QB play tends to fall off without warning
Maybe we should all go into an isolation retreat until Aaron Rodgers comes out of his.
That’s how much drama and discussion there has been surrounding the New York Jets quarterback saga. The two main actors in this debate are the aforementioned Rodgers and Derek Carr, who visited with the team over the weekend.
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Each quarterback has pros and cons attached. The chief argument in favor of acquiring Rodgers, though, is that he is an elite quarterback—a first-ballot Hall of Famer who instantly gives the team a chance at a Super Bowl run.
The question, though, is if that is really the case. The back-to-back MVP Rodgers of 2020-21 would certainly elevate this Jets squad to a title contender. But what about the Rodgers of 2022, the one who ranked middle-of-the-pack or lower in most QB metrics? Is that a fluke or a true age-related decline that will only worsen with time?
Just to know what we’re dealing with, let’s look at Rodgers’s 2022 stats among 38 qualified quarterbacks (min. 175 dropbacks). There’s no need to compare the specifics to his prior numbers since it’s obvious that they consistently ranked at the top of the league.
- 64.6% completion rate (22nd)
- 3,695 yards (11th)
- 6.8 yards per attempt (T-25th)
- 4.8% TD rate (T-12th), 26 TD (7th)
- 2.2% INT rate (16th), 12 INT (T-30th)
- 2.9% turnover-worthy play rate (T-14th)
- 8.5 average depth of target (14th)
- 80.6% on-target rate (2nd)
- 7.8% drop rate (3rd-highest)
- 26.7% pressure rate (4th-lowest)
- 2.67 average time to throw (T-14th)
- 91.1 QB rating (T-15th)
- 39.3 QBR (27th)
- 5.95 adjusted net yards per attempt (20th)
In terms of overall numbers, what’s most noteworthy is the variation between Rodgers’s quarterback rating and QBR. According to his regular passer rating, he was average, while according to ESPN’s quarterback metric, he was significantly below.
One particularly noticeable metric was the 7.8% drop rate that Rodgers’s receivers recorded, which was the third-highest in the league. Often, a high drop rate indicates that the quarterback throws many balls off-target even if they were catchable.
However, Rodgers’s second-ranked on-target rate (via Pro Football Reference) does not match his 36th-ranked drop rate, indicating that his receivers’ hands were a significant problem. Furthermore, some of the other QBs with poor drop rates include QBs who were strong in on-target rate, including Daniel Jones (1st), Jared Goff (5th), Trevor Lawrence, and Brock Purdy (T-8th). That correlation was not as strong as usual in 2022.
Overall, it does appear that Rodgers played at an average level in 2022. That’s not the kind of performance that you’d trade draft picks and take on a large contract for, at least in a vacuum.
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Depth of target
Another thing that stands out in Rodgers’s stats is the distribution of his target depths. Although his average depth of target of 8.5 yards was 14th out of 38 quarterbacks, meaning it was above average, he had a very polarized distribution.
Just 15.9% of Rodgers’s targets came in the intermediate area of the field, which is the 10-19 yard range. That tied for 35th out of 38 quarterbacks. Meanwhile, Rodgers ranked second in throw rate behind the line of scrimmage at 20.7% and eighth in deep passes at 15.5%.
That is a very stark difference that is immediately evident in watching his film: Rodgers was pretty much either throwing the ball deep, throwing a screen, or dumping the ball off. That boom-or-bust recipe was one of the reasons the Packers had so much trouble sustaining drives throughout the season.
The question is how much of this is on Rodgers rather than his receivers or the offensive architecture. It certainly appeared as if Green Bay was content to run the ball and throw many quick screens and short passes. Rodgers would then throw the ball deep whenever he got a one-on-one matchup on the outside that he liked.
Statistically, Rodgers was not good on deep balls in 2022. He completed just 34.5% of those attempts, which ranked 27th, and had an official on-target rate of 39.3%, which tied for 25th. Furthermore, his 11.5% turnover-worthy play on attempts of 20+ yards ranked 32nd. However, he also faced four dropped deep passes, a 30th-ranked 12.1% rate, and one of those was a surefire 75-yard touchdown.
Overall, Rodgers threw 12 touchdowns and six interceptions on deep balls, resulting in a 24th-ranked 82.9 passer rating in that area of the field. However, those 12 touchdowns paint a picture of a quarterback who still has arm strength left, and the film shows a QB who was forced to take riskier shots than usual due to his receivers’ inability to win in the intermediate area of the field.
ESPN receiver metrics
ESPN Analytics has receiver metrics that combine three main categories—open score, catch, and YAC—to produce overall ratings for each WR. While they are model-based and do not perfectly match the film, they’re accurate enough to use for some sort of receiver comparison.
Just take a look at how the loss of Davante Adams affected Rodgers based on the overall scores of his pass-catchers from 2020-22.
- 2020: Davante Adams (88), Robert Tonyan (55), Allen Lazard (54), Marquez Valdes-Scantling (37)
- 2021: Adams (83), Valdes-Scantling (50), Lazard (44)
- 2022: Christian Watson (67), Lazard (45), Tonyan (40), Doubs (35)
Is it not surprising that Rodgers played like an MVP with Davante Adams and then dropped off without him?
Now, the Jets don’t have Davante Adams, but they do have an up-and-coming receiver in Garrett Wilson. ESPN’s metrics did not love the Jets’ pass-catchers in 2022, as they rated Wilson 69, Elijah Moore 55, Tyler Conklin 40, and Corey Davis 35.
However, all four of those players appeared to be open on film a lot more than their scores would indicate; their QBs simply could not get the ball there and on target. By contrast, Rodgers’s film is littered with plays in which he did not have any realistic targets.
Bring Rodgers to New York and watch all four of those players’ scores “magically” improve. That’s the power of a good quarterback (and the inaccurate nature of model-based receiver ratings).
Speaking of film, let’s take a look at as much tape as possible from Aaron Rodgers’s 2022 season. I reviewed his games from Weeks 5 through 18 to evaluate whether he truly dropped off or was let down by his teammates. I drew a few conclusions:
- Rodgers has not lost any of his arm strength.
- He still has that ability to drop balls in the bucket at any part of the field and does so in every single game.
- He took way more risks than he did in the past due to an uneven receiving cast. When he saw one-on-one coverage on the outside, he decided to treat it as if it was Davante Adams out there and throw it up, trusting the receiver to win. More often than not, they either did not win at all or dropped a well-thrown ball.
- There were some truly head-scratching decisions in isolated spots this season, but you’ll see that on any quarterback’s film.
- More than just the receivers’ ineptitude, the Packers’ offensive play-calling was stale and predictable. It was fairly obvious that they were either going to run the ball, run a screen, throw a shallow slant, or chuck up a deep ball on virtually every play. This greatly narrowed the options that the defense had to account for. (You will see examples of these with every quarterback, but this is just a small sample of the play-by-play patterns of the Packers’ offense.)
- I was surprised by how well Rodgers can still throw on the run and even scramble when necessary. Obviously, he’s not the Patrick Mahomes-like scrambler from his earlier years, but he maneuvers both inside and outside the pocket pretty well for a 39-year-old.
Can Rodgers be elite?
There are two separate aspects to this question.
- Was Rodgers’s 2022 season indicative of the beginning of a decline? Based on his film, I believe the answer to this question is no. He still showed the same elite traits from his prior back-to-back MVP seasons. The lack of surrounding talent and poor offensive game-planning accounted for a lot of the difference in his performance.
- Is it possible that Rodgers will start to show an actual decline in 2023? This question is a lot murkier. Quarterback play tends to fall off precipitously and without warning. Look no further than the second half of Peyton Manning’s 2014 season to see just how quickly a quarterback can go from elite to barely playable. Even Tom Brady’s GOAT status succumbed to Father Time in 2022. However, there is still reason to believe that Rodgers can have another couple of high-level seasons left in the tank.
After watching the film, I am a lot more convinced that Rodgers can elevate the Jets to that sphere of title contenders. The million-dollar mystery remains about what is going on in the darkness and whether Rodgers will come to see the light in New York.