Aaron Rodgers just missed half of his age 34 season due to a broken collarbone on his throwing side, and when he returned too early in an attempt to push the Packers into the playoffs, he was terrible. His arm clearly had not fully recovered, and without his ability to throw downfield, he was picked off three times. One game of an injured Rodgers doesn’t tell us that much, but it does remind us that Rodgers is human, fallible and subject to the same symptoms of age as everyone else.
As Rodgers enters his age 35 season with two years remaining on his contract, there are some worrying signs about his future, and about how he is likely to age. Rodgers is a phenomenal talent, and it’s not that unusual for all-time greats to excel into their 40s, but there are some facets of Aaron’s game that are not likely to age well, and if he cannot adjust to some new realities, it could spell trouble for Green Bay.
Last season I wrote a piece on what separated Aaron Rodgers from Sam Bradford. It wasn’t as simple as you may think, and in 2016 Bradford and Rodgers were statistically quite similar. The big differentiators between the two in terms of production were:
Rodgers scrambling on 3rd down
Rodgers passing in goal-to-go situations
Their pure passing statistics were extremely similar. Sam Bradford isn’t exactly a bad quarterback, but this is disconcerting.
Rodgers used to be more special than this. From 2009-2014 Rodgers never averaged under 7.8 yards per attempt, led the league in passer rating twice, led the league in interception percentage twice and led the league in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt twice.
In the 2011 season, which featured a receiving corps of Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, Donald Driver and Jermichael Finley, Rodgers was absolutely deadly both inside and outside the pocket as he completely torched the league. Since 2014 Rodgers has still been very good, but he hasn’t been the downfield threat of his youth, and his fairly pedestrian raw numbers were bolstered, at least in 2016, by a bunch of very short touchdown passes.
Some of this change is the result in a drop in wide receiver talent, especially in 2015 when Jordy Nelson was injured. Some of this is strategic, as shorter passes are less likely to be intercepted, but it’s worth noting that the rest of the league hasn’t seen the same dip in big plays. Rodgers averaged 7.26 yards per attempt in 2016, 14th among qualified quarterbacks, while Atlanta’s Matt Ryan led the league with 9.26.
If you look at the list of quarterbacks who remained successful into their 40s, you will mostly see immobile pocket passers like Brady, Brees, Manning, Warner and Favre. There are a few mobile outliers like Rich Gannon, Randall Cunningham and Steve Young, but they peter out pretty quickly around age 37.
Over the last three seasons, athleticism has become an increasingly large component of Rodgers’s game. His ability to run and pick up key first downs is a high leverage value add that goes underrated by most people. His unparalleled ability to buy time in the pocket using his mobility is also a huge factor in the Packer offense generally, and especially near the goal line. There, his patience and ability to keep plays alive allows the Packers to convert touchdowns far above what an average team does. If Rodgers’ mobility were to decline substantially, it would immediately translate into more punts and more field goals at the expense of touchdowns.
For the past three years the Packers have lacked talent at the offensive skill positions relative to the Super Bowl-era team, and Rodgers’s athleticism has made up for a lot of the difference. While the running back position is now solidified, the wide receivers are a Davante Adams injury away from being one of the worst units in football.
BIll Belichick is the greatest coach in NFL history, and a big part of that is his ability to constantly innovate on offense, but he finally has some company. Last season, Kyle Shanahan, then of the Atlanta Falcons, outdueled Belichick for the vast majority of the Super Bowl, and this season the Eagles’ head coach (and former Packer quarterback) Doug Pederson has led one of he most innovative offenses in the league. The Eagles pick on their opponents weaknesses like few others, and despite losing Carson Wentz for the season, they have maintained their level of play behind backup Nick Foles. Pederson and Shanahan, along with Belichick, run offenses far more sophisticated than anything Mike McCarthy calls, and in addition to being sophisticated, they also tend to be simpler to communicate.
McCarthy survived the Packers’ complete overhaul, but his offensive philosophy is already behind the times. Offensive innovation is paying off in the playoffs, and running the same old thing with an aging Aaron Rodgers will likely spell the end of his tenure as well.