For all of his tenure with the Packers, Aaron Rodgers has dominated the other teams in the NFC North. He has a career 34-13 record against divisional opponents, including an 11-6 mark against the Minnesota Vikings. For fans of rival franchises, Rodgers has always been maddeningly perfect, never making a big mistake, never missing the important throws, never losing.
On Sunday, the Vikings beat the Packers 17-14, a game in which Rodgers was outplayed by Sam Bradford. Bradford was making his first start after being traded from Philadelphia before Week 1. Let me repeat: Aaron Rodgers was inferior to SAM BRADFORD when the latter had just two weeks to learn a new playbook.
Rodgers went 20 of 36 for 213 yards, 2 total touchdowns and 2 turnovers. He could have had two more turnovers, but the Packers recovered two of his three fumbles. His stats don’t even do his struggles justice; I saw him miss throws, lack awareness in the pocket, be too loose with the ball. It wasn’t the customary dominant Rodgers.
I think it’s time to start worrying about his performance. I know it’s not fair to judge based on one game against a divisional opponent with a top-5 defense and roaring fans dying to break in a new stadium. However, if you look at his stats for the last calendar year vs. his career, you’ll see how he might be hitting an early career decline.
Rodgers’ stats through his 2014 MVP campaign are impeccable: 8.2 yards per attempt, 65.8% completion percentage, a 106 quarterback rating, 6.5% touchdown percentage, 1.6% interception percentage. And that doesn’t even capture his presence on the field.
When Rodgers was playing your team, there was a paralyzing fear that he would score on you at any moment. There was an even more consistent dread because you knew he was never going to screw up. He knew exactly what was going on at all times, what coverage the defense was running, and where to place the ball to exploit it.
His performance crested in 2011: 309.5 Y/G, 68.3% comp. pct., 45 touchdowns to just six interceptions, 9.2 Y/A, 9% TD pct. to 1.2% INT pct., and an incredible 122.5 quarterback rating. He won the league MVP and topped it off with a Super Bowl title and MVP award for the game. He’s never been quite as miraculous since, but he’s always been great.
In my opinion, he’s the most physically gifted quarterback ever to play the game. He can make every throw on the field, no matter his body position. If you disagree, let me remind you what happened vs. the Cardinals in the playoffs last year:
His accuracy is pinpoint. His arm strength is top-tier. He’s very mobile, and he can throw on the move or take off himself. His understanding of the game is right up there with Brady and Manning. So why has he struggled so mightily (by his high standards) in the last year?
Rodgers’ stats in 2015 don’t match up with his career production: 6.68 Y/A, 60.66% comp. pct., 92.7 QB rating, and 3821 passing yards. Sixteen quarterbacks threw for more yards last season, including Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Tannehill, and Matthew Stafford. Ben Roethlisberger threw for more in 12 games, and Bradford would have had more if he hadn’t missed two starts. Rodgers still threw only 8 interceptions, but three of them came in the last three games of the regular season, and he had another in the playoff loss to the Cardinals.
Rodgers also suffered five of the most embarrassing losses of his career last season. There was the Sunday night catastrophe in Denver when Rodgers was held to 77 yards and no touchdowns. There was the 38-8 shellacking at the hands of the Cardinals, where Rodgers had 151 yards on a 53.57% comp. pct. And possibly most telling, the Packers lost each of their three games at home in the division. The thought of Rodgers losing in the NFC North at Lambeau once is strange; it happened three times!
All of this would have blown over if Rodgers had performed in the post-season. But he didn’t, mustering a measly 56.25% comp. pct. on 5.89 Y/A against an over-matched Washington team and an Arizona squad whose offense was dying to give the game away. Yes, Rodgers showed his brilliance on the throw to Janis, but that type of thing used to be the norm for him. That time, it was simply a flash of what he once did consistently.
Many have chalked up Rodgers’ struggles to the loss of go-to man Jordy Nelson before last season. That’s a fair point, because it’s always hard to go on without a quarterback’s security blanket, especially when you can’t replace him. A major theme of last season was people chiding the Green Bay receivers for not getting open, and that was a legitimate obstacle for Rodgers.
But as Robert Mays said on the Ringer’s NFL podcast, Rodgers used to throw his receivers open. It was one of the things he did so annoyingly well. Randall Cobb could be completely blanketed, but Rodgers would just place the ball right where the defender couldn’t get it and Cobb could. He’s never had the incredible one-on-one option who’s always open, or can make incredible catches when he’s not open. Up until last year, that didn’t matter; he got by on his talent and incredible awareness of the game. He was always calm and collected, and it showed in his performance.
That’s not the case anymore. Last season, I noticed he looked more fidgety in the pocket. He sailed throws and didn’t plant his feet so he could be accurate on others. He misses on throws he’s completed a million times, and I’ve seen him walk off the field looking confused and frustrated more in the past year than I had in his previous nine years. And that discomfort has persisted into this year, even as Nelson has returned.
In short, he’s not the same guy. That doesn’t mean he can never get back to his old dominant self. Plenty of Hall of Fame quarterbacks have struggled for one random season. It happened to Brady in 2009 when he returned from his ACL tear. He’s been just as dominant since then as he was before the injury, and Rodgers doesn’t even have to worry about rehab. He just has to find his groove again.
Honestly, I would be surprised if he didn’t. Don’t take this as an assertion that Rodgers’ days as the league’s best signal-caller are behind him. That would be shortsighted and disrespectful of all that he’s accomplished. But for the first time since he became a starter, it’s fair to question Aaron Rodgers’ performance. Vikings fans, enjoy it while it lasts.