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Trick-Shot Throws Aren’t a Luxury for NFL QBs Anymore. Now, They’re a Necessity.

The off-platform throws that helped power Jordan Love and the Packers to the playoffs may have been popularized in the recent past. But now, the league’s top passers—like Lamar Jackson, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen—are proving they’re a necessity in the modern NFL.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In a league where some franchises have gone generations without finding one good starting quarterback, a team in the NFL’s smallest market has found several over the past three decades. In fact, the Green Bay Packers have discovered so many talented passers that they’ve had a surplus—forcing the team to ship off future Pro Bowlers in exchange for draft capital or send a future Hall of Famer to a job bagging groceries. If there’s a quarterback factory in the NFL, it resides in Green Bay. And it appears to still be fully operational.

Jordan Love, its latest output, has led the Packers back to the postseason after a one-year hiatus, and he clinched the berth by beating the division-rival Bears. Love completed 27 of 32 passes for 316 yards in the Week 18 win against Chicago. And that capped off a regular season in which he finished second in the NFL in passing touchdowns and eighth in expected points added per play, answering any questions the team or fan base may have had about his capacity to be Green Bay’s longtime starter. Despite getting younger and swapping out an all-time quarterback for an unproven one, the Packers passing game improved across the board in 2023.

Packers Passing Game, 2022 Vs. 2023

Season Total EPA Yards/Dropback EPA/Dropback Success % Pressure % Sack % INT %
Season Total EPA Yards/Dropback EPA/Dropback Success % Pressure % Sack % INT %
2022 -10.8 6.2 -0.02 44.6% 26.6% 5.40% 2.10%
2023 77.9 6.6 0.12 44.5% 30.3% 4.90% 1.90%
Via TruMedia

Down-to-down efficiency is up, explosive plays are more common, and there have been fewer interceptions and sacks. Love’s numbers have some people drawing comparisons to Aaron Rodgers and Brett Favre before him. And while that may sound blasphemous, especially in a football town that has such reverence for its legends, the similarities between the passers go beyond the box score. Just watch Love throw a football, and you’ll get it.

Like Rodgers and Favre, Love plays light on his feet, makes throws from a variety of arm angles, and isn’t afraid to break the long-standing rules of quarterbacking. In the first clip above, Love throws off his back foot from what many would consider a clean pocket. It’s not the kind of throw you’d show a kid who’s still learning the fundamentals of throwing a football. But if you turn on highlight reels of today’s top quarterbacks—the Patrick Mahomeses, Josh Allens, and Lamar Jacksons of the league—it’s all you’ll see. The same goes for Love’s 2023 reel.

Love has a lot of trick shots in his bag, but the fadeaway has been his signature move throughout his breakout campaign. And it has become apparent that these types of unorthodox throws carry more than aesthetic value—not just for Green Bay’s young quarterback, but also for many of the league’s best passers. The quarterbacks making them with regularity are driving many of the NFL’s top offenses in this year’s playoff field. And the ones who aren’t are becoming increasingly rare.

Weeks before Josh Rosen was drafted in 2018, he spent some time practicing with Rodgers for an NFL Network segment. At the time, Rosen was seen as the most “pro-ready” prospect in a stacked QB class that included Jackson and Allen, due to his polished footwork and throwing mechanics. Rosen threw the ball the way it’s supposed to be done—and the Cardinals eventually took him no. 10 because of it.

Rodgers used to play more like that. Back in his days at Cal, he was a stiff, robotic passer who kept the ball up around his earhole when looking downfield to throw.

NCAA Football - Arizona State vs. California - October 30, 2004 Photo by Robert B. Stanton/WireImage

That rigidity was one of the main reasons Rodgers slipped toward the bottom of the first round in his draft and ended up with the Packers. His coach at Cal, Jeff Tedford, had turned several unheralded prospects into first-round picks during his tenure, but all of those passers threw with that same robotic style—and all of them failed at the pro level. By the time Rodgers entered the draft, being a “Tedford quarterback” did not help his stock.

As he sat behind Favre for three years, though, Rodgers reworked his mechanics. And by the time he took over as the Packers starter in 2008, he looked like a completely different quarterback. He was lighter on his feet and held the ball closer to his waist, which felt more natural for him. Rodgers became a more “rotational” thrower, which allowed him to make the off-platform throws he’d eventually become known for, including the fadeaway that his replacement has emulated.

The changes obviously worked for Rodgers, who earned four MVP awards, won one Super Bowl, and is nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career. But they were still viewed as unorthodox throughout the better part of his time in Green Bay. If you google “Aaron Rodgers bad mechanics,” you get more than a few results.

“It’s not exactly the guru type of throwing that we’ve seen from some of these guys who’ve been teaching quarterbacks over the years,” Rodgers said in 2017. “But there’s a few of us in the league who are pretty efficient at it. It involves harnessing your power and offsetting your arm as much as possible.”

Rosen’s style in 2018 was more like “the guru type of throwing” Rodgers was referring to. He didn’t throw off his back foot. He had an over-the-top delivery. And he followed the rules of quarterbacking every time. Rodgers, in his chat with Rosen, described how the changes to his own style of play helped him find success in the NFL—and inadvertently explained why Rosen would go on to fail.

“If I can’t throw the ball in a perfect environment on the money all the time, then I can’t play,” Rodgers said. “Everybody can do that. A lot of my throws, I’m running full speed to evade a 4.6 pass rusher, and at the last second I flip, and I throw it.

“That’s real football.”

The first clear sign that Rodgers’s game was starting to slip last season was his play out of the pocket. Rodgers has never been viewed as having the mobility of Jackson or Allen, but he’s always been able to move and make throws on the run. That was still mostly true in 2022, but he wasn’t escaping the pocket nearly as much, and when he did, the results weren’t as consistent. His success rate on throws outside the pocket dropped nearly 10 percentage points from 2021 to 2022, according to TruMedia.

While Rodgers’s regression out of structure was the clearest sign of his physical decline, he was also worse inside the pocket—particularly when facing pressure. On those plays, he averaged minus-0.44 EPA per dropback in 2022, per Next Gen Stats. Below are just a few examples of those pressured throws, but you can see Rodgers was having more difficulty making the fast-twitch, off-platform maneuvers that he discussed with Rosen.

If you’re looking for where the Packers offense has improved this season, pressured throws from the pocket are a good place to start.

Jordan Love (2023) Vs. Aaron Rodgers (2022) Under Pressure in the Pocket

Player Season Plays Total EPA Yards/Attempt Sack %
Player Season Plays Total EPA Yards/Attempt Sack %
Aaron Rodgers 2022 96 -46.2 7.0 19.8%
Jordan Love 2023 135 -15.4 7.4 11.1%
Via Next Gen Stats

At 25 years old, Love is more spry than Rodgers was last season, so it may not come as a surprise that the younger quarterback is performing better with defenders chasing. But more mobility doesn’t fully explain the gap in their respective performances. As you can see in this heat map from Next Gen Stats, most of Love’s pressured attempts have been concentrated in the center of the pocket, while Rodgers’s were more scattered.

Furthermore, Rodgers performed better than Love in success rate on throws made on the run, per Next Gen Stats. It’s not Love’s mobility that has helped him play better against pressure. It’s those throws where he’s able to buy himself an extra bit of space and time by fading away from the rush—the throws Rodgers used to make with absurd efficiency and the throws Love is making with increasing consistency.

Green Bay’s offense has actually regressed in other key areas this season. The Packers ran the ball more effectively in 2022. And the offensive line surrendered pressure at a lower rate. Yet in terms of down-to-down efficiency, measured by success rate, the passing game has still found success, largely because of Love’s comfort with making off-platform throws.

Love’s preferred method to deal with pressure and generate a little space in the pocket is to fade away from defenders. And he’s not alone. Star quarterbacks around the league have been rapidly popularizing this concept. Mahomes throws a mean fadeaway.

It’s a handy tactic for a shorter quarterback like Kyler Murray.

Lamar’s fadeaway was on point throughout 2023.

Even Tom Brady was a late adopter, as his arm seemingly got stronger after he turned 40.

But it’s not just the fadeaway that’s grown in popularity since the times of Favre and Rodgers. Quarterbacks like Lamar and Matthew Stafford have confounded defenses with their sidearm throws. Stafford even led the Rams to a Super Bowl win with a no-look pass, which has also been a tool for Rodgers and Mahomes throughout their careers.

There have long been quarterbacks in the NFL who have violated the rules of proper throwing mechanics, but in previous generations, they were seen as outliers with rare arms—and they could even get benched for making what some coaches considered to be reckless decisions. It was a viable option for a select few, though: John Elway was known for his back-foot heaves downfield; Dan Marino had enough arm to throw off his back foot whenever he pleased; and, of course, there’s Favre, who probably influenced the current group of elite quarterbacks more than anyone. But this generation has advanced the art of the off-platform throw, and there’s been a trickle-down effect through the league’s QB hierarchy.

At the second and third tiers, we’re starting to see the prototypical game managers be swapped out for more dynamic players. Nowhere has that been more evident than in San Francisco, where Brock Purdy replaced the statuesque Jimmy Garoppolo, and the offense took off thanks in large part to Purdy’s ability to throw from awkward platforms. He’s completed a few fadeaways this season.

Purdy doesn’t have the arm strength to get away with these throws as often as his more physical peers do—and many of his turnovers have been of the “too much dip on your chip” variety. But when the point of comparison is Jimmy G, any off-platform ability can make you look Mahomes-esque.

The primary thing that connects all these quarterbacks is their ability to avoid sacks when under pressure. That’s where you’ll find the most utility in these throws—and it’s one of the areas where Love has shined in his first season as the Packers starter. Love has the league’s fifth-lowest sack rate overall and the ninth-lowest rate when facing pressure, per TruMedia. Despite facing more pressure than Rodgers did a season ago, Love has taken fewer sacks. The fadeaway throws aren’t just helping him create big plays; they’re also helping him, and quarterbacks around the NFL, avoid negative plays. There’s substance behind the flash.

In the time leading up to Rodgers’s predraft chat with Rosen, he was really the only mobile quarterback who was widely considered elite. Ben Roethlisberger and Tony Romo had similar styles but were never considered to be at that level because of their unconventional approaches. The elite tier was reserved for passers with more classic and consistent throwing motions—like Brady, Peyton Manning, and Drew Brees. With the emergence of Mahomes, Lamar, and Allen—and the success enjoyed by more creative passers like Stafford—that has flipped. Now, the top of the league’s QB hierarchy is occupied, almost exclusively, by rule-breaking quarterbacks. It may not be long before we have to add Love’s name to that list.