Does Aaron Rodgers deserve blame for Packers' struggles in close games?
Fair or unfair, being a quarterback in the NFL means accepting too much credit for a win, and too much blame for a loss. At least that is the perception.
In what seemingly constitutes a rarity in the Aaron Rodgers era, the Green Bay Packers lost in Week 3 because of their star signal-caller, not in spite of his usual heroics. The two interceptions Rodgers threw were his most in nearly three years and a key ingredient in the Packers' 34-30 loss at Cincinnati.
It wasn’t the first close loss for Green Bay. In fact, the numbers for Rodgers and the Packers in close games are confounding. Including playoffs, the Packers are 6-18 in games decided by four points or fewer with Rodgers under center. But how much of the blame can we really give a quarterback for the wins and losses of a team?
In the case of the Packers, the answer is complicated.
According to WPA -- Win Percentage Added, a stat we can think of as being similar to WAR in baseball -- the top 10 players in the league in 2012 were all quarterbacks. In fact, the only none QB with a WPA above 3 was J.J. Watt. (You may be surprised to learn that, including the playoffs, Joe Flacco was the fifth best player in the league in 2012 in terms of WPA.)
It seems obvious that a good quarterback could be the single-most influential player on the field over the course of the season, but it’s not the only piece. Rodgers led the league in WPA last season, yet the Packers didn’t even have the best record in their own conference. You need other pieces.
Numbers wizard Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders, in an examination of the Packers’ struggles late in games, found a key insight: Green Bay's defense has habitually let Rodgers down.
Green Bay has allowed 20 game-winning drives since 2008, which is third-most in the league over that span. Last season, there was a Hail Mary to Seattle's Golden Tate on that game's final play. In Week 1 this year, Aaron Rodgers led the Packers to a 28-24 lead, only to watch Colin Kaepernick and the Niners score the game's last 10 points for a San Francisco win.
The Big Lead took that a step further and found that the Green Bay defense has been abominable in games where Rodgers did, in fact, lead a comeback.
As it turns out, Rodgers and the Packers have won only 9 of the 16 games he has been the QB for a go-ahead score in the fourth quarter. That's pretty bad. The other quarterbacks all won between 75% (Flacco) and 96% (Peyton Manning) of games they took a lead in the fourth quarter. The average was an 84% winning percentage when scoring go-ahead points in the fourth.
As you might expect, it's not as though Rodgers is wilting in the fourth quarter at a historic rate. The Packers simply haven't been as good as the teams around other comparable elite quarterbacks.
How do we know that's true? Take games in which Rodgers has been extremely efficient. For argument's sake, we will use games with a quarterback rating of 100, considered “excellent” games, as the barometer. Green Bay wins those games at a rate significantly lower than, say, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning.
Heading into 2013, Green Bay was 38-8 in games where Rodgers finished with a rating above 100, a .826 percentage. The Patriots are an astounding 77-5 in those same games under Brady, a .939 percentage, while Peyton Manning's teams are also an incredible 91-8.
So teams tend to win when their quarterbacks play really well. That’s obvious. But it's clear the Packers don't win nearly as often as other teams do when their elite quarterback plays really well.
The key is in the games when those same quarterbacks don't play at the top of their games.
In games that don't see Brady hit the 100-mark in passer rating, the Patriots are 62-34, and Manning's teams are 65-62. (To wit, Sunday’s win over the Falcons was the first game this season Brady had a passer rating above 100, yet the Patriots are 4-0.) The Packers are a disappointing 15-20 when Rodgers has a QB rating below 100. For the Packers to win, Rodgers must be dominant.
An important distinction must then be made between responsibility and blame. It’s hard to blame Rodgers when he’s asked to do so much, but is it his responsibility given how the team is constructed? Definitely.
It’s a living embodiment of the Churchill quote, “Sometimes it is not enough to do our best; we must do what is required.”
Insofar as Green Bay relies on Rodgers more than most teams rely on their quarterbacks, it’s honest to say when the Packers lose, that is Rodgers’ fault. But should he be criticized for it?
Given what we know about how often guys like Brady and Manning get help from their teammates, the answer ought to be “No.”
Luckily for the Packers, Rodgers has been incredible for most of his career -- until his NFL-record of 35 straight games with a QB rating over 80 was snapped in Week 3.
To put that into perspective, in Brady's 164 starts, the Pats' QB has 82 "excellent" games, an even .500 percentage. Manning has started 227 games and had "excellent" games 99 times, just a .436 percentage.
Rodgers has 46 starts of 100+ passer ratings out of 81 total starts, a .567 percentage. This is just another feather in his cap when it comes to being the most consistently efficient quarterback in the league.
The fact that Green Bay had won so much despite an astounding 44-game streak without a 100-yard rusher is further evidence of Rodgers’ greatness. Even more astounding is that during that streak, the Packers somehow managed to win the division twice, enjoy a 15-win season and add a Super Bowl title.
In order to shackle Rodgers with the blame for losses, he ought to be given the majority of the credit for those triumphs. By and large, he has been and rightfully so.
Records in close games, as Football Outsiders regularly notes, often come down to luck. Teams with excellent records in close games who rely heavily on turnovers tend to regress the following season – as the Packers did following a 15-1 season.
An unlucky bounce cost the Packers a Week 3 win -- that's the margin of error in the NFL, but the Packers were unable to compensate for the unlucky bounce because Rodgers wasn't in his typical MVP form and the rest of the team isn’t very good.
It’s the quarterback’s fault for not playing well, but not his fault that the rest of his team isn’t competent enough to pick him up when he’s struggling.
Until the Packers solidify the defense and find some continuity on special teams, it will be left up to the capable arm of the former league MVP to win games by himself.
He’ll have to forget about doing his best and do what is necessary: just keep winning.
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