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Aaron Rodgers Is Still Aaron Rodgers

After a calendar year of struggles, the Green Bay quarterback has returned to greatness

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

For nearly a full year, Aaron Rodgers wasn’t himself. From Week 6 of the 2015 season to Week 6 this year, the two-time MVP missed way too many throws in what became a clunky, inefficient Packers offense. But the Rodgers of old — the championship-belt donning, gunslinging football magician with the shit-eating grin — is back. Since Week 12, when Rodgers correctly suggested the Packers could “run the table,” he’s been on an absolute tear.

Following that proclamation, the Packers won six straight, went from a 4–6 record to an NFC North division title, and transformed into one of the scariest teams in the entire playoff field. They’re this year’s “team nobody wants to play,” and it begins and ends with the alien — ahem, human — behind center.

In some years, these postseason upstarts inspire an unfounded fear thanks to an easy late-season schedule or an unsustainable glut of big plays or some other form of luck. But make no mistake: The Giants, and anyone else who draws Green Bay this postseason, should be afraid of Rodgers — very afraid.

The main driver in Rodgers’s return to greatness is his pinpoint accuracy. Through six weeks, Rodgers was completing just 60 percent of his passes, but over his last six games that number jumped to 71 percent. The rest of his game flows from that ability to fit the ball into tight windows, and that’s especially important for Green Bay because the Packers offense isn’t a “scheme players open” type of offense that frequently uses pick plays, bunch formations, and presnap motion to manufacture separation. It’s a West Coaststyle, timing-based passing attack that requires Rodgers to trust his receivers to be where they’re supposed to be so he can just throw it to a spot.

A few years ago, during a throwaway radio interview, Rodgers said something that struck me, so I wrote it down: “It doesn’t matter how tight of coverage the defender is playing. If his back is to me, if I can read his name and can’t see his face mask, we consider that to be open, and I’ll make the throw every time. By the time he turns around and locates the ball, it’s too late. I trust that our guy will have him beat and will come down with it.”

We’ve seen so many of those throws over the past few weeks. Against Seattle in Week 14, Rodgers hit Davante Adams down the sideline when Adams beat DeShawn Shead off the line.

Against the Vikings, he hit Jared Cook on a similar throw:

Then against the Lions this past Sunday, he threw a pass down the sideline to Geronimo Allison, who had run a wheel route to get out in front of his coverage.

These tight-coverage passes, thrown into small windows downfield while a defensive back has his back turned, were the throws Rodgers was missing during his year-long slump. They’d sail long or out of bounds or come up short. Not anymore, though. He’s returned to attacking tight coverage mercilessly, and his deep throw to Jordy Nelson in the final minute of the Packers’ Week 15 win over the Bears is the most mind-melting example. After sliding to his left, he heaved a bomb over the head of trailing cornerback Cre’von LeBlanc, right into Nelson’s outstretched hands to set up the game-winning field goal.

While Rodgers can kill you from the pocket, he also has an elite ability to extend plays and get outside of it to make throws: He ended the year tied with Jameis Winston for most touchdown passes from outside the pocket (13). Against the Texans in Week 13, Rodgers strafed to his right to avoid pressure, eventually finding Randall Cobb in the back of the end zone for a score. Then, against the Seahawks the next week, he made a ridiculous throw on a similar play, running to his right to avoid pressure from the interior before hitting Adams up the sideline for a 66-yard touchdown.

Two of Rodgers’s more incredible plays this year came on impossible escapes out of the pocket. Against the Vikings, he found Nelson in the back of the end zone. Then against the Lions, after eluding the pass rush for over eight seconds, Rodgers found Allison running along the end line.

With plenty of quarterbacks, these plays die when the pressure arrives: They drop their eyes, lose sight of their receivers, and just hope to not get killed. But for Rodgers, they’re not losses or even just gains; they’re touchdowns.

Even if Rodgers doesn’t throw the ball, his athleticism can still be destructive. He converted three big third downs with his feet Sunday against the Lions, pushing his season total of first-down-creating runs to 25, most on the team.

The most impressive part of Rodgers’s game, though, is his masterful command at the line of scrimmage. He owns one of the most effective hard counts in the game, as the varied rhythm and tone of his snap count frequently draw opposing defenses offside and keep them guessing. This year, the pre-snap phase of the Packers offense is firing on all cylinders. Rodgers is one of the best in the world at deciphering coverage and then changing the play on the fly. With barely perceptible hand signals — and in some cases, just a simple glance — he’s able to get his receivers and backs into the right plays that can take advantage of vulnerabilities in the defense.

Two touchdown passes against the Lions illustrate why this is so key and so devastating. Early in the third quarter, with Green Bay trailing, 14–10, Rodgers works his pre-snap magic to find the vulnerable spot in the Lions defense. When Detroit safety Glover Quin shows blitz during Rodgers’s snap count, the quarterback pulls up, signals a change in the play, and attacks the exact spot that Quin would’ve been in in coverage. As Quin rushes through the line, Rodgers hits Adams on the goal line for a touchdown.

Later, in the fourth quarter, Rodgers does his best puppet-master impression, changing the play to a quick fade on the outside after Detroit shows another interior blitz before the snap. He signals to Adams on the wing and quickly whips the ball toward the pylon, knowing pressure was coming up the gut and no help was coming for corner Nevin Lawson.

Whether it’s with his arm, feet, or brain, this version of Rodgers can beat you in so many ways. He mixes short, quick passes into the flat, with high-velocity throws on slants over the middle, deep bombs down the sideline, and absurd escapes from pressure to make game-changing plays. Any memories of the guy who struggled with timing and accuracy have faded, and Rodgers is back to normal. Unfortunately for the rest of the NFL, normal equals “the most terrifying passer on planet Earth.”