What’s wrong with Aaron Rodgers? It’s a question that is being asked because we are grading on a curve, with the standard being one of the best five-year stretches in NFL history for a quarterback. Aaron Rodgers through 2014 was on par with some of the best stretches ever; over the last year and a half, that has not been the case. Here is one illustration:
It’s the kind of dropoff we have rarely seen while a quarterback is still in the middle of his career. Here is every case where a quarterback put up an average of “115” or better in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt Index as calculated at pro-football-reference.com, and then put up numbers around league average for two years after. (Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt Index takes the raw efficiency numbers and compares it to all other players in a given year. A score of 100 represents average. 115 is one full standard deviation better than average).
Rodgers is a little older than everyone on this list. Esiason would move on to the Jets and continue to start, but never really be a star again. Troy Aikman rebounded briefly a year later, but had his career cut short due to injuries. Favre lasted another decade, rebounding on multiple occasions, first with the Packers in the early 2000’s, then again in 2007 before retiring/unretiring/signing with the Jets, and then again in 2009 when Minnesota went to the NFC Championship Game. Ken Anderson would rebound in 1981 and become league MVP, go to the Super Bowl, and could have won MVP again in 1982, when he set a completion percentage record.
I spoke with Ken Anderson four years ago, in regard to his candidacy for a veteran’s committee Hall of Fame slot, as he is an underrated candidate for consideration. I thought he would be a good person to talk to, regarding how he turned it around and what went into any struggles.
“Aaron Rodgers is a good player,” Anderson said. “He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the league right now. I heard one of the comments on one of the radio shows. Everyone is getting on him and he still completed like 75% of his passes or something like that.” (Aaron Rodgers was 31 of 42 for 294 yards in the loss against Dallas.)
“He set such a high standard for quarterback play, that when his statistics are just a little better than good, they may not be great but they’re good compared to most quarterbacks. Everybody asks ‘What’s wrong with him?'”
Anderson, like Rodgers, played in a West Coast system, as Bill Walsh was the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati when the team drafted Anderson in 1971. Walsh would leave the team after the 1975 season, but the Bengals continued to use the same terminology and West Coast system for several years after Walsh’s departure. That was true in 1978 and 1979, when Anderson’s numbers dipped and when the team drafted his supposed replacement, Jack Thompson of Washington State.
The team, though, changed when the Bengals hired a new coach and offensive staff, one that did not use the same West Coast terminology.
“Lindy Infante, who was a great offensive coach, came and we called things differently–from formations, to protections, to what we called routes,” Anderson said. “Number one, it kind of rejuvenated me, it was something else to learn.”
Anderson attributed Infante for helping him take a look at a lot of things, including a return to emphasis on fundamentals. “A lot of my mechanics had gotten bad,” Anderson said, “so the big thing for me is we went back to basics and fundamentals of footwork and what we were trying to get accomplished.”
That emphasis on fundamentals and footwork may be what is necessary with Rodgers. In this ESPN piece, Matt Bowen, Troy Aikman, and Herm Edwards all cited footwork and timing fundamentals as among the reasons for his relative struggles. We’ve seen Rodgers make great plays, and I don’t think anyone doubts his arm still, but the number of those great plays has declined.
“I remember Steve Young once made a comment, something like just film me from the waist down, and I can tell if I played well or not based on what my footwork is like,” Anderson said.
I also asked Anderson what it was like to go through a period where he drew criticism for his play. “All of a sudden, it’s tough for family sitting in the stands,” he said. “Sometimes it seems it tends to get personal, the comments that they’re making, so it was hard on them.
“But I think what kind of helped me turn it around more than anything else: in 1980, we got Anthony Munoz, the best left tackle ever. We had Blair Bush at center, a #1 draft choice. We had Mike Wilson at tackle … we got (Cris) Collinsworth … Max Montoya all of a sudden now is a third year guy, we had Dave Lapham, all of a sudden, our offensive line became a strength. It doesn’t all become on the quarterback, we had Pete Johnson … we had a lot of things that go into letting a quarterback be successful.”
Right now, Aaron Rodgers is the talking point of the week. People are noticing that his numbers over the last year aren’t in line with the past. The magnifying glass is greater coming off a game against “America’s Team,” and heading into another primetime affair.
I asked Anderson how he would have handled the current climate, if those struggles in the middle of his career, before he rebounded to win MVP, had come now, where every week is full of scrutiny.
“The thing that’s different now, you turn on how many different sports networks now? And then how many radio shows are there now? There were no sports call-in shows when I was playing in Cincinnati.” Anderson said. “There’s a lot of time to fill, and a lot of analysts that have to come up with something to say to keep their jobs. I probably wouldn’t have survived it and they would have probably run me out of town even quicker.”
But Anderson ended with this, something that I think still holds true even as we parse Green Bay’s quarterback. “If I were a head coach, and you wanted to give me Aaron Rodgers right now, I’d take him.”