Every team fears the loss of their starting Quarterback. Without Peyton Manning in 2011, the Indianapolis Colts went 2-14. Without Aaron Rodgers for a stretch of 2013, the Packers went 2-4-1. Without Tom Brady in 2008, the Patriots went… well, they went 10-5, but that is a whole different article.
Along with this fear is the notion that preseason games are meaningless and dangerous. Never mind that the recent injuries to Brady, Manning, Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger were all in regular season games. Teams have been cutting back the snaps of starting Quarterbacks across the board. Still, there can be an associated cost with this move as well.
2016 Aaron Rodgers
Last year, Aaron Rodgers had an incredible season. He finished the year with 4,428 yards and a league-leading 40 touchdowns. Rodgers also posted a 104.2 Rating (his eighth 100.0+ rated season in the last ten years). Still, this covered up the slow start he suffered. After four games, Rodgers was completing just 56.1% of his passes and had not posted a single 300+ yard game.
The Packers managed to pull through this early lull with a 3-1 record. Yet, at the midpoint of the season the Packers were 4-4 and on the verge of missing the playoffs. Rodgers was pulling along with 2,039 yards and 20 touchdowns; however, this was the second lowest yard total since the Super Bowl victory of 2010. Rodgers was also completing just 63.5% of his passes, the lowest since 2010.
The Packers made a great turn around by winning their last six games to finish 10-6. The final product covered up a concern. The Packers finished 2016 by losing a road playoff game in Atlanta. This is the fourth time in the last five years the Packers have ended their season playing road playoff games. Slow starts like 2016 can kill your title hopes.
The Packers have had two 4-0 starts since the 2010 championship. One was the following season (where they finished 15-1) and the other was 2015. From 2012 to 2016, the Packers have been 13-7 in the third quarter of their seasons. Three of those seasons were 2-2 starts. A 3-1 start in 2014 would have given the Packers the best record in football. A 3-1 start in 2012 would have meant the Packers would host the 49ers, rather than face them in San Francisco. It could well be the difference between the playoffs and watching from home.
Looking at Rodgers through these first four games, his completion percentage has dropped every season from 2011 through 2016, with a single blip for the 2015 season. In order, those completion percentages are: 73.1, 69.9, 66.4, 66.2, 72.4, and 56.1. There is a similar trend as we look at the first eight games of each season. 2014 is the lone outlier in this examination. From 2011 to 2016 the completion percentages for the first eight games are: 72.4, 69.0, 66.9, 67.6, 64.7, and 63.5.
In a likewise manner, the yards over the first four games decrease over time. Again, with a single outlier, yards have decreased every season since the 2010 championship. Over the eight game outlook, the trend is downward, with small upticks in 2013 and 2016. Furthermore, big games decrease. The number of 300+ yard games have remained the same or decreased each season in both the four and eight game evaluations over this period.
Correlation to Preseason
First, I need to be clear. This is a correlational connection. There is no way to prove this is causal, but it is something that should be examined. There are pros and cons to be balanced in each case. Here are a few things to consider.
Since winning a Super Bowl, Aaron Rodgers has seen his preseason snaps generally decrease each year. Rodgers threw 53 passes in 2010 and just nine in 2016. In the seasons 2010-2012, Rodgers attempted 53, 47 and 43 passes respectively. Since then, Rodgers has only attempted more than 24 passes in a preseason once (33 in 2014 – an MVP season).
The seasons with fewer preseason passes have correlated to slower starts for Rodgers. In seasons where Rodgers attempted 40+ passes in the preseason, his four game average is 1,110 yards, nine touchdowns, three interceptions, 70.7%, and a rating of 106.5. Extending these seasons for the average over eight games, Rodgers averages 2,264 yards, 19 touchdowns, five interceptions, 67.5%, and a rating of 107.7. Those are clearly great numbers.
Now, here are the averages for when Rodgers attempts 25 or fewer passes in the preseason. The average over the first four games are 1,067 yards, 10 touchdowns, two interceptions, 64.5%, and a rating of 86.4. Those numbers do improve over the eight game outlook. Rodgers’ average over the first eight games in these seasons are 2,065 yards, 18 touchdowns, four interceptions, 65.0%, and a rating of 103.4.
Causes and Concerns
Again, this does not necessarily prove anything, but it shows there is a trend. Now, parts of this might be a decline in production elsewhere; however, Rodgers’ season end numbers are far more consistent. Packers fans might bemoan the loss of several players, very few have been pass catchers.
The most likely theory to carry the day is that the Packers run a complex offense. The Packers have a multiple set offense that relies very heavily on timing. Receivers need to be where Rodgers expects they will be. It is not even necessarily that Rodgers needs repetitions in this offense, but the receivers need time together with Rodgers at game speed. Yes, the Packers are in a world of hurt without Rodgers. There must be care taken to assure he is healthy to start the season. The problem is, a slow start for an offensive-minded team can be fatal. The Packers, and all teams, should consider allowing more attempts for their starters in the preseason.
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