Dougherty: Rodgers plays game of risk

Pete Dougherty
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Of the four quarterbacks playing in the conference championship games this week, which would you take first to win a game right now?

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) celebrates a touchdown pass against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, TX Sunday, January 15, 2017.

We’re talking about the NFL's four best quarterbacks this season: Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan and Ben Roethlisberger.

I asked three longtime NFL assistant coaches in long conversations this week. One chose Brady. The other two? Rodgers.

“Betting against Tom Brady is silly,” one said. “But when Aaron is playing the way he’s playing, I’ll take Aaron. The only reason I’d say that is he makes so many more plays off schedule than Tom does. He’s just nimbler and more athletic.”

Said the other Rodgers voter: “I know everybody’s got talent, but when a guy’s got a little bit of a run going I put my money on him. … Even though Brady’s Brady, I’d take Aaron.”

That, as much as anything, tells you the heights of Rodgers’ recent play heading into Sunday’s NFC championship matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons. Because Brady has a strong case for being rated the best quarterback ever and is coming off yet another excellent season (11-1 record, 112.2 rating).

But that’s where Rodgers is right now.

Atlanta’s Ryan has had a career year and is hot himself – over the last eight weeks, including playoffs, he’s actually the only quarterback with a higher rating than Rodgers’ (121.6 to 117.9). Ryan also is front-runner for league MVP, and rightly so. He was the NFL’s best, most consistent quarterback for 16 weeks.

But Rodgers is 8-0 in the last eight weeks (Ryan is 6-1), and he has carried his team more than any player in the league.

The real stunner is that this hot streak comes right after Rodgers had endured one of the worst sustained stretches of his career. As anybody who watches the Packers regularly can attest, he was far from his MVP self, going back well into last season.

In the final 10 games of 2015 and first six this year – the equivalent of a full season – his rating was 80.1 and the Packers' record was 8-8. That from the NFL’s all-time ratings leader (104.1) and a guy with a 90-45 career record.

So what turned things around?

Here are the obvious answers: Ty Montgomery’s midseason move to halfback, which coincided with an emphasis on a quick-rhythm passing game; Jordy Nelson’s role change to a roving receiver who might line up anywhere along the line; and tight end Jared Cook’s return after missing six games because of a high ankle sprain.

I’m not so sure Cook isn’t the most important of the three. Is it any coincidence that the Packers’ winning streak started in his second game back?

But I also suspect there’s another factor that’s impossible to quantify but true nonetheless: Rodgers is throwing more receivers open and taking a few more calculated risks than he ever has.

There’s no stat to prove it. But it sure looked like it last week at Dallas, like on a 26-yard completion to Cook against double coverage that set up a touchdown. And it was most evident on plays that didn't work, namely, Rodgers’ two interceptions (one was called back because of an interference penalty) in that game.

Both were shot-type plays where a safety came over the top for the pick. On one, Rodgers’ throw was too far inside; on the other – the one where Montgomery was interfered with – he threw off his back foot under pressure into double coverage.

You can’t make a living trying those throws down after down. The risk is all too real, as the interceptions prove.

But really, Rodgers has to play this way for the Packers to win the Super Bowl. Their defense is going to give up a lot of points to any of the teams still standing. So Rodgers has to put up more. And that means throwing receivers open more, and taking a few chances.

I don’t know if Rodgers thinks of it that way. He might just have so much faith in his arm now that he thinks he can make just about any throw, any time.

“I think trust was a big thing,” guard T.J. Lang said this week. “… He’s relying on those guys outside to get their job done, and he’s throwing the ball quick. He’s throwing it with a lot of confidence.”

I also have to wonder if anyone has ever thrown the ball on the run better than Rodgers has the last two months. Each week seems better than the last. Against Dallas last Sunday he was almost unstoppable orchestrating the Packers’ organized improvisation on scramble plays.

“When a guy is moving around and making plays the way he does off schedule, that’s when you’re screwed defensively,” said a defensive assistant coach for an NFL team. “You come up with drills where, run the play but then let the quarterback scramble and then receivers, you run around and get open.

“But (the Packers) do more, they have places where guys are going, and he knows where they’re going and it’s a little more designed.”

The challenge for Falcons coach Dan Quinn, who is a defensive coordinator in the Seattle Seahawks’ scheme by trade, is to find a way to corral Rodgers.

The book on Rodgers the last few years has been to rush to contain him in the pocket, and take your chances in coverage, hoping he'll hold the ball. But even that failed last week. He picked apart the Cowboys for touchdowns on his first three possessions before they changed course and started blitzing.

Many teams also try a spy. That is, a fourth or fifth rusher who floats to the middle of the line, waits for Rodgers to move and then goes after him.

In Atlanta’s 33-32 win over the Packers on Oct. 30, Quinn didn’t spy much in the first half, but as the second half went on he went to it more and more. The Falcons usually spied with their most athletic pass rusher, Vic Beasley, though also occasionally with defensive end Brooks Reed or inside linebacker Deion Jones.

“The spy guy is just a delayed rush,” the defensive assistant said. “Trust me, we’ve done a lot of spy stuff. That spy guy has to be athletic enough to actually run (Rodgers) down. You can’t have some slappy there.”

You have to think Rodgers will see plenty more of that Sunday at the Georgia Dome with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line. Quinn might have to try anything and everything against a Packers quarterback who's on an epic roll and will be playing in controlled conditions, where he usually excels.

Can Rodgers scorch it another week as a four-point underdog? All three assistants pondered the question. Then each said yes.

“It’s in Atlanta, that’s a big deal,” one said. “But I’m having a hard time with just the way Aaron is playing right now, you can’t bet against him. He’s in a special place.”

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