He Makes Greatness Look So Easy

Tuesday December 9th, 2014

When you watch Aaron Rodgers play quarterback, you’re reminded of his greatness constantly. He just doesn’t make many mistakes, of any kind. How often do you look at a Rodgers throw and say, “Noooo! What is he doing?!” Very, very rarely. Rodgers has a 35-to-3 touchdown-to-interception differential this year, and has thrown 34 touchdown passes and no interceptions at home in the last two calendar years. Folks, these are historic numbers we’re looking at.

Monday night was Rodgers’ 100th NFL regular-season start, and this is how much he has spoiled us: A 327-yard, three-touchdown, no-interception, 67-percent, 123.3-rating game, for Rodgers, is average.

Average. In 13 starts this year, eight times he’s thrown three or more touchdowns; 11 times he’s played an interception-free game; four times he’s thrown for more yards than he did against the Falcons on Monday; and four times he’s had a higher rating. So Monday’s game, in which he led Green Bay to 43 points and its 10th win in 13 games, was pretty much in the middle of the curve.

We don’t pause often enough to take stock of what we’re seeing in this Golden Age of Quarterbacks, but on the occasion of Rodgers’ centennial start, and how we’ve come to expect greatness from him every week, I will.

I won’t numb you with numbers, because offensive statistics are so inflated today. But Tony Romo’s having a great season, and his touchdown-to-interception differential is plus-17; Rodgers: plus-32. Russell Wilson is rising up the yardage charts, and he’s 923 passing yards behind Rodgers. Tom Brady is competing for the MVP, and he’s 18.8 rating points behind Rodgers. Joe Flacco is one of the game’s great bombs-away thrower. Yards per pass attempt: Rodgers 8.8, Flacco 7.4.

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This one’s my personal favorite: Rodgers has four turnovers this year. The other NFC North quarterbacks have 45. Think that’s a bit of a factor in Green Bay heading toward its fourth straight division title?

But as I watched the 43-37 victory over the Falcons on Monday night, I was struck not as much by the big plays, the grandiose things like the perfectly placed 60-yard bomb between two Atlanta defenders for a touchdown to Jordy Nelson. What impressed me so much was the execution of things that look simple but really aren’t, things that, done over and over again, define greatness at the position.

Late in the first quarter, in a 7-7 tie, Green Bay had a third-and-two at the Atlanta 11-yard line. Three receivers were flanked right, Randall Cobb wide right; Jordy Nelson was split left, alone. Rodgers was in the shotgun.

“Green-19! Green-19ut!”

(It’s supposed to be “Green-19 Hut,’’ but Rodgers says it so much it has morphed into “19ut.” Notable, though, is that even though in this game the ball is almost always snapped on the second “Green-19” of the cadence, the Falcons don’t cheat off the line much if at all, because Rodgers is one of the best in the league in changing the cadence if he sees defensive linemen cheating, and he’s one of the best in catching that and forcing encroachment and/or neutral-zone infraction calls in the league.)

At the snap, Rodgers’ first look, a long one, was to the left for Nelson. Well covered. Quickly Rodgers turned to the right, to where Cobb was planting his foot in the ground three or four yards upfield and preparing to run a simple in-cut; at the same time, his cover man, cornerback Desmond Trufant, was going to have get through traffic—through Davante Adams, specially—to get to the ball if Rodgers was going to make the throw to Cobb. 

Rodgers was going to make the throw, all right. He was making it a millisecond after Cobb put his foot in the ground. Trufant’s good—quick and fast. As the ball rocketed toward Cobb, Adams knifed through traffic and got to Cobb just as the ball did. But the ball was placed perfectly in the oncoming Cobb’s gut. It got there just before Trufant did. Smash! Trufant barreled into Cobb, who cradled the ball to his chest. If the pass is wide or low or high, even by half a foot, the force of Trufant hitting Cobb would have dislodged the ball—no question. And Trufant played it perfectly. In fact, after he slammed into Cobb, Trufant got up triumphantly, feeling, I made the play!

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But Rodgers made the play. Gain of four. First down. Three plays later Eddie Lacy ran for a one-yard touchdown. The conversion meant Green Bay got seven points on the drive instead of three. It’s the kind of play, among the 67 run by Green Bay in the game, that is easily forgotten. But when you line up one successful play after another successful play, and keep them coming, drive after drive after drive … well, there’s a reason the Packers average three punts a game, and his name is Aaron Rodgers.

One more play I loved. A more notable one. A touchdown, late in the second quarter that gave Green Bay a 31-7 lead going into halftime. The Falcons had pass-rusher Kroy Biermann spying Rodgers on this particular play, with Green Bay at the Atlanta 10 and 30 seconds left in the half. When Rodgers took the snap, Biermann flowed with him, and when Rodgers stepped away from slight pressure to his right, there was a large gap in his protection, where the right guard and tackle had been. Rodgers looked downfield, for any open receiver. Biermann pounced. There were nine yards between Biermann and Rodgers when Biermann began his run at Rodgers, and when he got closer, maybe four yards away, Rodgers noticed and instinctively juked left, slightly. Biermann fell and slid past him. Then Rodgers flowed right, not pressured, waited a split second and lasered a throw about 22 yards in the air to an open Nelson near the end line. Touchdown.

It looked so easy. With Rodgers, it always does. That’s the secret to Aaron Rodgers’ greatness: the simple things, the important things, done perfectly, over and over and over.

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