Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rodgers Has Great Potential: Will The Packers Mess That Up?

It's not often I agree with Mike Vandermause over at the GBPG, but today he went on a Rodgers GushFest, citing his statistical efforts thus far in his 21 starts as the potential of things to come.

His torrid start translates to 291 yards per game, which would surpass Lynn Dickey (279-yard average) in the team record book.

But Rodgers isn’t piling up eye-popping statistics because of an inordinate amount of attempts. He is on pace to throw 518 passes this season, or 33 per game, a relatively modest total. In 13 of the past 16 seasons, the Packers have thrown the ball more often than this year, which means Rodgers is getting a lot of bang for each throw.

His 8.88-yard average gain per pass is on pace for the third-best total in Packers history behind Dickey and Bart Starr.

Now, anyone who has ready my stuff over the years knows my general irritation with statistics used to prove a point you have already made in your head. Frankly, you can use statistics to mean anything you want, simply by choosing which ones to use, which ones to hide, and who to compare them to.

And, we know Vandermause's reasons for an editorial like this. Two summers ago, he went "all in" on FavreGate, quickly climbing on the train and crossing the Rubicon with Ted Thompson, Mike McCarthy, and Aaron Rodgers. He lost his journalistic integrity by not staying unbiased, and now, despite some occasional criticisms of the regime he backed, needs to continue to press a pro-Thompson diatribe.

That stated, however, there's a lot to like about Aaron Rodgers, and I will stand in full agreement with Vandermause in that regard, though I won't resort to statistical projections in order to justify it.

Aaron Rodgers has demonstrated a level of maturity and PR savvy beyond his years, handling a firestorm of controversy that was placed on his shoulder pads rather unnecessarily by other people. His biggest asset isn't his mobility, which is impressive, but his accuracy when given time. We've seen him able to put the ball on a dime, on the correct shoulder of a receiver 20 yards downfield, and fit the ball in tight spaces without resulting in a turnover.

He has the intangibles and, yes, the statistics to have a long and promising career, and the Packers should feel blessed in a league devoid of more than three or four true franchise quarterbacks that he is under center.

That stated, however, the Packers are in the perfect position to completely mess it up.

Certainly, there have been numerous calls for the heads of Ted Thompson and Mike McCarthy early this season, and some of it deservedly so (despite whatever Vandermause might tell you). But after watching fellow 2005 first-round draft pick Alex Smith get thrown into the fire and have his career go all David Carr, Rodgers should be just as concerned about his future if the team has to go into another full rebuild.

In other words, don't pray for Thompson's firing just yet. Pray that he wises up and realizes that you have to use all the pieces in the jigsaw puzzle to finish the picture. The result of a quick hook of the 2007 GM of the Year would likely be yet another coaching purge, another scheme change or three, and a long waiting game to "Wait and See" if this will work.

And in the meantime, Rodgers is going to have to go through what Brett Favre had to go through his final three seasons as a Packer. Working behind an offensive line of NFL-E talent and stumblebums. Handing off to street free agents. Passing the ball 70% or more of the time.

And taking the blame for it all.

Now, Favre was a seasoned veteran during this time, but as Mike notes, Rodgers is still a young kid who is still looking for ten wins as a starter. If the walls come crashing down around him, it is still very possible to send him into the "Seven Deadly Habits of a Young Quarterback", the developmental delays that happen when you are the only piece in the puzzle waiting for the team to be built around you:

1) Failure to set your feet. Not having time in the backfield to throw means those feet are always ready to move. A good pocket passer is able to get those feet set, planted, and maximize his accuracy. "Happy Feet" don't win championships.

2) Hunching over. Expecting to get hit often takes your body out of that straight up-and-down position you want your quarterbacks to be throwing out of. Sure, Favre has an arm that could throw off balance, but for most quarterbacks, you lose it when you trust only your arm to make the throw.

3) Not trusting your receivers to get open. The less time you have to throw, the more you don't want to wait for them to show. This goes both ways...receivers start believing if they don't get the ball in three seconds, they aren't going to get it at all.

4) Rushing the delivery. We would all love for our quarterbacks to have the delivery time of Dan Marino, but most do not. Being off balance usually puts your pass high, rushing the delivery often puts the pass low. Either way, feeling like you have to get rid of the ball fast makes you skip over essential mechanics, and pretty soon, the bad delivery becomes your mechanics.

5) Not trusting your running game. There's usually a reason for this, and it is usually because it ain't that good. Most quarterbacks have the option to audible out of a run play, and indeed, most quarterbacks like to anyway. But a quarterback with a bad running game will audible out even more often.

6) Security Blanket in your progressions. When you are operating behind a bad line with no running game, your time is limited. The best quarterbacks use their progressions and look across the field. A lack of time usually means you have to rush that throw, and many quarterbacks tend to find that one reliable receiver and force it there instead of spreading it around. Indeed, Favre's Packer career began and ended with a security blanket...Sterling Sharpe at the beginning, Donald Driver at the end. QB's are at their best when they have eight different receivers with a catch in a game, instead of forcing the ball where it shouldn't be.

7) Believing it really is on you. Look at guys like David Carr, Tim Couch, Akili Smith, Alex Smith. Can you name the running backs they had when they were getting those first starts? was all about them and their development, and pretty soon, these young tossers start believing it really is all up to them to win or lose every game, and they play like it, for better or worse...and these cases, usually for the worse.

Vandermause's statistics belie what is already happening: Aaron Rodgers finished with the 98th highest number of single-season attempts in NFL history last season. It doesn't sound that bad, but it's a pretty darn high number for a young kid in his first year as a starter. Sure, his numbers were great and he had a nice season, but being on pace for 525 (according to ESPN, not the 513 Vandermause cites) this year and making it relative to Favre's seasons is an example of using statistics selectively. In other words, Rodgers supposedly is being more "efficient" than the Favre years because he isn't passing as much.

The Packers have run 313 offensive plays this season. Aaron Rodgers has attempted 164 passes. He has also rushed 20 times, and been sacked 25 times. For those of your scoring at home, this means that Packer running backs have only attempted 104 rushes in 313 plays....less than a third of the offensive plays. Rodgers is passing nearly 70% of the time.

I remember a time when folks used to tear apart Favre for his gaudy passing numbers, saying that wasn't enough to win games. And certainly, since Rodgers has been starting, the Packers have gone 9-12. While you can't pin that squarely on Rodgers' nose, it certainly has to show that the team around him isn't keeping up with what he producing on the field. And, it is exactly that lack of a supporting cast that concerns me, whether it be the porous offensive line, the punchless running game, or the inconsistent defense.

Of all the stats that Vandermause pulls out for us to be impressed with, he misses the one that would set the all-time NFL single season record: Rodgers is on pace to be sacked 80 times this season, which would break the record of David Carr by four.

Yes, I will agree that Aaron Rodgers possesses tremendous potential, but I'm smart enough to see that on the field, not by poring over statistics and believing that they prove my point I already had before I looked at them.

But the Packers are teetering on being in a position just like Houston was with Carr, like the 49ers were with Smith, like the Browns were with Couch. They are in a position to stunt the development of a young quarterback by not having the running game as a legitimate threat and having the opposing pass rush as far too consistent of a threat.

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