Has Aaron Rodgers fallen from ranks of great NFL QBs?

GREEN BAY - It starts in August, with Rich Gannon serving as analyst for the exhibition games.

Now it continues with the network broadcasters assigned to the games that count.

From the standpoint of the Green Bay Packers, the story begins and ends with Aaron Rodgers, twice a winner of the NFL most valuable player award.

A lovefest is what it is, non-stop talk about the quarterback that is the face of the Packers franchise and how great he is. The narrative, with a wrinkle here and there, basically has been the same since Rodgers’ magnificent play led Green Bay to a Super Bowl title six years ago.

People working for networks that pay billions to become NFL partners won’t change their sunny approach. Realists understand, however, that it’s time for that narrative to change.

Rodgers might be great again, and from someone who picked the Packers for a 13-3 record and Super Bowl berth this season it’s fully expected that he will. It could happen Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys at Lambeau Field. The Packers have the pieces to turn it around on offense, and in dramatic fashion.

Until it happens, Rodgers should be categorized as a good veteran quarterback scuffling to regain his elite form.

Are 16 games, the equivalent of one regular season, long enough to say a quarterback has slipped? That should go without saying.

Rodgers hasn’t been the same player since Game 7 last season when the Packers, a three-point favorite, went to Denver and were crushed, 29-10.

“I haven’t had my ass kicked like that in a long time,” said coach Mike McCarthy, but Rodgers might have said the same thing after throwing for a career-low 77 yards.

That was the start of a 16-game stretch – 12 last year, four this year – in which Rodgers’ level of play, so outstanding season after season, has fallen.

Working backward, Rodgers’ career was divided into eight 16-game segments, playoff games included. The two games in which he departed early because of injury also were counted. The eight 16-game segments totaled 128 starts; left out were the first eight starts of his career in 2008.

The decline in Rodgers’ statistics in the most recent 16-game segment is startling, if not shocking.

Start with passer rating. His 83.6 mark in the last 16 games doesn’t even begin to compare to his previous seven segments, which are listed here in reverse chronological order: 110.0, 105.5, 113.0, 110.9, 115.5, 98.6 and 98.5.

Now check out completion percentage. His mark of 56.8 percent in the last 16 games was preceded by 65.1, 66.5, 66.9, 66.6, 69.2, 65.2 and 63.3.

Look at yards per attempt. His mark of 6.04 in the last 16 games was preceded by averages of 8.20, 8.20, 8.36, 8.25, 8.77, 7.96 and 8.07.

His passing yards (3,677) and touchdowns (29) in the last 16 games were the lowest of the eight segments, and his interception total of 10 was his highest since the first two segments of his career.

It’s almost as if an imposter has been wearing the No. 12 jersey since that night in Denver.

At the risk of statistical overload, allow me one more set of metrics to underscore the depths of Rodgers’ struggles as the face of this offense and this franchise.

Situational football dominates analysis of the game. Whether it’s third down, red zone, short-yardage or goal-line, it’s all important.

To say any of those situations are more vital than first down would be a stretch. First down plays a direct role in the last three, and without steady production on first down, third downs become far less manageable.

Usually on first down, everything is on the table. It measures a passing game, a running game and, without question, a quarterback. First down sets everything else up.

Through five weeks of the season the Packers ranked last in the NFL in average gain on first down at 3.79 yards. Atlanta leads at 8.63.

The statistics available to me date to 2003. In the last 13 seasons, the worst first-down average was 3.88 by the 2-14 Houston Texans of coach Dom Capers in 2005.

The average record of the teams that finished last on first down since 2003 was 4-12. Ten of the 13 teams either ranked 31st or 32nd in total offense.

Of the starting quarterbacks for those 13 teams, the highest passer rating was the 86.2 compiled by San Francisco’s Blaine Gabbert last year. Five starters, including John Skelton, Jimmy Clausen, Brady Quinn, Andrew Walter and Joey Harrington, had ratings below 68.

It’s just a four-game aberration for the Packers, right? Not quite. They ranked 31st a year ago at 4.53.

New England, the one NFL team with offensive-system continuity to rival Green Bay’s, ranked in the top half of the league every year except 2008, when Tom Brady went down in the opener and Matt Cassel took over.

With Brady, the Patriots never have averaged worse than 5.30 on first down since 2003.

McCarthy, Rodgers, assistant coaches and other players have been brushing aside the offensive malaise for the better part of 12 months. McCarthy fired some more coaches after last season, established fundamentals as his major emphasis for 2016 and continued to praise on Rodgers at every turn.

Other than the fact the Packers are 3-1, there is little evidence at this point to think they’re a championship offense. The passing game has settled in again as one of the NFL’s least effective just as Rodgers checks in 19th in passer rating (87.7), 28th in average gain per pass (6.30) and 31st in completion percentage (56.1).

Rod Marinelli, now the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator, was preparing for the NFC championship game in January 2011 as coordinator for the Bears. Rodgers was coming off one of the best games of his career in the 48-21 divisional romp against the Falcons at the Georgia Dome.

“I’ll tell you what, when he’s outside the pocket, he’s extremely accurate,” Marinelli said a few days before the game. “It’s uncanny. He steps up in the pocket well. The thing I admire, he’ll take the hit to get the ball down the field.”

Rodgers makes a magical throw or two every week, and almost always on the move. When he uses that incredible release to drive a ball downfield and dead on the money, it’s part of the reason why those who watch highlights still rate him as the best.

For years, it seemed like every time that Rodgers ran up through the pocket, at least from my vantage point, a big pass play followed. It was a shooting gallery. Defensive backs couldn’t plaster their receivers long enough.

“He was on the other hash and he threw it all the way back to the side,” Seattle cornerback Byron Maxwell said after Rodgers’ 15-yard completion across the field to Jordy Nelson during the NFC title game in January 2015. “I am like, ‘OK, man, what is this, a robot, really?”

Rodgers is extending plays more and more each year and, in the last 12 months, with less success. Rather than giving plays time to develop, too often he bolts prematurely. When he does extend, he isn’t as decisive. He’s not seeing the field as well. He’s missing more open targets.

As far as planting his back foot from shotgun or a straight dropback, striding into the throw and taking a hit, it almost never happens. Just as Brett Favre fell into poor throwing mechanics later on during the Mike Sherman years, Rodgers is following suit.

You see a lot of all-arm throws, skipping into throws, firing off balance and across his body. He sails one pass, bounces another. At times, his feet don’t work in unison with his torso. His deep-ball accuracy, once extraordinary, has improved somewhat from a year ago when it was embarrassingly bad for a player of his stature.

The abject failure on first down over the last 22 games is due in large part to Rodgers, who has a respectable ground game and a first-rate offensive line. The short-to-intermediate passing game on first down that sets the table for what’s to come has been missing.

Rodgers’ mediocrity a year ago was partially obscured by his wondrous Hail Mary passes of 61 yards to Richard Rodgers that beat Detroit and another of 41 to Jeff Janis that forced overtime in the Arizona divisional game.

It also should be remembered that in the first six games of 2015, a critical element in the offensive success was free plays. In Games 1-6, Rodgers completed passes for 52, 34, 29, 27 and 22 yards after his hard count coaxed the opponent offside, not to mention a 52-yard pass-interference penalty on Seattle’s Richard Sherman.

Since then, the Packers haven’t had a single “free play” completion. Defensive linemen have seen it, been warned about it and aren’t jumping as much.

Still, Rodgers continues to hard count time after time as the play clock winds down to 1 or 2. He also has an eagle eye out for substituting D-linemen, and twice this season he has drawn a penalty via quick counts.

The offense probably would be better off if his teammates could focus on the play and getting off the ball in advantageous fashion without all this other stuff going on so often.

McCarthy is at fault, too. He’s the one in January who promoted youthful Luke Getsy, a college quarterback and quality-control coach, to coach wide receivers, a key position for a passing game with major issues that once was the province of proven veteran assistants like Jimmy Robinson, Ray Sherman and Lew Carpenter.

One NFC personnel man has said several times that the Packers’ receivers don’t run routes in the classic sense of the word. The talent at wide receiver is more than adequate, according to several scouts, but McCarthy’s staple remains isolation routes instead of using bunches, rubs and other creative devices to give receivers easier releases into the secondary.

At the same time, let’s end this nonsense about receivers needing to gain the trust of Rodgers. What he needs to do is his job, throw accurately to the open man and let the coaches handle it from there.

My guess is that Rodgers, after 12 years as a pro, would be a hard man to coach.

Can you imagine another player saying “it’s a silly drill … I did it today as a favor to the coaches,” as did Rodgers when McCarthy employed the wet-ball drill last month in practice with rain in the forecast for the Detroit game?

Asked in August what he needed to accomplish in what became his only exhibition appearance, Rodgers replied, “Nothing.” Which was ridiculous, as his sluggish start illustrated.

Rodgers, who can be extremely sensitive, knows full well that no one in the building would dare criticize him publicly, and from McCarthy on down that’s the way it is. Seemingly every third fan in the seats owns his jersey, and there’s little question who’s the most popular member of the organization.

Meanwhile, eager-beaver young assistants across the league have had 10 going on 11 years to study the tendencies of McCarthy and Rodgers. They’re really not fooling anyone anymore. The book’s out there, and the advantage of having been together for more than a decade probably is countered by the realities of trying to stay fresh against well-schooled opponents.

Favre, it should be remembered, played his best football at age 40 when he was working for his fourth team and seventh head coach.

Also, can people please stop calling Rodgers a lock for the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

Rodgers is close to securing a bust in Canton, but to clinch a berth he must get out of this tailspin and reach at least another Super Bowl. His playoff resume since 2010 is spotty, to say the least. Rules changes make it less challenging physically to play quarterback, and the glossy passer ratings for Rodgers and others need to be weighed carefully by selectors in evaluating quarterbacks of this generation.

It’s become almost pointless even to discuss Rodgers with personnel men and coaches from non-playoff teams. Because he’s so much more talented than the quarterbacks many teams have, they can hardly fathom how a discouraging word can be uttered about him.

If those scouts had time to examine the way Rodgers has played for a year when compared to the bulk of his career, they would understand the situation.

My bottom line, after seeing the last 12 months, is to rank Rodgers fifth among NFL quarterbacks behind Brady, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton. That is, if everyone were healthy, supporting casts were equal and there was one game to win.

Certainly, Rodgers can regain his preeminent rank. He’s in tremendous shape, neither age (32) nor injury has affected his movement and his arm remains excellent. He is driven partly by proving people wrong, and there’s little doubt the last 16 games should motivate him to no end.

By the same token, there’s perhaps a minute chance Rodgers could become the Packers’ first skill-position player with multiple Pro Bowls to fade away as fast as fullback John Brockington did in the mid-1970s if he isn’t able to alter the course of his career.

No situation is ever perfect for a quarterback. But no matter what you think of McCarthy, his staff, his tactics and his other 52 players, he has made it clear many times that helping the quarterback best perform his job is his top priority every year.

So save the excuses for Rodgers’ performance since Denver a year ago. It’s a quarterbacks game, and the all-time greats at the position have led their teams and excelled no matter the circumstances. That’s what Rodgers must get back to doing, starting now.


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