Remember when we all thought the Browns were the NFL’s next dominant team? Or that Carson Wentz was a no-brainer future MVP? Or that Sean McVay was the league’s next great mastermind? Some of the NFL’s teams, players, and coaches who were in the spotlight the past few seasons enter 2020 with tempered expectations—but that doesn’t mean we should count them out. Welcome to The Ringer’s Post-Hype Week, when we revisit some of the league’s biggest story lines from seasons past that aren’t getting as much love ahead of this campaign.
Aaron Rodgers is a scotch guy. He likes the 15-year-old Balvenie single malt, to be specific (it’s “less smoky”). But when the Packers traded up to select Utah State quarterback Jordan Love in the first round of April’s NFL draft, Rodgers skipped the scotch and reached straight for the tequila.
“I knew it was going to be one of those nights.” Rodgers said on the 10 Questions With Kyle Brandt podcast. Rodgers, like everyone else who cares about the Packers, was expecting the team to take a wide receiver. That is the team’s biggest need and this draft had the best group of receiver prospects in years. Instead, the Packers traded up to the no. 26 pick and selected Love, a raw prospect from Utah State with a big frame (6-foot-4, 219 pounds), a big arm, and a lot of athleticism, but debatable pro potential. At first glance, the move seems like a repeat of history. Green Bay drafted Rodgers late in the first round in 2005, and he replaced Brett Favre after sitting behind him for a few years. Now it seems like Rodgers will go out the way he came in. [Cue “Circle of Life.”] But Rodgers explained on Brandt’s podcast that he doesn’t believe this situation is similar to his and Favre’s 15 years ago.
“As much as people want to make parallels to certain things, in 2004 the Packers were 10-6 and lost in the first round of the playoffs,” Rodgers told Brandt. “[Last year] we were 13-3 and one game from the Super Bowl and won a playoff game at home—and obviously [we] won our division. A little different circumstances. Not to mention that Brett had talked about retiring for a few years before [I was drafted] and I’ve talked about playing into my 40s. So when people start talking about the parallels to this and that, well, I fell to 24th. They traded up and drafted Jordan.”
Recent history suggests that Love will play soon. Excluding Dwayne Haskins, who was drafted in 2019 and is set to start for Washington this fall, the only quarterbacks taken in the first round over the past 20 years who did not start at least one season are Johnny Manziel and Paxton Lynch, according to the 2020 Football Outsiders Almanac. But Rodgers earns an average of $33.5 million per year, and the earliest the Packers can realistically trade or cut him is after the 2021 season. Green Bay is in a position where it can either keep paying Rodgers more than $30 million annually through 2023 and never play its 2020 first-rounder, or move on from Rodgers and turn to Love. Of those options, Rodgers understands it’s more likely he leaves Green Bay.
“I get it, I really do,” Rodgers said. “I don’t harbor any ill will about it. Was I bummed out? Of course. Who wouldn’t be? I wanted to play my entire career in Green Bay. I love the city. I grew up there, really. I got there when I was 21, I’m 36 now. You know, a lot changes during that time. But look, I get it. I see it completely clearly and I’m not bitter about it. It just kind of is what it is.”
Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks of all time, a Super Bowl MVP and two-time regular-season MVP who somehow combined Favre’s penchant for legendary throws with the lowest interception rate of all time. The Packers have recorded a winning record in 10 of his 12 seasons as a starter and made the playoffs nine times. He is considered one of the most gifted people to ever throw a football.
Before April, the thought of replacing him, even at age 36, seemed ridiculous. Then the Packers traded up in the first round to take his likely successor, and now even Rodgers is openly contemplating his future with the team. The rest of Rodgers’s Green Bay career is clouded with uncertainty—the NFL version of the little text bubble that shows someone is typing. Yes, Rodgers won a Super Bowl, but that was 10 years ago. Yes, Rodgers has football left in him, but he is now the same age that Favre was when the team drafted Rodgers. Yes, Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks of all time, but advanced statistics suggest he has not been a top 10 quarterback for the past five years. Do the Packers think Rodgers is almost done?
Ben Baldwin, an NFL writer at The Athletic and one of the sharpest data experts in sports media, has written extensively about Rodgers’s decline, which he argues began back in 2015. That is an astonishing conclusion that runs counter to what most casual and even obsessive fans believe. Mike Sando, another writer at The Athletic, conducts an annual survey of NFL coaches and executives who rank the league’s quarterbacks. From 2013 to 2019, the first six years that Sando held the survey, Rodgers tied for or outright won the top spot. Last summer, 53 of the 55 experts (96 percent) Sando surveyed ranked Rodgers in the top tier of NFL quarterbacks. This year, Rodgers fell to the no. 3 spot, behind Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson, but remained in the top tier. To hear Baldwin tell it, there is no player with a larger disconnect between his reputation and recent production than Rodgers.
“It’s not like he’s been a Drew Brees, for example, where their offense has been great every single time he’s out there,” Baldwin says. “You can tell that it is not what it used to be.”
There is a football stat called expected points added (EPA) which measures the value of each play (i.e., if on third-and-2, a team runs for 3 yards, how likely is that play to change the score?). A lot of fancy math goes into calculating EPA, and it gives the best measurement of team offensive performance that we have. Unsurprisingly, Rodgers’s Packers were elite in this metric at their best. Rodgers’s EPA per dropback numbers in 2011 and 2014 were some of the highest ever measured. The only quarterbacks to match his peak in the past decade were Peyton Manning in 2013 and Drew Brees in 2018, according to Baldwin. That certainly passes the eye test. In 2011, Rodgers won MVP and threw 45 touchdowns and just six interceptions while leading the league in passing yards per throw. It was one of the best seasons that any QB has ever had.
But Baldwin’s numbers suggest a surprising conclusion: That peak is over. While Rodgers was consistently a top-three quarterback by EPA per play from 2010 to 2014, he has merely been above average since the middle of 2015. He has been somewhere between a top-10 and top-16 quarterback in that metric for the past five years—closer to Kirk Cousins than Mahomes. Rodgers has also ranked outside the top 15 in ESPN’s Total QBR (a better version of passer rating) in each of the past two seasons after dominating the stat earlier in his career. Baldwin said people don’t have to understand advanced stats to see that Rodgers isn’t the same player anymore. “Even if you set aside all the efficiency and EPA and stuff not everyone cares about,” Baldwin says, “just watching him, he is not as effective as he used to be.”
This kind of back-shoulder throw is the quintessential Rodgers pass. Rodgers has perfect protection on the 2-yard line, but throws the ball while falling backward instead of stepping into the throw. The pass soars behind Adams, who is unable to catch it. Adams could have easily corralled the ball if it was to his left, and Rodgers could have easily put it there if he threw the ball with proper technique. Instead, Rodgers threw with poor form, missed his target, and the Packers settled for a field goal. While this is just one play, Rodgers missed a half-dozen simple throws like this—bad technique in a clean pocket—over Green Bay’s last two weeks of the season.
It seems bizarre that Rodgers could miss these throws considering that he is one of the most naturally talented throwers in NFL history. But perhaps that explains why he is missing these passes. For years he could make amazing throws without basic quarterback fundamentals like setting his feet. But now that Rodgers is 36, his accuracy may not be the same as it once was, which could create issues if he hasn’t adjusted his fundamentals to align with his physical limitations. Whatever the reason, plays like this happen more often than they did earlier in his career.
While Packers fans may quibble with advanced numbers suggesting that Rodgers has declined, anyone who has watched the team over the past two years knows how many throws Rodgers has missed. (They may not admit it aloud, but I promise they whisper it among themselves.) Still, Green Bay’s decline in offensive effectiveness goes far beyond Rodgers’s play. Ask Packers fans to name a few reasons for the offense’s shortcomings over the past half-decade, and they come up with the same few answers.
- Mike McCarthy’s play-calling got stale around 2015, leading to a predictable offense.
- The Packers front office got complacent, relying on Rodgers’s greatness and the team’s penchant for developing receivers. In 2014, Rodgers threw to the elite trio of Adams, Jordy Nelson, and Randall Cobb. Now Rodgers has Adams (elite) along with Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, and Jake Kumerow (not elite). Before taking Love in April, Green Bay had not drafted an offensive player in the first round since 2011.
- Rodgers suffered a collarbone injury in 2017 and a knee injury in 2018 that sapped his abilities for various parts of those seasons.
It’s fair to wonder whether Rodgers grew frustrated with these things too. Bleacher Report’s Tyler Dunne reported that Rodgers was upset with McCarthy’s play-calling and disrespected his former head coach for what he perceived to be a low football IQ. Dunne also wrote that Rodgers began changing routes and plays that sometimes forced his pass catchers to choose between doing what Rodgers said or what coaches wanted. Rodgers called Dunne’s report “a smear attack.”
No matter your take on that story, it’s clear that Rodgers was often unsatisfied with Green Bay’s offense. That could be why he gave up on plays in 2018 more than any other quarterback. Rodgers threw away a whopping 51 passes that season, 21 more than second-place Jared Goff. Rodgers’s 51 throwaways were the most in a season in more than a decade, per PFF. McCarthy was fired that December, and the team replaced him the following January with Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur. Before last season, LaFleur told NBC’s Peter King that his relationship with Rodgers was “a partnership.”
Play-calling, injuries, and surrounding talent all contribute to a quarterback’s performance. Even taking those factors into account, though, Rodgers has not played at his best as often as he did in the past, and the most advanced football math backs that up. Pro Football Focus tracks a statistic called adjusted completion percentage, which unlike regular completion percentage removes drops, throwaways, spikes, passes batted at the line of scrimmage, and passes where the QB was hit while throwing. In the past few years, Rodgers’s numbers in this metric have declined. When Baldwin suggested that Rodgers was partially responsible for this trend, Packers fans were apoplectic.
Aaron Rodgers Adjusted Completion Percentage, 2008-2019
|Year||Adj .Completion %||League Rank (minimum 200 throws)|
|Year||Adj .Completion %||League Rank (minimum 200 throws)|
“The way they reacted is—it’s not the exact same thing—but it’s like if someone was trying to ruin their childhood,” Baldwin says. Part of that comes with the territory of criticizing star athletes, but the backlash is exacerbated for a player as beloved and worshipped as Rodgers. “With Rodgers it’s different because he really was that great at one time,” Baldwin says. “That is to some extent what people are clinging to. And when you say that is not the case anymore, then people get really upset.”
Now the Packers are the ones at least implying that they see a Rodgers decline happening, even if they won’t say as much out loud. LaFleur, for his part, has tried to calm the Rodgers-Love controversy. “It was just one of those situations where there were a couple guys targeted that had just previously been picked and Jordan was the next guy on the board,” LaFleur told ESPN Radio of the draft decision in May. “So we went with the best player at the time.”
Packers fans were perplexed to say the least. And strangely enough, Baldwin was too. While he believes that Rodgers is no longer an elite quarterback, he didn’t think the pick was smart either.
“As much as I have been skeptical about Rodgers, I don’t love the pick from the Packers perspective,” Baldwin says. “They’re kind of stuck with Rodgers in terms of the cap situation for at least two more seasons. So it’s hard to talk yourself into a good outcome from this.”
None of the criticism of Green Bay will matter if Love turns out to be a star. Perhaps Love will sit behind Rodgers and develop into one of the league’s best quarterbacks, and the Packers will once again prove that thinking so far ahead is a good thing, and that having too many good QBs is the best problem a team can have. Even if Love primarily motivates Rodgers, he could pay off without playing a down. Still, this pick will ultimately be judged by how this saga ends. Surely the idea of a 39-year-old Aaron Rodgers leading the Bears to a title in 2022 is a Green Bay horror story, but it’s not impossible. After all, Favre nearly took the rival Vikings to the Super Bowl.
A quarterback controversy is coming in Green Bay, just not this year (the only quarterback competition this year is Love vs. Tim Boyle for the second-string job). But even with Rodgers as the starter, Green Bay is widely expected to regress after going 13-3 and making the NFC championship game last season. The 2019 Packers went 6-1 in games decided by seven or fewer points, which historically are a 50-50 proposition. They outscored their regular-season opponents by just 63 points, the ninth-best mark of the 12 playoff teams. Every other 13-3 team since 1989 has averaged more than double that point differential, according to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell. By Football Outsiders’ efficiency metrics, the Packers were the second-worst 13-3 team on record. Sportsbooks have taken notice. Vegas Insider lists Green Bay’s over/under win total at nine.
Advanced stats aside, Green Bay did little to improve its roster this offseason. The Packers receiving corps is weak behind Adams, and they also have the least-proven tight end group Rodgers has played with in his career. Starting tight end Jace Sternberger has taken zero NFL snaps; the other option tight end is Robert Tonyan, who has 14 catches in two seasons. Green Bay’s best skill-position player other than Adams is running back Aaron Jones, but he may see the field less after the team drafted Boston College bruiser AJ Dillon in the second round. Dillon’s legs are like Corinthian pillars, but he is more of a rusher than a receiver, part of LaFleur’s effort to run more in 2020.
Considering how much the Packers overperformed just to reach the NFC championship game, it’s hard to see them doing better in 2020 than they did in 2019. Green Bay fans want a year when Rodgers can reach for his scotch, but this season may bring more nights when he reaches straight for the tequila.