Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers hands off the ball in a game against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin on Jan. 2, 2011. / File/Gannett Wisconsin Media
Position analysis series
Pete Dougherty breaks down the Packers by position heading into training camp:
Player Pos. Ht. Wt. Yr.
Matt Flynn 6-2 225 4
Graham Harrell 6-2 215 1
Aaron Rodgers 6-2 225 7
Aaron Rodgers didn’t win the NFL’s most-valuable player award for the regular season last year, but there’s a strong argument the Green Bay Packers quarterback was the best player in the playoffs.
His terrific 109.8 passer rating for four postseason games included a three-touchdown, 366-yard effort at Atlanta that was about as good a play making performance as any quarterback has produced in a playoff game. And he clearly outplayed Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger in the Super Bowl.
So, much like when Brett Favre was coming off his first (and only) Super Bowl win in the 1996 season at the same age (27), the Packers’ quarterback is among the game’s best players and hitting his prime.
That doesn’t automatically mean more titles — Favre lost the Super Bowl the next season and never returned — but Rodgers is surrounded by a young roster that includes several standouts his age or younger. The table is set for a several-year run as a contender.
So Rodgers enters 2011 as one of the favorites to win the league’s MVP and is on a career trajectory that compares favorably with the other best quarterbacks in the game, New England’s Tom Brady and Indianapolis’ Peyton Manning.
By any measure, Rodgers has had the kind of start that could become a spectacular career, though his three-year apprenticeship before becoming a starter is a little different than most of the top quarterbacks of the past 20 years or so, who generally became starters in their first or second seasons, not their fourth.
There are several ways to compare Rodgers to Brady and Manning, such as their won-loss record and statistics in their first three years as starters, or over the past three years. For Rodgers, it’s one and the same.
By the former measure, Brady, who turns 34 next month, in his first three seasons as a starter was the biggest winner with a 34-12 record and two Super Bowl victories, though his passer rating of 86.0 is lowest of the three. Manning, now 35, was 26-25 (23-9 in years 2 and 3) with no Super Bowls and an 87.5 rating. Rodgers was 27-20 with one Super Bowl title and by far the best passer rating of 98.2 points.
But by that measure, Rodgers has an advantage, because he had the three years of NFL training before he became a starter. Manning, on the other hand, started immediately for a bad Colts team, and Brady became the starter in his second season.
Comparing only the past three seasons has its own shortcomings, because it includes the steep learning curve of Rodgers’ first year as a starter, whereas Brady and Manning were veterans in their early 30s. Still, Rodgers stacks up OK by that criteria. Brady has the best passer rating (102.9 to Rodgers’ 99.4 and Mannings’ 95.4) and is tied with Manning in winning percentage (.750 to Rodgers’ 56.3 percent); Rodgers has the lone Super Bowl win, Manning a Super Bowl loss and Brady no appearances, though he had a season-ending knee injury in the first game in 2008.
A better measure probably is comparing them at the same edge. By age 26, all three were in at least their second season as a starter and their fourth season in the NFL. Taking this route, Rodgers still belongs in the discussion.
He has the best rating at 102.3 points, which in fact ranks No. 2 all-time for quarterbacks in the two years they turned 26 and 27, behind only Daunte Culpepper (104.4 points), and one spot ahead of Favre (97.7 points). Brady won the Super Bowl in both seasons, Rodgers won one, and Manning none. And Rodgers’ 21-10 record isn’t quite as good as Brady and Manning, both of whom were 24-8.
What Brady and Manning have on Rodgers is they’ve performed great and won big over long careers. Rodgers still faces the test of time.
But Rodgers has something neither Brady nor Manning ever have had, and that’s the ability to make plays with his feet. In the last two seasons, Rodgers has rushed for 672 yards, which is second in the league over that time, behind only Michael Vick (771 yards in seven fewer games). At ages and 26 and 27, Manning rushed for only 174 yards and Brady only 91.
Running can be a double-edged sword, because it also leaves a quarterback vulnerable to big hits, and the greatest threat to the Packers the next couple of seasons is the two concussions Rodgers suffered last year. Brady and Manning, while lacking playmaking ability outside the pocket, are masters at sliding in the pocket to avoid rushers and quickly getting the ball out when they can’t avoid, as their sacks numbers show. Manning has been sacked an average of only 17.8 times a season in his 13 years as an NFL starter and never has missed a game. Brady has averaged 27.1 sacks in his nine seasons as a starter.
Rodgers, on the other hand, had a major sacks issue for half of 2009, when he was sacked 41 times in the first nine games. But he’s reduced that to 53 sacks in his 27 games since then, including playoffs. And as his sacks have gone down, he’s continued to make more plays outside the pocket than Brady or Manning could in their physical primes.
Behind Rodgers, any possibility of the Packers trading backup Matt Flynn probably ended with the extended NFL owners lockout. Flynn played well enough in his one full game in place of Rodgers last season at New England that a quarterbacks-hungry team might have tried to trade for him, at least if he would have had a full offseason to work in their offense.
With Rodgers’ recent concussion history, Flynn has plenty of insurance value for the Packers in case they have to play without their starter for a couple of weeks or more. But if another team had offered a second-round draft pick for Flynn last March or April, the Packers would have had to think hard about making a deal. With no offseason to acclimate Flynn to a new offense, the chances appear remote that another team would make the kind of offer it would take to pry Flynn from General Manager Ted Thompson.
So Flynn figures to be around for another season, after which he’ll surely leave in free agency for a chance at least to compete for a starting job. The Packers will net a compensatory draft pick.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.