To the dismay of the rest of the NFC North, the Aaron Rodgers of old returned in 2020. Everyone and their grandmother had to know Rodgers was still capable of this level of play. He flashed it at times throughout the past handful of seasons, just not with the regularity we had all become accustomed to. Between Mike McCarthy’s incompetence and a clunky first year under HC Matt LaFleur, the consistency of that version of Rodgers was not there.
Rodgers rediscovered the consistency that made him one of the league’s best, if not the best, and he finished the year with some outrageous numbers. Rodgers’ ANY/A landed at 8.89, putting this season higher than every year in his career except for his all-time special 2011 season. He also finished first in ESPN’s QBR at 84.4 and second (only behind Patrick Mahomes) in Football Outsiders’ DYAR, which works to value statistics relative to the situation they were earned in. Rodgers passes the eye test, too. Everyone from casual fans to former pros can see and feel that Rodgers is back to dominating games.
The question, then, is how Rodgers got here after the worst three-year stretch of his career from 2017-19. Rodgers’ 2017 season was cut short due to injury, so perhaps he gets some slack there, but that year was on pace to be his worst-ever from a statistical standpoint. His 2018, the final year with McCarthy, and 2019, the first year with LaFleur, were still pretty lackluster by his standards, though Green Bay finished 13-3 last year. Sometime between January 2020 and September 2020, Rodgers returned to form.
Trusting the offense in 2020 has been a huge factor for Rodgers’ new run of dominance. By the end of the McCarthy era, it was clear Rodgers had no faith in the system he was given. McCarthy’s offense was littered with basic quick-game passing concepts, devoid of worthwhile shot plays and almost entirely lacking in a cohesive structure that makes offenses like Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Andy Reid and Sean Payton’s function. McCarthy got to a point where he was throwing random passing concepts together and betting on a mostly middling wide receiver group to win 1-on-1s.
That’s no longer the case under LaFleur, even if it took Rodgers a year to warm up to it. Through several different statistics, you can see Rodgers’ faith in the offense go from “this is a waste of time” in 2018, to Rodgers struggling to buy into LaFleur in 2019, to Rodgers completely buying into LaFleur’s offense in 2020.
In 2018, Rodgers’ time to throw was 2.95 seconds, according to Next Gen Stats, putting him pretty close to the top of the league. Rodgers also led the NFL with a whopping 45 throwaways. Those numbers bore out in the film, too. Far too often in 2018, Rodgers would pass up reasonably open routes in favor of bailing the pocket in search of bigger plays, yet not actually pull the trigger on those big plays as often as he could have. It seemed he did not trust the offense to run itself efficiently enough if he did not hunt for those big plays. Whether or not he was right, who knows, but I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt over McCarthy.
Rodgers’ time to throw and throwaways dropped to 2.88 seconds and 31, respectively, in 2019. However, Rodgers was still doing a bit of the hero ball stuff and not trusting LaFleur’s offense, despite LaFleur clearly having a cohesive offensive structure that McCarthy didn’t. Perhaps Rodgers was just jaded from the end of the McCarthy era and believed himself to be the only answer to the Packers’ woes.
That changed in 2020. For the first time in years, he began trusting the offense and taking the throws made available early on in the play. As a result, he saw his time to throw plummet to 2.72 seconds and his throwaways drop to 23.
With as well as LaFleur has done with the offense in 2020, it makes sense as to why he has finally bought in. Let’s take a look at one of this year’s games against the Chicago Bears to highlight part of why LaFleur’s offense is as smooth as it is:
This was the first play of the game. The Packers line up in a tight trey bunch to the field before jet-motioning one of their wide receivers across the formation right at the snap. Once Rodgers takes the ball, he also turns to hand off to his right-hand side, working in tandem with the motion to try to get the defense to flow to that side of the field. Chicago’s linebackers, as well as nickel cornerback Buster Skrine (24), take the bait and short-circuit once they realize Rodgers still has the ball, likely assuming he’s going to be looking to throw some play-action concept over the top of them. Rodgers instead flips out a quick tight end screen to Marcedes Lewis.
In the second quarter, the Packers went back to the jet motion, bringing the receiver from the boundary to the field this time. Once again, the run action gets the linebackers to bite down. All the jet player needed to do was fly past the edge defender, who also got caught cheating with his eyes in the backfield a bit. The wide receiver taking the hand-off sort of botched this by being indecisive when he got to the perimeter, but still, this was an easy pick-up for the Packers.
Again in the second quarter, the Packers used the jet motion. In this instance, they are abusing a particular feature of the Bears’ defense. If you watch their defense enough, you will notice they really like to keep Kyle Fuller (always to the offense’s right) off the ball and play what is in front of him, while the cornerback opposite him will be pressed. This was especially true when Prince Amukamara was there. The jet motion from the inside receiver to the right side gets Chicago’s slot defender (safety Eddie Jackson, 39) to kick inside the box, giving Rodgers the green light to throw the smoke route versus the lone cornerback in off coverage.
That play is not an automatic throw, either. The “smoke” is built-in as a sort of pre-snap alert for Rodgers. The base play is a hand-off to the running back, but he is allowed to throw the smoke route right away if he gets isolated off-coverage, which he knows he is getting once he catches Jackson sliding inside with the motion. Packaged plays like this are built in all over the Packers offense and do a great job of maximizing Rodgers’ awareness, quick throwing motion and arm strength.
And what’s all of that really good for without the shot play, right? As intended, the motion across one way with boot-action the other way gets the Bears’ defense in a bit of a knot. Safety Tashaun Gipson (38) pins down on Davante Adams on the crosser, as he should, but Fuller kinda gets lost in the mess. He starts the snap by signaling for the flat defender to handle the motion player, then gets greedy in wanting to pin down on Adams instead of passing it off to Gipson and sitting high in his zone. Once tight end Robert Tonyan converts his corner route back to a post, there is nobody else deep to help Jackson (39), giving Rodgers an open target for the tuddy.
Usually when a defense allows their deep middle safety to crash down on crossers, the cornerback from the side with the crosser will fall back, but the Bears’ defense seems to miscommunicate that, which is how they ended up in the spot they did.
That sequence of plays is but a sampler of what LaFleur does on offense. At large, the offense is cohesive and especially does well to incorporate their run looks into their play-action game effectively. It’s often hard to distinguish between their runs and their play-action passes until it’s too late, which is ultimately the goal there. What that sample of plays illustrates is that LaFleur is constantly finding ways to show one overarching concept, then constantly tweaks and riffs off of it to keep the defense’s heads spinning. That’s not something that was happening effectively under McCarthy.
Rodgers’ success can be boiled down to a few things, but it’s clear that trust in the system has gone a long way. Rodgers no longer feels like he has to be Superman once per drive. There is a sense of comfort in letting the offense run as designed because Rodgers trusts LaFleur’s vision. When a quarterback as talented as Rodgers trusts the offensive vision while also playing behind a stud offensive line and having arguably the best wide receiver in football, the result is having the best offense in the league.