You are either my friend or my enemy. If you disagree with me, you are the opposite of me.
This “carbon copy” mentality has, in a way, played itself out with the most important position on the Green Bay Packers over the last ten years. As we are finding, simply being the opposite of someone else doesn’t mean it doesn’t present its own set of problems.
A study of Aaron Rodgers’ sack statistics this week led me to some startling discoveries. After just four-and-a-third seasons as a starting quarterback in the NFL, Aaron has been sacked 181 times, placing him at 90th all-time on the career sacked list. In fact, despite the fact that Jeff Garcia started double the number of games Rodgers has at this point, Garcia finished with 181 sacks.
Now, Rodgers has a ways to go to catch the leader at the top of the career sack list, and it’s no surprise who it is. Yes, after 19 seasons and 298 career starts, Brett Favre has the record with 525 times he bit the dust. Rodgers, on the other hand, has only 67 career starts, meaning he’s taking almost three sacks per start to the less-than-two sacks Favre took over his career.
In fact, Rodgers is on pace to compile 67 sacks this season, which would easily top his own career mark of 50 in 2009 and stand as the highest single-season sacked total since David Carr took 68 dirt-eaters in 2005. If this hasn’t stilled your heart enough yet, try this one: if Rodgers keeps up his pace of 40 sacks per season as a starter, he will pass up Favre as the career sacked leader in only eight more seasons. If he were to continue to be sacked at the rate he is this year, he would break the record in the middle of the 2017 season, in his 150th start.
In other words, his rate of taking sacks over his career, and particularly so far this season, is rather high. And, it is unsustainable.
It may be extraordinarily ironic that the Packers face off against the Houston Texans tonight, perhaps the home of the most unsustainable scenario any quarterback could ever face. The previously mentioned Carr was drafted first overall in 2002 and was immediately inserted into the starting lineup of a team with no running game, no receivers, and, most importantly, no offensive line. In his 75 starts for the Texans, Carr was sacked an unfathomable 249 times.
Despite having Trent Dilfer on the roster to tutor him, then-head coach Dom Capers decided that the best route for the expansion Texans would be to throw him in there as the starter and let him learn on the job. While Carr, once touted as a “can’t miss” prospect, often gets the honor of being called one of the NFL’s biggest busts of all time, it is likely the decision to start him with a faulty line that should get the blame.
The learning curve for any player making the jump from college to the pros is pretty head-swimming, and for a quarterback, in charge of so many responsibilities and reads, the game needs to slow down pretty quickly. It never did for Carr, who was never in the position to have his feet set after dropping back or to go through his progressions like an NFL quarterback should. Consistently having only three seconds in the backfield will do that for you.
Mike McCarthy should be commended for making perhaps the “opposite” choice with Rodgers, choosing to keep him on the bench for three seasons while Brett Favre took the snaps behind Wil Whittaker and Adrian Klemme and a group of three rookie interior linemen that are no longer with the team. When you look at Rodgers’ development during his first two seasons, his limited time on the field told a story that he might have easily been another David Carr: rushed throws, “happy feet”, and an obliviousness to the pass rush.
Perhaps, if the roles were reversed, David Carr might have been another Aaron Rodgers, instead of a third-stringer staring up at Tim Tebow on the depth chart for the Giants.
But, during those three years, Rodgers did a lot of studying, and when thrust into the starting role amidst a hurricane of controversy in 2008, he put the studying to good use. In particular, he set out to be the total opposite of Favre.
”I think that was drilled into him by McCarthy just based on Favre, ” said Demovsky. “In so many ways, Rodgers is the anti-Favre, and I’m not talking about style of play, but personality-wise. I think he wants to live his life and play the game completely different from Favre. He hates interceptions.”
And thus enters the rub of being a polar opposite of anyone, just to avoid being that polar opposite. Favre may have many legacies that will follow him into the Hall of Fame. Perhaps one will be choking in crunch time of playoff games. Certainly, the image of him as a free-lancing gunslinger that has an equal chance of throwing an interception as a touchdown late in his career will come to mind.
To me, a big part of that legacy is what Rodgers has tried to avoid from day one as a starter, perhaps in response to his head coach, perhaps in response to public sentiment. Favre played behind many inferior offensive lines, but his reaction was to avoid the rush by creating time in the pocket, and avoid the sack by forcing the ball downfield. This resulted in more interceptions, something that frustrated McCarthy and fans alike.
In fact, if you look back at 2005, when Favre played with the most injury-riddled surrounding cast in his career, he set a career high for most interceptions in a season (29). Looking carefully, despite attempting 607 passes (a career-high at the time), he was only sacked 24 times that season, the sixth-lowest total of his entire career. Facing consistent jail-break pass rushes, while passing to Taco Wallace and handing off occasionally to Samkon Gado, Favre consistently chose to get the ball out of the backfield and avoid the sack.
So, if you’re going to be a polar opposite, to be the “anti-Favre”, what do you do? You avoid the interception at all costs, taking the sack if necessary. And, as Rodgers is looking at the rest of 2012 playing behind Marshall “Turnstile” Newhouse, Jeff “Weeble” Saturday, and Bryan “Whiff” Bulaga, those three-second pressures are going to become more and more commonplace.
And with it, you’re seeing an Aaron Rodgers that is more reminiscent of the developing quarterback he was in 2009, rather than the MVP that he was in 2011. We’re seeing more of the “happy feet” that marked his early development, and perhaps more disturbing, a decline in his pressure awareness.
Is this a “pile on Rodgers” piece? No, but it is concerning. The role that the offensive line and the supporting cast play around him is critical. Rodgers is going to need more time in the pocket for him to get back the confidence to set his feet and go through his progressions calmly, and if that means moving a tight end into the backfield more often, then that needs to happen. And, naturally, the number of dropped passes (another hallmark of Favre’s hellish 2005 season) has to change for the better, too.
But the onus may also be on Rodgers (and possibly McCarthy) to stop trying to be the “anti-Favre”, avoiding the risk of an interception at all costs. No, an interception is never good, nor is it something that ever works to the advantage of winning a football game. But the polar opposite strategy, taking sacks, has its own set of ramifications.
Thinking back to Favre’s legacy, there’s one other image that will always stay in people’s minds: Ironman. 321 consecutive starts (including playoffs) will always stand as an important part of who Brett Favre was, even if he threw interceptions to finish those games. Favre’s style of getting rid of the ball and throwing while falling backwards helped him avoid unnecessary hits over an abnormally long and productive career. Those hits have a way of piling up and aging you prematurely. If you don’t believe me, just ask David Carr, who hasn’t started a game since 2007.
Being under constant pressure and taking unnecessary hits not only shortens your career, but stunts your development. You spend more time worrying about avoiding a rush than you do making a great pass. After time, that becomes all you think about when you drop back. According to Football Outsiders, the Packers rank 31st in the league with an adjusted sack rate of 10%. That’s not including the number of hits, knockdowns, and pressures that Rodgers is also getting a regular dose of each game.
So my plea is simple: it’s time to fix the sack situation. No, I don’t want more interceptions as a trade-off. It’s time to stop thinking about the quarterback position as being “Favre” or “Not Favre”. There’s a middle ground that involves avoiding the interceptions that can torpedo your chances of winning a game, and avoiding the regularity of sacks and hits, which can torpedo your chances of a long, productive career.
It’s time to find it, for both the Packers’ chances this season, and Rodgers’ chances over the long-term of his career.