Is Aaron Rodgers Underutilized by the Packers?
by Mike Conklin
July 14, 2012
6,132 yards. 59 touchdowns. Only eight interceptions. The best season by any quarterback in NFL history by a wide margin.
That could have been the stat line for Aaron Rodgers, if he had attempted as many passes last year as Matthew Stafford.
Stafford led the NFL in number of attempts, with 663. Rodgers attempted 502, good for 16th in the league. And even if he had played in the final game when he sat out for precautionary reasons, he would have only likely moved up to 11th on the list. Not exactly among the league leaders.
Even so, the numbers Rodgers put up were staggering. His touchdown-to-interception ratio (45-to-6) defies description. His 122.5 quarterback rating was unprecedented, breaking the all time record. His 9.2 yards-per-attempt average was the best since Kurt Warner in 2000, and one of the best in history. It was a masterful year by any measure.
But when you consider that he was nowhere near the league leaders in the number of attempts, it is hard not to wonder just how much more productive he could have been if he had thrown more. Stafford averaged eight more attempts per game than Rodgers, which is a big difference. In theory, that could have translated into an extra 70+ yards and another touchdown per game for Rodgers, based on his production levels in those categories.
What if Rodgers had been among the league leaders in pass attempts for the entire season? What could he have accomplished? The example above of 6,132 yards and 59 touchdowns illustrates what Rodgers final statistics would have been if he had finished with the same number of attempts as Stafford, yet maintained the same completion percentage and yards-per-attempt that he maintained for the rest of the season. Yes, there are a lot of variables that go into that, but they are still numbers worth considering.
As for Stafford's number of attempts last year that we are using for comparison, such a number is not all that unusual in the NFL anymore. In fact, 25 quarterbacks have attempted more than 600 passes in a season, including Brett Favre (twice). There have been over 650 attempts seven times. Yet, in one of the greatest seasons in NFL history for a quarterback, Rodgers barely had 500 attempts last year. It is amazing to consider what he was able to accomplish considering that fact, but as Mike McCarthy and his staff dissected the numbers this offseason they surely have given thought to the matter.
The Packers will be challenged to find ways to increase his attempts. At first glance, the thought may be to limit the number of rushing plays even further. It sounds like a simple solution, but may be difficult to do. The Packers ran the ball 39.98% of the time last year, which was eighth lowest in the league. Even when the Packers were ahead in games and trying to "run out the clock," they were still passing the ball more often than other teams. Simply put, the Packers are a passing team and the numbers bear that out.
The single biggest reason Rodgers ended up attempting fewer passes than lesser quarterbacks like Mark Sanchez and Andy Dalton was simply because the Packers didn't run that many plays. Last year, they were actually 28th in the league in the number of offensive plays run from scrimmage, a shocking statistic considering the fact they led the NFL in scoring. The Packers ran 130 fewer plays than the next-highest scoring team, the New Orleans Saints. It also sheds a little more light on why Drew Brees was able to break Dan Marino's yardage record. The Saints put the ball into his hands a lot, and he was able to capitalize on those opportunities. But the question bears asking: What could Rodgers have done if he had the same opportunities?
The Packers have a few options. They could play more no-huddle offense, which could possibly result in more possessions per game and a higher total number of offensive plays. The no-huddle is in their offense, but is not nearly as integral to their game plan as it is for some other teams. They could also limit the number of rushing plays even further, as mentioned earlier. The Lions only ran the ball 33.65% of the time, and they had a prolific offense. The Saints also ran the ball at a ratio slightly less than the Packers, at 38.59%. We keep hearing it is a passing league, and all the numbers seem to bear that out. In each of the past three years, the Packers have run the ball progressively fewer times. With that in mind, it would not be surprising to see the Packers run even fewer times this season.
Greg Jennings contradicted that thought this week, however. He told the NFL Network that the Packers were going to focus on improving their run game this season.
“The biggest question...I’m going to do a little self-scouting because defenses don’t prepare for our run game,” Jennings mused. “Defensive coordinators aren’t wracking their brain, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to stop their running game.’ So can we sustain this high level of explosive level offense without a run game? It’s going to be interesting to see."
“I’m (of the) belief that we’re going to fix our running game and we’re going to get it going this year. But that’s probably going to be the number one focus of us – us meaning us within that locker room that know we need to change something on that side of the ball.”
That all sounds great and is exactly what the Packers need to say, but when the offensive coaches get together in the privacy of their meeting rooms it could be difficult for them to justify running the ball much more than they already do. When you consider that last year the team averaged 3.9 yards per rush attempt, versus Rodgers' 9.2 yards per pass attempt, it is hard to argue in favor of more rush attempts. Of course, the threat needs to be there in order to keep the defense honest. That is why the run game needs to be effective when it actually is used, and is a worthy focus for the locker room as Jennings attests.
Of course, the fact of the matter is this whole discussion means very little considering how well the offense performed last year. The Packers led the league in scoring with 560 points, good for second best in NFL history. If Mike McCarthy were to be questioned about this topic, his likely response would be similar to that which he gave last year during his weekly television show when a viewer asked him why the Packers don't run the ball more.
"Well, you know, it's about scoring points, and we're on pace right now to be third all time in the history of the NFL in scoring points. (They actually finished second.) I don't think it really matters how you get the ball in the end zone. We do a lot of things...you have the opportunity to run or pass...based on the defense. So that's just the way it shakes out sometimes."
In other words, "shut up."
Nevertheless, the league is always evolving and the Packers have to stay ahead of the curve. You can bet that these numbers are not lost on McCarthy and Mike Eayrs, the team statistician. If there is any way that Rodgers and the Packers can exploit opposing defenses even more this season, it will be in the team's plans. And you have to figure that the reigning NFL MVP will be the beneficiary.
(Photo Credit: Packers.com)