There will come a point Sunday when Aaron Rodgers scrambles from the pocket, searching downfield. He’ll hold onto the football. He’ll extend a broken play.
It’s what separates the Green Bay Packers quarterback from his peers. Whether he’s evading the pass rush or allowing receivers to get open, Rodgers buys time with his mobility. “He’s one of the best in the business,” San Diego Chargers coach Mike McCoy said.
McCoy, a former offensive coordinator, said he loves watching Rodgers’ film. This week, he’s trying to stop the two-time MVP quarterback.
“As long as it’s incomplete,” McCoy said, “I’m good to go. That’s the big thing: throw an incomplete pass.”
There is another option, one that doesn’t involve a pass at all. It’s becoming more common through the Packers’ first five games this season. Rodgers escapes the pocket, scrambling left or right, searching for a receiver.
Sometimes, he keeps running.
Rodgers has 27 carries this season, the most he ever has had through the first five games. Last year, when he won his second MVP award, Rodgers had seven carries in the first five games. He’s on pace for 86 carries this season, which easily would exceed his previous career high of 64 rushes in 2010.
It’s no coincidence Rodgers’ rushing attempts have increased in the wake of receiver Jordy Nelson’s torn ACL. No Packers receiver got open more than Nelson, Rodgers said. With Nelson out for the season, his absence doesn't just affect the Packers’ offense.
Through five games, Rodgers has had to adjust how he plays.
“This is just kind of a byproduct of how teams are playing us,” Rodgers said. “I’m not getting spied a whole lot. We’re not getting open maybe as an offense. So I’ve got to extend plays, and as I’ve extended them – I’m a pass-first guy outside the pocket – but there’s been a lot of opportunities to run it. So I’m just making the most of those opportunities.”
Rodgers said his running hasn’t been “excessive” this season, and he feels physically fit enough to handle a few extra carries. At his peak, he’s always a threat to pick up a first down with his legs. A strained left calf stole his mobility at the end of last season, stripping a significant element away from the Packers’ offense.
Still, Packers coach Mike McCarthy doesn’t want to see Rodgers become a running back. If Rodgers is the first to call himself a “pass-first guy,” McCarthy is a close second. Before the Packers’ trip to San Francisco earlier this month, McCarthy was asked whether he ever could foresee Rodgers running more read-option.
“He makes too much money to run the option,” McCarthy quipped.
He isn’t running the option, but Rodgers ran the football eight times for a season-high 39 yards against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday. It was only the ninth time in his 115-game career he had eight carries, but the second time in the past five games. Rodgers had eight carries for 35 yards last month in the Packers’ opener at Chicago.
“We don't go into the game looking for Aaron to run,” McCarthy said. “I think when you look at his decisions, when he's come out of the pocket, it's always throw first. But I think he's been very decisive and has taken advantage of the opportunities when they present themselves.
“I'm not interested in seeing Aaron have eight carries or whatever he did in a football game, but I think it's part of the way we play, and it's something he's very good at. I thought he ran smart.”
Rodgers’ ability to pick up yards on the ground is beneficial, especially for an offense that doesn’t have all its parts. With 146 rushing yards this season, Rodgers is on pace to finish about 30 yards shy of 500.
He ranks fifth in rushing among NFL quarterbacks, behind only Colin Kaepernick (218 yards), Russell Wilson (198), Cam Newton (195) and Tyrod Taylor (187).
Rodgers’ increased running requires adjustments. There’s a switch for offensive linemen, a moment during the play when they transition from pass protection to run blocker. Left tackle David Bakhtiari said his quarterback’s mobility can be tricky.
“It’s awesome because he’ll bail out the offensive line at times if need be,” Bakhtiari said, “but it also sucks I don’t know where the hell he is some of the times. So I think all three of my holding calls have been with him scrambling out rolling left. I’m like, ‘I have no idea. I’m just trying to make sure you don’t get hit, buddy.’ So it’s like a double-edged sword. It’s awesome, and I love it, and I’m not going to say, ‘Stop doing it.’ Continue doing it, because that’s what makes him great. We love extending plays, and Aaron’s the best quarterback in the league right now.
“The only way to be perfect is if you give me another set of eyes I can put in the back of my head. That way, I can do two things at once.”
Most of the quarterbacks with more rushing yards than Rodgers run the option. Rodgers? Not so much.
There is risk with Rodgers running the football, of course. No coach wants to see their quarterback hit. The Packers didn’t need to lose Rodgers for seven weeks with a broken collarbone during the 2013 season to understand his value to the franchise.
But the Packers don’t have much of a choice, at least right now. Without Nelson, an opposing secondary doesn’t have to honor a deep threat. Rodgers will continue taking what defenses give him.
“We tell him get what you can when he’s going to run the ball,” said associate head coach Tom Clements, who calls plays for the offense. “Get what you can, and get down. Don’t take any unnecessary shots. If he’s running, if at a certain point if he’s buying some time, he can throw the ball down the field. But other times guys aren’t open, and we say, ‘Don’t take an unnecessary sack. Don’t take a hit.’ And he’s gotten very good at that.
“He’s smart. He takes care of himself. I think he’s at the point where he’s pretty much a vast majority of the time he’s making the right decision as to when to run, when to get down, when to throw it away.”
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