ever seen.