At 36, a 'more cerebral' Aaron Rodgers remains a potent weapon for Packers
GREEN BAY - The athlete doesn’t accept deterioration. The athlete, especially the great athlete, sees improvement over time.
So it is with Aaron Rodgers. The Green Bay Packers quarterback has reached the self-deprecating phase in his career, where he can throw four touchdowns on the road, then chide his “smidge under 5” 40 time. Where he can admit to “seeing the 18th hole” of his career, though he still believes it’s out on the distant horizon.
“I’m making the turn,” Rodgers said, “I think.”
Rodgers turned 36 on Monday. He is five years removed from his second and most recent MVP award. At this age, Brett Favre already knew who was expected to be his successor.
Even now, Rodgers is still capable of magic. The best statistical game of his career came this season, that 429-yard, six touchdown (five passing, one running), perfect-passer-rating showcase against the Oakland Raiders. Through 12 games, the season’s three-quarter pole, Rodgers has a chance to surpass 4,000 passing yards, 30 touchdowns with fewer than five interceptions and a passer rating higher than 100. The only other season in his career Rodgers has reached all four marks was 2014, his last MVP year.
He also is capable of some real stinkers. His 3.2 yards per pass (on 33 passes) at San Francisco. His fewer than 100 yards through three quarters at the Los Angeles Chargers. He has thrown for 300 yards in just three games this season, something he’s never done fewer than four times in a full year. He has also finished with a passer rating under 100 eight times, and five times with a passer rating under 90. Those numbers are already identical to all of last season, when Mike McCarthy was fired.
Until he retires, Rodgers’ game will be under the microscope. It will be dissected, debated, examined for signs of decay. That’s what happens to the great ones.
What does Rodgers think of the state of his game?
He sees improvement over time.
“I think I have even a little sharper muscle memory,” Rodgers said, “and able to layer the football better, I think, every year I’ve been in the league. When I first got into the league, it was a lot of one-speed throws. Just lasers on a line, and I think over the years I really learned how to put touch on the ball and use eye discipline and use my legs to put myself in a position to make more accurate throws.”
Rodgers isn’t as fast as he was early in his career. He is on pace to finish with fewer than 200 rushing yards (he has 146) for the first time in a full season. In part, that’s because he’s running less often, but his 4.4 yards per carry would be his fewest since 2013, and the fourth fewest of his career. Even more, Rodgers is on track to finish with fewer than 10 rushing first downs for the first time in his career — half or full season.
“I do tease (backup quarterbacks) Manny (Wilkins) and Tim (Boyle) that I still have some wheels,” Rodgers said, “but the key for me in the offseason has been to really make sure my legs are good. As Mike (McCarthy) and I talked about for years, the quarterback’s arm is going to be as strong as you want it to be, and to be able to throw it 50 (yards). It’s just, can your legs do it? I feel good about what I’ve done in the offseason, and I feel good about where I’m at going into Week 14 with how my legs feel, how my wind feels and being able to still do everything I want to do on the field.”
Rodgers can still make younger, more mobile defenders look foolish. He did it to 49ers defensive end Nick Bosa a couple weeks ago. Bosa, a defensive rookie of the year frontrunner, sacked Rodgers once. But the veteran quarterback took the rookie to school with a play-action fake so heinous it went viral — despite resulting in just a 3-yard run.
To watch Rodgers on Sunday in New York was to see a quarterback still capable of making plays many contemporaries can’t. His 1-yard touchdown throw to tight end Marcedes Lewis impressed in layers. Rodgers not only threw a touch pass off his right foot while rolling to the left, but first had run out of a sack from unblocked Giants linebacker Lorenzo Carter. “Filthy,” former teammate and Packers guard T.J. Lang tweeted. His fourth-and-10 completion to Geronimo Allison in the fourth quarter, perhaps the game’s biggest play, was a pinpoint pass Rodgers threw 27 yards through the air despite falling off his back foot while being hit around the ankles. On a third-and-goal touchdown to Davante Adams from the 17-yard line, Rodgers caught the Giants with too many players on the field while trying to substitute.
At 36, in his 12th season as starting quarterback, Rodgers said his mind is as much of a weapon as ever.
“It’s definitely slower,” Rodgers said of the game. “That really does happen. It’s the feel when you’re on the field. I do feel like there’s times where the speed is very manageable. The speed is often misconstrued as some sort of physical thing. It’s really the mental speed of being able to think in real time very quickly and to be able to have a relaxed feel that accompanies that.
“I think I’m definitely more cerebral.”
The real test won’t come this week when the Packers host Washington. Just as the real test didn’t come last week against a Giants team that lost eight straight. Washington ranks 15th in pass defense — dead average in the NFL. Its 96 opponent passer rating ranks 22nd. The quarterback, especially the great quarterback, is measured in January.
Where is Rodgers’ game at 36? Good enough to be the starting quarterback for a 9-3 team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. Good enough to be playing for a first-round bye this month.
Whether he can lead his team to the Super Bowl, the Packers are about to find out.