Dougherty: Rodgers' tape doesn't lie
If you follow the Green Bay Packers, you know something has been different in Aaron Rodgers’ play for about a year now.
We’ve all seen the stats in some form or other. In plainest terms it’s this: Over his last 16 regular-season games, he has an 85.6 passer rating and 8-8 record.
But I thought it would be worth trying to see what actually looks different about the recent Rodgers compared with the player who triggered what was one of the NFL’s best offenses from 2010 through ‘14. So I decided to watch the coaches tape of a Packers game from 2011, when Rodgers won the first of his two NFL MVP awards and had the highest single-season passer rating (122.5) in NFL history, to see if anything stood out.
I wanted a midseason game in which the Packers scored close to their 2011 average of 35 points. I went with their 33-27 win at Minnesota in Week 7.
And what did I find?
Maybe the biggest thing that jumped out is that Greg Jennings clearly was Rodgers’ favorite target and a player he generally had no qualms throwing to even when the receiver was in traffic or fairly well covered. I didn’t look at the stats going in, but it was no surprise to find out afterward that Jennings caught seven passes for 147 yards.
That plays into a second point. It wasn’t like the difference was night and day, but Rodgers played with a quick throwing rhythm more than he has for most of the last year.
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By my count, against the Vikings he held the ball rather than get it out in rhythm on six plays out of 36 drop backs. For comparison, I also re-watched the Packers’ 30-16 loss to Dallas this season. In that game, he held the ball 11 times on 46 drop backs.
That might not seem like a huge difference, but the general sense from watching the 2011 video was that Rodgers often took his three- or five-step drop and just threw it. On maybe three throws Rodgers dropped back and delivered to Jennings right away in the six- to 12-yard range even though there were defenders on or around the receiver. It suggests he had great confidence in Jennings and no concern that something bad would come of it.
It’s not like those throws have disappeared in the interim. Rodgers had his share of quick deliveries against the Cowboys this year, too. But just a few plays can be the difference between a good game and a bad one, and it only takes a held ball here or there to take an offense out of rhythm.
What I saw on the video jibed with a quote that an unnamed assistant coach of a recent Packers opponent told Albert Breer of MMQB this week.
“(Rodgers) doesn’t seem to throw much on rhythm anymore,” the coach said. “In fact, he’s holding the ball and scrambling to extend plays for as long as possible so he can get the ball downfield. In the past, it seemed like the ball came out sooner — more slants and stops to the outside receivers. There’s still some of that, but much less. So we felt we needed to keep him in the pocket and stay on our coverage as plays extended, and we did that for the most part.”
I also have to say that while Rodgers’ accuracy was better in ’11, I didn’t see an obvious difference in his throwing mechanics. That’s another critique that has cropped up this season.
In that Vikings game from ’11, Rodgers had one blatantly inaccurate pass, a throw that was low and a little behind Jennings in the middle of the field. Whereas against Dallas, Rodgers had at least three errant throws, including overshooting a wide-open Randall Cobb in the end zone on a miss that cost the Packers four points.
But if the issue is mechanics, I didn’t see it. They basically looked the same. Just as this year, on the ’11 tape he threw from various arm angles and body positions, occasionally off his back foot, and he even had one throw to the outside where he jumped while making the delivery.
Yet he was on the money that game (24-for-30), as he was all season (68.3 percent completion rate). He also made a couple of spectacular throws on the run, including a dart to tight end Jermichael Finley at the end line for a two-yard touchdown.
But that was 2011, not 2016. Circumstances have changed. Jordy Nelson coming off anterior cruciate ligament surgery isn’t the player he was, so there’s no receiver as good as Jennings was. For that matter, there’s no one who poses the threat Finley did, either.
So coach Mike McCarthy has to find a way to get Rodgers to play without them like he did with them. Going forward, you wonder if the injuries at running back that have McCarthy deploying a new spread offense might help there.
With four- and five-receiver sets, the ball often has to come out fast even if no one is really open. Perhaps necessity will turn back Rodgers’ clock.