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The Evolution of Aaron Rodgers

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The Evolution of Aaron Rodgers

Ah, preseason Packer football.  There’s really nothing like it.  It’s that special time of the season with circus-like training camp practices, DVR’ing games without that much guilt, and hearing Rich Gannnon say “ath-uh-letic” again.  And again.

Yes, Gannon and Kevin Harlan are the preseason announcers that make us appreciate the regular season announcers Wayne Larivee and Larry McCarren all the more, offing little nuggets of humor, such as letting us know periphery players are “on the fence”, as if they now have a choice of whether they want to make the Final 53 or not.

But one thing that Gannon stated stuck with me.  He said that Aaron Rodgers was “a very instinctive player”, who “knows exactly where the pressure is coming from in the pocket.”  This followed a play on the Packers’ second drive where QB1 scrambled for a first down.  Did I doubt his words?  No, but it made me think back to a time when I heard someone say that Rodgers lacked those exact skills.

Oh, wait, that was me.

But, from the limited times we’ve seen Aaron Rodgers, especially in his first two seasons, he has demonstrated the pressure awareness of a rock. Not only did this result in several fumbles in the 2006 Ravens game, it doesn’t bode well for keeping him healthy if this proves to be a chronic condition. While we only got a little bit of game film on him last year at Dallas, it seems like he’s made some progress in knowing where the pressure was coming from.

Many of us tend to forget Rodgers’ first couple of years in the league, playing behind He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named-But-Can-Apparently-Be-Impersonated.  Now, in those days, pre-FavreGate, I was big supporter of Brett, but I was also a big supporter of Rodgers not getting thrown to the dogs until he was ready.  We had seen so many cases of players like David Carr, Alex Smith, and Akili Smith having their careers destroyed by starting as a rookie with nothing around them.

And like it or not, what worried me most about Rodgers was exactly what Gannon praised him for last week:  his instincts and pressure awareness.  I am prone to agree with him, despite his tones of over-adulation, that Rodgers has indeed evolved from those dangerous days.  Rodgers has learned his lesson and improved in an area that is, perhaps, one of the most impossible to improve in.

I mean, you’ve been playing football your whole life.  If you aren’t aware of what’s happening around you coming out of college, the speed of the NFL game is going to drown you.  Rodgers likely benefited greatly at spending a few years on the bench, waiting for his instincts to catch up to an NFL pass rush.  I don’t know if he would have survived 2005 and 2006 if he had been thrust into the starting position.

In our memories, we block out those early years of Aaron going back in the pocket, pitter-pattering around with his happy feet, then getting leveled blindside by a rusher he didn’t see coming.  We don’t remember the number of times he fumbled on those hits, either.  I remember cringing when he would scramble out of the pocket and not see the tackler coming in to try and remove his head from the rest of his body.  Hey…I try and block those memories out, too.

This isn’t an indictment of Rodgers.  In fact, its high praise for a quarterback whose career probably would have been as memorable as Tim Couch's had he played a few games behind Wil Whittaker and Adrian Klemm in those early years.  He wasn’t ready, and I’d be lying if I wasn’t  worried if he had shaken those demons when he took his spot under center.

But it is also praise for Ted Thompson, as I wrote back in 2007.

My usual disdain for Ted Thompson aside, I have to not-even-begrudgingly acknowledge that, now that it's evident he is doing a all-out rebuild (not a "reload" or a "revamp"), he is doing it the right way. Yes, Ted Thompson is rebuilding this team the right way. You heard me say it.

When you rebuild a team, you do NOT start with the quarterback. Ask Tim Couch, David Carr, Steve Young, and Akili Smith how they felt about being the "first piece of the puzzle", while waiting for the team around them to eventually be put in place. Not a very high success rate. To do it right, you start with the lines, both offensive and defense, and work on the rest of the defense first. Next, as the offensive line gels, you work on the running and receiving game.

In fact, I postulated in that same piece that it was not Brett who had the upper hand in the storied Thompson/Favre relationship, but Ted himself was keeping Brett around to take the hits surrounded by a very young offense, only to be jettisoned when Thompson felt Rodgers (and his supporting cast) was ready.  Prophetic, wasn’t it?

We could see the growth of Aaron Rodgers, even in that Dallas Cowboy game in 2007 when he came in for an injured Favre and showed us a glimpse of the future with short, precise passes.  But, he also missed several blitz pickups that let us know he still had some growing to do.  It was enough for Thompson, who felt his boy was ready and, as I predicted, moved on.

In 2008,  a star-crossed year for the entire team, Rodgers entered the starting spot and had a pretty good year overall.  What is often missed in that first season is that Rodgers finished with the 98th highest number of pass attempts by any quarterback in NFL history, and the number of sacks in that season and the first part of 2009 were also among historical rates.  Those aren't the superlatives you are looking for in your first year as a starter, particularly one where you've gone 6-10. Yes, he was showing that pin-point accuracy (and the Packers trusted him to keep throwing it), but the pressure awareness and being able to get rid of the ball was racking up the hits he was taking behind the line of scrimmage.

In the latter half of 2009, we saw a different Aaron Rodgers.  The Tampa Bay Debacle was a crossroads for the entire team, and according to quarterback Tom Clements, Rodgers actually started taking more risks.  "What I told him is you want to be disciplined in what you're doing, but you want to be opportunistic,” said Clements.  “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."

This was a sea change for Rodgers, who seemingly had been so focused on being the anti-Favre that he swung the pendulum too far the other way:  taking only safe throws and avoiding the interception at all costs.  When he was unleashed, we saw the precise lasers not only downfield, but being put on a dime amidst heavy coverage.

But in order to do this, he had to use that time in the pocket wisely, and he reduced his sacked total from 37 over the first eight games to just 13 over the last eight.  You saw him starting to move the pocket, looking for opportunities downfield and not being afraid to take them.

He stopped being afraid to make a mistake.  He started doing what it took to be an NFL starting quarterback, and from then on, his potential began to be realized instead of stifled by always looking for the safe way out (eating the ball and taking a hit being a “safe way out”).  Scarily enough, making something happen downfield and avoiding the sack was something we had claimed we never wanted to see again.  Yet, Rodgers was able to make it happen without increasing his interception total.

Last year, Rodgers’ sack total fell to 37 on the whole year, and he came into his own as a complete quarterback.  But he had his own personal Come-To-Jesus moment, when he had to come to grips with his own career mortality.  Two concussions led to missed time (and a missed start) for Rodgers, who got a crash course on the impact of head injuries to a quarterback’s career.

The first concussion likely came on a helmet-to-helmet hit on his last pass of the game against the Redskins, an interception.  The second came on a scramble against the Lions when two tacklers awkwardly sent his head crashing into the turf.  When he came back from that second concussion, you saw an even wiser Rodgers ducking down on his scrambles when a tackler got close to him (much to the approval of the Lambeau crowd, who cheered).

So, when we reach this point of the 2011 preseason, where a prognosticator praises Aaron Rodgers for his exceptional awareness and pocket presence, it really is a testament to many factors that have allowed QB1 to mature into that kind of player.  It wasn’t easy, and he had some help, from sitting on the bench early on, to facing his own mortality from head injuries.

In the end, Favre’s presence and a couple of concussions may have helped contribute to Aaron Rodgers developing into the most complete and dynamic quarterback the Packers have ever had.

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Fan friendly comments only: off Comments (31) This filter will hide comments which have ratio of 5 to 1 down-vote to up-vote.

Stanislaw's picture

"When you rebuild a team, you do NOT start with the quarterback. Ask Tim Couch, David Carr, Steve Young, and Akili Smith how they felt about being the "first piece of the puzzle"

So if a Peyton Manning, John Elway or Aaron Rodgers is staring you point blank with your draft choice, yet your team is in pretty bad shape, you bypass that pick for another position, a guard or defensive end?

I believe in football as in life, there are no absolutes; I would refrain from stating something that can be contradicted quiet easily.

WisconsInExile's picture

I don't read Aaron as saying you shouldn't draft the guy. Of course you draft him, just don't start him as rookie. And after, don't start him until he has a few offensive weapons and a serviceable o-line.

WisconsInExile's picture

Crap. I meant CDA not AN. And I see I replied too soon. Curse my foggy brain and the non-functional edit link.

tundravision's picture

I said nothing about passing such a player up in the draft. I'm talking about thrusting them into a starting spot surrounded by NFL-E talent and stumblebums over letting them sit and let them slow down the game first...as we did with Rodgers.

al's picture

Yea IMO QB is the most important player on the field and if you are rebuilding that is the first thing you target, then you build up the lines offensively and defensively, then you find your explosive play makers, and lastly role players and special teamers. Can that all be done in one offseason or one season? probably not but the QB takes longer to develope than the other players so draft him first (assuming a worthy player is available) than bring in a veteran QB who can start right away, and let the young gun sit a year at least.

PackersRS's picture

I don't agree with any of that. I believe if you identify a franchise QB in the draft, you take him, but it doesn't have to be the first pick you make, and you don't have to build the OL and DL to support him beforehand.

You rebuild by drafting the best player available, like TT did. He didn't choose Aaron because he was a QB. In fact, Andrew Brandt has publicly said they were targeting Fabian Washington.

Stanislaw's picture

And how realistic is that in today's NFL?

Oh we have Peyton Manning or Troy Aikman on the bench but let's wait till all the pieces are together before we throw him out to the wolves. It doesn't matter that he's the savior, it doesn't matter that we're paying him so much money . . .

Both of those QB's said that their first year of getting the crap kicked out of them was instrumental to their success later in their career.

Seriously - how could you have overlooked that?

tundravision's picture

Realistic in the NFL, where salary caps and (formerly) prohibitive first-round contracts put pressure on coaches/GMs to get young kids to produce right away? Not as much. In the real world or the world of business, would you put your biggest investments at risk in a market that had only a 10% chance of success?

Because, for every Aikman and Manning you can cite, who was thrown to the dogs their rookie year and still managed to have a HOF career, I'll bet I can produce nine names (Carr, Alex Smith, Akili Smith) who were thrown to the dogs their rookie year who ended up developing terrible skills.

Carr is a great example. I really think he could have been a great player. But he kept setting records for most sacks in a season, year after year. That takes a psychological toll when you know you're going to go back in the pocket and there will be people in your face immediately, that getting the ball out in a panic or eating it is the way to survive. Even when Houston improved, he couldn't raise his game. Then, when he got an opportunty in Carolina, he was replaced...by VINNY TESTAVERDE.

Manning and Aikman are special quarterbacks. Period. Not everyone is special, and I'll be honest: I don't think Rodgers would have been special if he had started those first two years. Those were brutal years for Favre, who took a lot of heat for his interceptions while playing behind Wil Whittaker and Adrian Klemm, handing off to some guy named Samkon, and passing to some guy named Taco.

When you get a golden arm like that, and its clear they're not ready for prime time, the smart play is to give them time to develop. Rodgers was lucky he could have been put in that position.

Oppy's picture

C.D., You're a very good writer.

TPackers's picture

+1

tundravision's picture

Grazi, guys. Had writer's block on this one big time.

Bearmeat's picture

Great article CD. Insightful and well written. It makes me appreciate TT, MM and AR even more than I previously did.

PackersRS's picture

I've argued this that time and Aaron has only proven me right. It was not lack of awareness. It was playcalling.

Sure, he's not Peyton Manning that can recognize in an instant the pressure and dump it to the checkdown receiver.

But what Rodgers was doing was keeping the play alive and let the long routes develop. Just see the first two possessions last game (and the game prior), where Rodgers looked hesitant in the pocket, and was sacked a few times. Curiously, in the same period Mike McCarthy was calling the plays.

When they went to a no-huddle offense, and Rodgers was calling the plays, suddenly he developed a second set of eyes in his back, and started hitting his players quickly.

McCarthy loves deep patterns, and it plays to his receivers' and QB's strenght. But with the OL in the state it was, it let to a lot of sacks.

That's not to say Rodgers wasn't at fault, because he was, and he did work at it. Specially in his first year, he missed his checkdown receivers in more than one occasion. But a lot of people, you included CD, acted like he lacked awareness, which was a blalant error.

He was working the offense. Maybe too strictly, but to say that he has the awareness of a rock is incredibly misguided.

Oppy's picture

Perhaps not an awareness issue, but early in Rodgers' career it seemed to be a judgement issue.

He needed to take what the defense was giving him, but instead he was often looking for the big play- often at the expense of taking a sack or missing short opportunities only to throw the ball away.

Many plays from back then where he spent way to much time in the pocket looking for the home run while the underneath routes were either ignored or squandered.

PackersRS's picture

Yes, but instucted to do so? That's my point. Why he doesn't show those problems when in a no-huddle offense?

Oppy's picture

I don't think he was instructed to do so, as McCarthy publicly criticized Rodgers for holding on to the ball too long and taking too many sacks. Rodgers even shot back at MM publicly, stating that he didn't need to get rid of the ball quicker and wasn't going to change.. But very shortly after that statement, both his play and his tune changed dramatically, and he started getting the ball out quicker and taking what the D was giving him more often.

In other words, I contend that the coaches got on him and Rodgers has improved his play in those regards since.

tundravision's picture

RS, the statement "awareness of a rock", which I made back in 2008, is probably a bit over the top, admittedly. But I would wholeheartedly disagree with your assessment that McCarthy is holding him back, or that he has problems working out of a traditional offense. He didn't work out of the 2-minute that much last year, and he still did quite well.

When you can see the guy coming at him, and you see him unaware of it, it has little to do with whether that was a Eagle-left or a Spread formation. It has to do with not knowing the guy was coming. You also have to remember I'm referring to his very early years, when Favre was still starting. I think his progress since attaining the starting job has been pretty notable, especially in the area of being able to move the pocket.

Could it be he is more comfortable moving the pocket when he calls his own plays? I suppose it could be. But what does that say about Aaron Rodgers if he can't control the pocket when he doesn't call the play?

And what does it say about Mike McCarthy?

PackersRS's picture

First of all, I did not intend to say that MM was holding him back, or that he has problems working out a traditional offense. I don't know how you came to that conclusion from what I've said...

The offense is tailored for the big play. it's Rodgers best throw, it's our receivers' best trait, and it does work. MM never ran a west coast offense with Rodgers. Why would he? Rodgers lacks touch in his short throws, while he more than makes up for it with improvisational skills and deep accuracy. It's not that McCarthy was hindering him, he was coaching a young, inexperienced QB. Rodgers was doing his job, he didn't have the experience to handle the freedom a Manning and a Favre had, and that he has now. It was a process, from half field reads, to be able to shift some concepts in the offense, to now calling his plays.

As for Rodgers being unaware when a guy is coming at him, well, that is just not true. If a guy is coming from his blind side, and he's looking deep, there's not much he can do. BTW, Flynn had the same problem, and Harrell had the same problem. That leads to a conclusion that they're working the offense.

It does drives me mad that this offense doesn't work on more short principles, and those problems didn't appear in the playoffs last year, but for all the struggles, they were still putting 25+ PPG.

And regarding sacks and pressures, it really was the OL. Football Outsiders, IIRC, did a study of % of sacks atributed to a QB. While Rodgers wasn't great as the Mannings, he was middle of the pack regarding it, something like 18% of the sacks were his fault.

I do agree that the progression from his early years to now regarding pocket presence is very notable, but then again, it's expected, it's the progress of a young QB getting used to the NFL.

He never lacked pocket awareness. It's not one of his natural traits, like the deep accuracy or the incredibly smart decision making. But we're talking about a phenom in here. A guy that takes his worst traits and make them a strenght. What he showed against the Giants and the Falcons last year, if that's not great pocket awareness, I don't know what is.

Nagler did a series of posts in 09 describing areas of concern of Rodgers. One of them was the 2 minute offense. Rodgers is now one of the best in the league at that.

Another one was working the checkdown receiver. While Rodgers has improved, he still struggles with it, he is still not as quick recognizing the checkdown receiver, and still lacks touch on his short throws sometimes.

But, as I said, far from lacking pocket awareness.

BigSnakeMan's picture

As usual, great insight and observations.

One little quibble. I believe what you describe as lack of pocket awareness and instincts was simply a lack of experience in general. It's only logical that as AR gained more experience and became more adept at reading defenses he would become better at anticipating when and from where the pressure would be coming. Or maybe I'm just splitting hairs and they're two sides of the same coin.

Anyway, keep up the good work, C.D.-Looking forward to more.

PackersRS's picture

Thank you. You managed to say what I was trying to say in a much more clear and sucint way.

tundravision's picture

Yup...in a way, its the same quibble I'm having with RS, but it still plays out the same way. However, I do think awareness comes with experience...my point was that without the experience in 05 and 06 (and probably 07), he didn't have the awareness and it would have likely spelled a different career path for Rodgers. And there are still times he hangs on to the ball too long...old habits that you cling to when you are under pressure.

PackersRS's picture

Well, that's very possible, maybe he could've developed some terrible habits of fearing the rush (saw some of that early last year, was really worried).

But then again, if you look at what MM did with Favre in 07, it was a classical west coast offense, with tons of screens, short slants and etc.

Maybe he would've tinkered the offense, if forced to play Rodgers early on, to make it simple for him, look for the big play, but quickly look for the checkdown if it's not there early on, and so on...

I do agree Rodgers was not ready to step onto the field early in his career, but neither was Manning in his... I don't agree that if he had played it would've been detrimental to his development.

One thing that supports my theory is Rodgers himself talking about the draft day. It broke a sense of entitlement, of security of himself he previously had. I don't believe early struggles would've derailed his career, I think he has had the kind of drive necessary to overcome such obstacles.

But we can never fully know...

BigSnakeMan's picture

I would say that if Rodgers has a flaw, it's that he's sometimes reluctant to give up on a play rather than just throw it away. But, while it may be frustrating to watch, I still prefer to see him take the occasional sack over forcing something that isn't there and turning the ball over.

Idiot Fan's picture

Out of curiosity, why the "disdain" for TT? Dude rocks.

tundravision's picture

Yup. I had the disdainy thing going for a while, though. Long story. Will tell you someday.

Mojo's picture

You hit on something I've noticed the past few years and that's Rodgers williness to throw into tight targets. Before that he would hang onto the ball too long waiting for a receiver to break open. The SB passes to Jennings(TD & 4th Q first down on third and ten) are a testiment to A-Rods increased tolerance for risk taking. Another example was when he tossed a tight pass to Finley last year in between two defenders. The A-Rod of old would have never attempted such a pass. When you have a QB with such a strong accurate arm it would be foolish not to take more chances.

There is a thin line between recklessness and worthwhile gambles and Rodgers walks it very well now.

packsmack25's picture

Great observations, C.D. Thank you.

PackersRS's picture

Re-watching Packers Cardinals yet again, and Gannon actually makes a great point about Rodgers' snap count.

It was something I always admired about Favre (he killed us in 09 with it), and thought Rodgers was not good at. Well, he's great at. I remember close to 10 times he drove the defense offsides last year.

Ken's picture

One of the biggest contributions Brett Favre ever made was starting 48 games while Rodgers sat and learned.

Many teams would love that set-up, but usually the veteran gets hurt or is so god-awful that the young kid is thrown into the lineup and plays horribly. From there, he's on an uphill battle.

Rodgers is a good lookin' cat. Not gonna lie.

PackersRS's picture

Plus he's a great QB ;)

Satori's picture

Take a moment out and read this article penned by Michael Rodney of Packer Update in April of 2007

Its called "Rebuilding with a Twist" and he shares his view about how Favre helped keep GB viable while the long- term plans from Thompson and MM played out. Allowing Rodgers time to develop was indeed one of Favre's best gifts to Packer fans

http://packerupdate.net/?p=260

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