Saturday, August 21, 2010

Rodgers To Start Taking Risks? Booyah!

In yesterday's Journal-Sentinal, Greg Bedard tells us that our favorite ultra-efficient quarterback may be going rouge on us.  Yes, Aaron Rodgers, he of the infinite patience (both on and off the field) and uber-precise passing ability, is starting to practice with aggressive, high-risk/high-reward plays that may have some Packer fans a bit nervous when remembering another former QB's late-game attempts at heroics.

Think John Elway, Dan Marino and, yes, Favre. You know the throw. They often come when the team needs a play to be made. But they can also go bust. High risk, high reward.
"A-Rod is starting to be a risk taker," Finley said, "I'll put it like that."
These are the kinds of throws that coach Mike McCarthy likes to call "winning throws."
"Your prime-time players win big games because they make those one or two plays," McCarthy said last season.
Rodgers started to make them in the crucial win over the Dallas Cowboys last season, and he continued to make them down the stretch. Now he's training himself to do it for an entire season.

Now, for those of you who are unfamiliar with my history, I spent a good number of years on the forums at PackerChatters, and during that time I spent a good portion of it debating Brett Favre's play on the field with some Packer fans who were obsessed with the idea that Favre was a terrible quarterback.  I, naturally, took the other side, often penning fantastic, epic-length posts (yes, hard to believe) citing statistics and opinions and rationales why the risks didn't outweigh his rewards.  To their credit, those I debated with probably went further than me in terms of pulling out every stop to prove that Favre's play was far more debilitating than helpful.

The one argument that stood out to me most prominently from those folks who criticized Favre and touted Rodgers as the solution was "efficiency"....Favre took too many risks and his interceptions didn't outweigh the touchdowns.   Tom Brady was the model, the ultra-efficient who took what he was given and made smart, safe decisions instead of foolish risks.

Obviously, despite how the ugly divorce went down a several offseasons ago, Rodgers has established himself as that model of efficiency.  In his 32 starts, he has compiled a 100.09 passing efficiency rating, and thrown 58 touchdowns against only 20 interceptions.  While he certainly demonstrated some flaws in the early going (getting rid of the ball, maintaining poise in the pocket), there was little reason to place many of the losses on his shoulders.  He's made smart throws, efficient throws, and for the most part, avoided the big mistakes that often haunted the Packers with #4 at the helm.

So, my first reaction when reading this is, "No!  Don't turn into Favre!  Keep doing what you are doing, and if it ain't broke, don't fix it!".  Certainly, I would imagine many of those fans who posted pages of statistics decrying the risk-taking of quarterbacks as being a harbinger of doom should be having some deep concerns with QB1 right now.

But then, I have to go back and remember my own counter-arguments (even if they were for Favre), and realize that I believed in those arguments.  Taking risks is a part of the job as an NFL quarterback.  Oh, sure, every now and then you can put a Trent Dilfer under center and ask him to not make any mistakes and still win a Super Bowl on the back of a historically-great defense, but that's a pretty rare occurrence, especially nowadays as parity makes it hard to create such a monster defense.

Bedard hits it on the head.  In the first part of 2009, Rodgers was trying to be the anti-Favre that so many have hoped he would be.  You know what those hopes are:  we do it all the time as fans when we are disgruntled with someone who hasn't done the job the way we like.

When Mike Sherman was demoted as General Manager, many people publicly petitioned for candidates as polarly-opposite of Sherman as possible (and in many ways, they got it in Ted Thompson).   When he was fired as head coach, many people would have screamed if we hired someone in any way, shape, or form resembled Sherman (and not just his pear-shape).  And when Bob Slowik and Bob Sanders were fired as defensive coordinators, we looked for people who would be the anti-Bobs, not necessarily the person best for the job.

Don't believe me?  Go check a Packers forum and find anyone who criticizes Ted Thompson or Mike McCarthy.  To this day, people still play the Sherman card:  "At least he isn't signing stupid free agents like Sherman;  At least he isn't falling asleep at combines like Sherman!"  We have a natural desire to measure a successor's progress by comparing it to the low benchmarks of his predecessor.   And, the less he looks/coaches/plays like "that other guy", the better.

And so we come to Rodgers, the "anti-Favre": the guy who will do everything that Favre didn't do right.  He's going to handle himself well with fans and the media, he's going to show up for offseason workouts, he's going to be an equal with everyone else in the locker room, and most of all, he's never going to take an unnecessary risk and lose the game on his arm....because that's what Favre did.

But, taking risks is inherent to the job, and as Rodgers seemed intent on "not making mistakes" in the first half of the season last year, we saw the repercussions of that:  not getting rid of the ball soon enough, taking safeties and sacks that stymied the offense. Sure, he had a sparkling 103.7 passing rating, even after the Tampa Bay Debacle, but it wasn't translating into wins, and his 37 sacks in those first eight games were on pace to break David Carr's NFL record.

As Bedard notes, the Dallas game turned things around for everyone, including Rodgers.  The infamous "Come To Jesus" meeting meant that everyone had to focus purely on winning football games, and doing whatever it took for the team.  For Rodgers, it meant avoiding sacks was just as important as avoiding interceptions, and came through:  he was sacked only 13 times over the last eight games.

But it also meant throwing the ball downfield, stretching coverage and allowing receivers to break defenses, not just bend them.  And from the Cowboy game on, we saw Rodgers starting to do something familiar to Packer fans:  threading needles in tight coverage.

The difference, however, may be explained by quarterback coach Tom Clements:

"What I told him is you want to be disciplined in what you're doing, but you want to be opportunistic.  So if there's a chance for a big play, be aggressive, be opportunistic but make sure the odds are in our favor. Otherwise, just go through your progression, take what's open and wait until you have the chance to make a play."

Rodgers appears to be on the cusp of becoming one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks.  But the quarterback we saw in the last eight games of 2009 was pointedly different from the one from the first half.  Sure, the efficiency ratings were almost identical, but the sacks went down and the big plays went up.  There's a not-so-fine line between being assertive and being reckless, and Rodgers is starting to ride it perfectly.

No passer becomes one of the NFL's elite by taking an extraordinary number of sacks and always playing it safe.  It might win you a Super Bowl if you are Trent Dilfer and surrounded by an extraordinary defense, but it goes without saying that despite the statistical rankings last year, the Packer defense is not in that caliber.

And, we want both:  we want Rodgers to be an elite quarterback, and we want the Packers to win a Super Bowl.   And it is pretty clear that our offensive passing game is the strength of this team.

The risk-taking was probably imperceptible last year, as every positional group seemed to rise to the occasion after the Tampa Bay game, but it is clear now this is a concerted effort by both Rodgers and the Packers to turn our passing game into one that isn't afraid to put a defense back on their heels.

In the end, Rodgers doesn't have to be the anti-Favre:  he never has.  He just has to be the best quarterback he has the potential to be, and that includes all facets of his game, from taking the game-changing risks as well as making smart decisions.


Anonymous said...

once again you are completely wrong with the revisionist history

tampa and the season last year hinged on Tauscher not some bs meeting

watcht the tape, half of Jared Allens pressure came due to Rodgers trying to avoid Barbre's man

the sieve/disaster at RT was the problem and tauscher fixed it

not a meeting

not god in heaven

not Rodgers deciding to throw the ball away

watcht the tape

Andrew said...

Rogers is going rouge? I don't think I can take it. Is he using Mary Kay?

PackersRS said...

I think you're partially right, C.D., but you should've at least mention the return of Tauscher, Wells, and Clifton being healhty. I understand making a point, and you're right, Rodgers IS at fault for taking sacks, but the OL and the playbook have more fault in those than Rodgers. There's so much you can pin on the QB with that ammount of sacks, and there was an article (don't remember if from FO or PFF) that listed every sack the Packers took and who was at fault, and Rodgers was responsible for less than 20%. More than most elite QBs, but still showed that the OL was terrible.

Also, the way I see it, you can either make a right decision or a wrong decision as a QB. If you complete a pass that doesn't grant you first down, it's a wrong decision. If you take too long to get rid of the ball, it's a wrong decision. If you throw an int, it's a wrong decision. I know that making a TD is better than getting a completion, but Rodgers, even with the sacks, was one of the best 3rd down QBs of last year, even during the first half.

I don't agree with a lot that you wrote, but I'll say a phrase that, in a way, will agree with you: Up till the second half of last year, I was really nervous with Rodgers under center. I knew he was playing well, but it was not natural to me. After the second half, and nowadays, I feel completely confident with Rodgers at the helm, specially on third downs. Like I did with Favre from 95-99. I have complete faith in him.