There's no denying that Aaron Rodgers had a ho-hum start to the 2014 season.
There's no denying that for the past four games, he's played as well as anyone in the NFL.
And after the Green Bay Packers' 38-17 blowout of the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, there's no denying that Rodgers is in the thick of the MVP race as the halfway mark of the season draws near. In fact, Rodgers of late is conjuring images of 2011, when he won the MVP with consistently transcendent play, and Sunday he elicited a notable postgame response from coach Mike McCarthy.
McCarthy in essence said Rodgers hasn't played as well as he did in '11 but that he's a better player.
"2011 was just, God, one of those off-the-charts years," McCarthy said late in his postgame news conference. "I've never been a part of something like that. He was making throws every game."
But when the next question turned toward Rodgers' command of the offense and control over the game, McCarthy said his quarterback is a better player now at age 30 than he was when he won the MVP. In that season, Rodgers led the Packers to a 15-1 record and set the NFL single-season record for highest passer rating (122.5).
"His responsibility level has increased a lot since ('11)," McCarthy said. "So, what he does during the course of the week, during the course of the game, at the line of scrimmage, the communication between (quarterbacks coach) Alex Van Pelt and myself, he is, in my opinion, watching him grow throughout his career, he's clearly a better player."
Rodgers on Sunday was about as good as it gets. His 154.5 rating was the second highest of his career, behind only the 155.4 he put up against Cleveland in 2009. The first three times the Packers had the ball, he took them on touchdown drives of 80 yards, 56 yards and 62 yards. At 21-0, the game was all but over before the first quarter was finished.
Rodgers was sharp enough (19-for-22 passing) that he had no trouble remembering two of his three incompletions on the day. When asked, he instantly recalled overthrowing rookie tight end Richard Rodgers on an open seam route that would have been a 4-yard touchdown pass and a shoe-top throw to receiver Jordy Nelson in the first half.
The third incompletion, which Rodgers didn't remember, was a high, hot throw on a slant that glanced off Cobb's extended hands.
"I'm going to be thinking about the one to Richard there for a while," Aaron Rodgers said. "Disappointed about that."
Just about any way you crunch the numbers, Rodgers' stats of late are impressive. On Sunday, he tied Bart Starr's franchise record for consecutive games without an interception (six). His passer rating in the past four games, all wins, is 139.4. He's on pace to throw 41 touchdowns and only two interceptions for the season.
"There's going to be interceptions from time to time," Rodgers said. "It's just limiting the number of 50-50 balls that either they get their hands on or get tipped or are poor throws. If they're not touching the ball that much or at all in a game, that means you're being as accurate as you want to be."
As for the difference between the past four games and the first three, in which the Packers scored only 23 points combined in losses to Seattle and Detroit, several factors could be at work.
I'd argue foremost that McCarthy changed the offense's approach after the first three games. Going back to the offseason, the coach planned an offense in which Eddie Lacy's running set up the pass as much as vice versa. But in Chicago at the start of this four-game winning streak, McCarthy came out throwing — his first five plays were passes that moved the Packers from their 19 to the Bears' 2 — and the offense has taken off.
Starting with that game, the Packers have averaged 36 points and found their rhythm offensively.
Rodgers also said the passing game has become more diverse over the past month with the quick development of second-round pick Davante Adams at receiver. A season-high nine players caught passes Sunday, and for only the second time in seven games, Nelson didn't lead the team in targets. But Nelson (five) and Cobb (seven) still were targeted more than anyone else.
"Back in '11, I feel like we spread it around a little more," Rodgers said. "We've had a lot of targets for Jordy and Randall this year, so we've tried the last four games to find ways to move those guys around and get them positive matchups."
It's still far too early to start handing out MVP awards, because players can go on exceptional runs in the second half of the season. Remember that after nine games in 1995, Brett Favre was 5-4, had an 83.0 rating and nearly lost his job to Mark Brunell. But Favre blew up in the final seven games and won his first MVP.
Still, one game shy of the halfway mark in 2014, Rodgers quickly has become a leading MVP candidate. The other early front-runners are San Diego's Philip Rivers (109.4 rating and 5-2 record after Sunday's game) and Denver's Peyton Manning (110.5 rating and 4-1 record going into his game Sunday night).
For what it's worth, Rodgers after Sunday has a 117.3 rating, 5-2 record and four-game winning streak that's sure to get the attention of MVP voters.
"There were stretches in that ('11) season where I was playing really, really well," Rodgers said, "and we're kind of in a stretch right now where we're playing pretty well."