GREEN BAY, Wis. – In Aaron Rodgers’ prolific run as the Green Bay Packers’ starting quarterback, the team has earned only two first-round byes. Those came in 2011 and 2014.
Rodgers won MVP honors both years as the driving force behind those offensive juggernauts.
His 2011 was arguably the greatest quarterbacking season in NFL history. In 15 games, he threw for 4,643 yards with 45 touchdowns, six interceptions, 68.3 percent accuracy and an NFL-record 122.5 passer rating. His yards, touchdowns, completion percentage and passer ratings remain the best marks of his career.
In 2014, Rodgers threw for 4,381 yards with 65.6 percent accuracy, 38 touchdowns and five interceptions in 16 games. His 112.2 passer rating remains the second-best of his career.
With a win on Sunday at Detroit, the Packers will earn a first-round bye. Rodgers, however, is nowhere near the MVP conversation. In fact, his numbers are down – way down – compared to his MVP seasons. In 15 games, he’s thrown for 3,679 yards with 63.4 percent accuracy, 24 touchdowns, three interceptions and a 97.9 passer rating.
Statistically, this will be perhaps the least-productive season of his career. In his healthy seasons, his career-low totals are 3,821 yards (2015) and 25 touchdowns (2018). His averages are 4,267 yards and 33.8 touchdowns. For perspective, to reach those averages, Rodgers would need to throw for 588 yards and nine touchdowns against the Lions. To extend his franchise record to eight seasons of 4,000 yards, Rodgers would need to throw for 321 yards. However, he’s on a seven-game streak of less than 250 passing yards. Before this stretch, Rodgers’ longest such streak when healthy measured just four games in 2012.
As much as any quarterback since perhaps Dan Marino, Rodgers’ greatness is measured by numbers. This season, Rodgers lacks those numbers.
Well, he does have one impressive number on his resume, and it matches his jersey number. Green Bay has won 12 games to get back to the playoffs. Week after week, Rodgers talks about players embracing their roles. Rodgers has embraced his role, which remains absolutely vital to the team but doesn’t necessarily show up in the box scores. While Rodgers would like better statistical numbers, the number in the victory column is what’s most important as the 36-year-old chases his first Super Bowl in almost a decade.
“Well, I care. I definitely care,” Rodgers said about his stats. “But I think the level of success and the way that I feel I’m playing is different in this offense this year. I don’t need to throw 40 touchdowns for us to win. I need to be great on my checks, be as efficient as possible. I need to take care of the football.”
Rodgers pointed to Monday night’s performance at Minnesota. He went 26-of-40 passing for just 216 yards. He completed four times as many passes behind the line of scrimmage (eight) as 10-plus yards downfield (two). However, the Packers won for the first time in four treks to U.S. Bank Stadium. Aside from turnovers, of which Rodgers was responsible for one, the offense generally moved the ball against one of the league’s top defenses.
“I felt like last game was one of my better games of the season,” Rodgers said. “You look at the stats and go, ‘OK, you’re 25-of-40 for 200-something, no touchdowns. What are you talking about? Are you really lowering the bar for yourself that much?’ And I’d say, ‘No, I’m never lowering the bar for myself.’ The expectations are for greatness, but my responsibility was to get us in checks. My responsibility was to get us in the right protection scheme and take care of the football, and although I threw a pick, I felt like what I needed to do in that game, I was executing at a winning level. But any quarterback wants to throw four or five touchdowns a week. It’s just that hasn’t been the case this year, we haven’t needed it to win 12 games.”
In some ways, this season mirrors the 2014 season. Rodgers was sensational that year but he had the support of Eddie Lacy, who rushed for 1,139 yards, added 42 receptions for 427 yards and scored 13 total touchdowns. This year, Aaron Jones has rushed for 984 yards, is second on the team with 47 receptions for 431 yards, and has scored 19 touchdowns.
However, Rodgers’ efficiency is clearly down – and especially so after a brilliant second quarter of the season. From Game 9 through Game 15, 29 quarterbacks threw at least 150 passes. In that group, Rodgers ranked 23rd in passing yards (1,355; 193.6 per game), 21st in completion percentage (61.0), 22nd in touchdown passes (eight), 17th in passer rating (87.1) and 27th in yards per attempt (5.87).
“His lack of whatever you guys are referring to has nothing to with his skill-set or anything having to do with him,” receiver Davante Adams said. “It has more to do with this style of offense and Matt (LaFleur’s) philosophy and what’s been working.”
While Rodgers has missed some plays he generally has mad, there’s no denying he is working with a different caliber of skill-position players. In Rodgers’ prolific 2011 season, Jordy Nelson, Greg Jennings, James Jones, Donald Driver and Randall Cobb were the team’s five receivers. They combined for 38 touchdowns. Tight end Jermichael Finley added eight more scores. As Rodgers recalled on Thursday, “The Perfect Pack” was a star-studded group that was featured on the Nov. 7, 2011, cover of Sports Illustrated.
The 2014 team was driven by Rodgers throwing to Nelson, Cobb and then-rookie Adams, with Nelson and Cobb combining for 2,806 yards and 25 touchdowns.
Nelson has retired, Cobb is in Dallas and hardly anybody of note has been added. Over the past five drafts, the Packers have selected 18 players within the first 130 selections. Only two of those selections were used on skill-position players: receiver-turned-running back Ty Montgomery with No. 94 in 2015 and tight end Jace Sternberger with No. 75 in 2019.
With an excellent one-two punch in the backfield, a depleted group of pass catchers and a change in offensive direction under LaFleur, the Packers are doing the unthinkable in winning without Rodgers being forced to carry the team on his back. From 2008 through 2018 in games started and finished by Rodgers, Green Bay was 4-6 in games in which Rodgers failed to throw a touchdown pass. This year, Green Bay is 3-0.
“I think we had a different team back then,” Rodgers said. “We had a stretch (when) we had almost 50 games without a 100-yard rusher. So our focus, our plan of attack with Mike (McCarthy) during that time was, ‘Hey, we’re going to be aggressive throwing the ball. We’re going to throw 40 times a game.’ There were years when I was throwing it 600 times damn near every year, and that’s what we needed to do to win. This year, we’ve done it a different way.”