Dougherty: Packers' Aaron Rodgers taking excellence to next level
Shortly after Dak Prescott’s late 11-yard touchdown run set off a Dallas Cowboys celebration in the end zone last Sunday, Fox TV cameras cut briefly to Jerry and Stephen Jones in the owner’s box at AT&T Stadium.
Jerry Jones, who also is the Cowboys’ general manager, hitched up his pants and, stone faced, clapped tepidly. Stephen Jones, the owner’s son, stood stoically with his arms crossed.
The Cowboys had just taken a 31-28 lead over the Green Bay Packers, but the Joneses knew their team had left Aaron Rodgers with one minute, 13 seconds to tie or win the game. Their apprehension proved on the mark.
“There are three (quarterbacks) in this league, maybe four, that you play differently,” said a scout for an NFL team who watched the game. “(Rodgers) is one of them. You play him differently, you play (Tom) Brady differently and you play (Drew) Brees differently. Maybe (Ben) Roethlisberger would be the fourth one. You almost have to think of it, at the end of the game you can’t allow them to come back out on the field.”
Such is the respect and even fear that Rodgers instills in Packers opponents these days. He’s in the midst of an extended stretch of games in which he’s playing the best football of his two-time MVP career. More than stats, it’s the winning.
Starting with the six-game winning streak that closed last season, Rodgers is 10-1 with a 112.8 rating in his last 11 regular-season games. If you include playoffs, he’s 12-2 with four game-winning drives in the final minute or overtime.
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This year he has the Packers off to a 4-1 start despite playing most of the last four games without his top four tackles. And what really catches attention around the NFL is that two of those wins were come-from-behinders over Cincinnati and at the Cowboys.
This week I asked four scouts to name their top five quarterbacks in the league, with the criteria based on trying to win this year and not thinking about the future. It’s no surprise that Rodgers and Tom Brady held the top two spots for all four scouts. It has been that way for a few years now.
But while the jockeying between the two probably changes with the weekly ups and downs of the NFL season, it says something of Rodgers’ recent play that three of the four scouts chose him first.
“He’s more athletic, he’s got a stronger arm, and he makes the offensive line look better,” said one of the scouts who chose Rodgers over Brady.
The question is, what has prompted Rodgers to elevate his game?
We can start with the obvious. At age 33 he still has the athleticism to make plays with his legs, but he now has the accrued knowledge of a quarterback in his 10th season as a starter.
There’s also his hyper-competitive nature, which ESPN Radio's Jason Wilde documented in a story last January. Rodgers rivals the legendary competitiveness of the man he replaced as Packers quarterback, Brett Favre.
“I’m down here in New Orleans with Drew Brees,” former Packers fullback John Kuhn told Wilde, “and Drew is very, very, very competitive. But there is a drive within Aaron that stems from somewhere deeper.”
But outside looking in, Rodgers appears to be on a mission. We saw signs of it last year when he made good on “run the table” after the Packers dropped to 4-6.
This season it’s a good bet Rodgers authored what he says is the team’s mantra for 2017, “just no excuses.” And it’s just as good a bet that that's fueled by the growing criticism of him and the organization that despite their eight-year playoff streak, they haven’t won the Super Bowl since the 2010 season.
“It’s always good to have a Pro Bowl player with a chip on his shoulder,” another scout said. “(He’s thinking) don’t underestimate him. He wants to get back to the Super Bowl.”
The blueprint to slow Rodgers probably hasn’t changed much in the last six years. The best way is to have the personnel to get consistent pressure with four rushers and cover with seven, including two safeties deep to prevent the big play.
But few teams have the rushers to do that. One of the scouts could think of only five: Kansas City, Jacksonville, Houston, Seattle and Philadelphia.
Short of having that kind of talent, the best bet is to contain him in the pocket rather than going all-out to sack him, with a liberal mix of spying with an athletic linebacker, though that takes a player out of coverage.
“You have to make Rodgers beat you completely in the pocket,” one of the scouts said. “If he’s good enough to beat you in the pocket, he’s good enough to beat you in the pocket. There’s nothing you can do about that. But I know damn good and well when he’s outside the pocket he’s going to kill you.”
That’s where running back Aaron Jones’ emergence last week becomes important. If Jones is a viable threat, he can slow pass rushers and force defensive coordinators’ hands to bring a safety up to stop the run.
“Rodgers on play action, that’s a recipe for good,” one scout said. “You’re cooking with gas on that one.”
The rhythms of an NFL season ebb and flow, and winning early often doesn’t translate to winning late. You might remember that after 11 games in 2011, the Packers were unbeaten and Rodgers’ rating was an astronomical 127.7. Yet that 15-1 season ended with a flameout in the divisional round of the playoffs.
So the Packers’ good start – this week Bovada.lv gave them the second-best odds to win the Super Bowl (5-to-1), behind only New England (9-to-2) – doesn’t count for much on its own. But if Rodgers really is hell-bent on getting back to the Super Bowl, that’s a different story.