After the Packers won Super Bowl XLV and proceeded to go 15-1, Aaron Rodgers was the reigning MVP. Since then, most would have agreed that Rodgers and Tom Brady were the two best quarterbacks in the world. However, Rodgers’ struggles this season have been well documented. The offense has no rhythm, receivers aren’t getting separation, there are always pass rushers in the backfield, and Rodgers’ accuracy is off. He’s in danger of getting knocked off his best-in-the-game perch and being considered merely great.
“Through the years I’ve been one of the few that has questioned the passive aggressive nature of Aaron Rodgers,” said Colin Cowherd (speaking with Jason Whitlock in studio). “And I’m watching Cam Newton, and his energy, and that throw against Dallas to Greg Olsen in the first half. And I’m like, today, this moment, big game, I’d take Cam over Aaron Rodgers. Now maybe they go into a four-game losing streak, and he puts a towel over his head, and I don’t like him. But in this moment his confidence, his body [language], his arm. Cam Newton’s the MVP.”
Cowherd noted that the excuses for Rodgers — a porous offensive line with pedestrian receivers — are not strongpoints in Carolina, either.
As a Packers fan, it really pains me to say this, but Cowherd’s point here isn’t totally without merit. You see Tom Brady and Cam Newton withstand the loss of their weapons like Kelvin Benjamin, Dion Lewis, and Julian Edelman, and wonder why Rodgers’ wizard mode cheat power-up isn’t working. (Now, for Brady, it always seems like he has time to fold his laundry in the pocket. Since my suspicions are confirmed by advanced stats, I’ll wield them here.)
I was in the building for Bears-Packers last Thursday. Along with losses to the Panthers and Lions, it was the third week out of four that the offense showed zero urgency until late, and Rodgers was just not himself. For all of the team deficiencies in those games, Aaron Rodgers had a chance to win in the end. In Carolina, he never saw a wide open Randall Cobb on the game-clinching interception. Versus Detroit a failed two-point conversion attempt and a missed Mason Crosby field goal did the team in. Against Chicago, they had first-and-goal from the eight with 51 seconds remaining.
If Aaron Rodgers is the greatest quarterback of all-time, the Packers have to win these games once in awhile.
Football Outsiders’ Scott Kacsmar found that the difference in Rodgers’ winning percentage in blowouts versus close games is historically wide:
Rodgers’ record at 4th quarter comeback opportunities is now 9-30 (.231). Adding in game-winning drive opportunities and the record is 13-32 (.289). This is not the best way to figure this out since quarterbacks sometimes have these opportunities in games they did not start and they sometimes leave games early, but I took the overall 4QC/GWD record and compared it to their overall record as starters in all other games (including playoffs). Rodgers is 70-10 (.875) in games he did not have a 4QC/GWD opportunity, so “win big, lose close” applies well. That difference of 0.586 in win percentage points is the largest in a sample of 74 quarterbacks from over the last 35 years.
After a similar Kacsmar story in 2013, Jason Lisk wrote about how the factors around Rodgers have hurt him in this category. For whatever extent it’s Rodgers’ fault versus others, though, he shares in plenty of the glory in wins. Outsized pressure for performance late in games is part of the deal.
If this hasn’t come through thus far in the text, I feel enormously lucky to have Aaron Rodgers in my life. Despite ample evidence to the contrary on the field since the defense drove a lopsided victory in St. Louis in Week 5, my fan mind still thinks the Packers turn this around. While their margin of error has diminished, Green Bay still controls their destiny in an NFC North where the Vikings have a tough remaining schedule. Once you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen. What makes the NFL so compelling is that past results don’t make many of us better at predicting future ones.
Most statistical metrics indicate Rodgers is having a better year, and the Panthers’ defense is first or second best in the NFL in DVOA, yardage, and forced turnovers. Nevertheless, I can understand choosing Cam Newton over Aaron Rodgers by the eye test right now, especially if you don’t have emotions attached. As fun as this debate is to have on paper, Newton and Rodgers will ideally have another chance to play each other again this season.