NFL observers are throwing every conceivable plaudit at Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers these days. It's hard to eclipse the topic Vince Verhei explored for ESPN Insider -- whether Rodgers produced the best first half of a season in league history -- so we'll just grab a small piece of the pie today.
Earlier this year, we noted Rodgers is playing at a rare level of across-the-board consistency, leading the league in both completion percentage (now 72.5) and yards per attempt (9.9). Rodgers' accurate arm has been well-documented and demonstrated this season, but it's also worth noting that his decision making is setting a modern-day pace as well.
Rodgers has thrown three interceptions in a total of 265 attempts over eight games this season. Two of them were tipped and came with the Packers leading by at least 21 points. Rodgers noted last Sunday that "I just don't throw it to the other team. Don't like to. Never have. And I don't think I'm coming very close, either."
Indeed, according to ESPN Stats & Information, opponents have defended and/or intercepted only 16 of his passes this season. That percentage of 6.0 ranks second in the NFL this season, as the first chart shows. But if you look at the second chart, you see that defenders have gotten their hands on a smaller percentage of his passes than any other NFL quarterback since Rodgers became the Packers starter in 2008, a reflection not just of accuracy but smart decisions as well.
That analysis comes off a sizable sample size of 1,817 passes and represents the value of playing in the same offense with a familiar group of skill players over an extended period of time.
"Aaron has a lot of strengths obviously," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. "But his decision making is clearly at the highest level that I've personally been a part of so, just his command of the offense, going away from the defense, if the defense tilts one way he goes away from it. We have the firepower to give them options and he he's just been very disciplined with the ball placement. I think his decision making is top notch right now."
Perhaps the highest compliment you could pay Rodgers is that he is making it look easy. In a league where roughly a third of the teams don't have a starting-quality quarterback, let alone a good one, Rodgers is playing as close to perfect as we've seen in some time. Those of you who have listened to his ESPN 540 radio show this year know Rodgers has an extraordinary ability to process the situation on the field, make the appropriate decision and then recall his thought process with remarkable detail.
Consider a random 13-yard completion to tight end Jermichael Finley in the third quarter of last Sunday's 45-38 victory over the San Diego Chargers, one that converted a third-and-3. Facing pressure from a Chargers defensive line stunt, Rodgers calmly debated between throwing to three receivers before stepping up in the pocket, jumping and firing at the last moment to Finley.
Here's how Rodgers described it, courtesy of ESPNMilwaukee.com:
"[Finley] was on the backside. He was running a crossing route with three receivers to the opposite side running a combination route. Dropped back, and they were running a stunt up front, with the end, the tackle, and the nose doing a line game, we like to call it -- where the nose will end up coming all the way back around from our left to our right side.
"They’re playing man with two over the top. As I drop back, [read] number two kind of outside releases it. We're getting squeezed to the sidelines, so I knew I didn't have him. Greg [Jennings] was kind of getting locked down a little bit by [Quentin] Jammer, only because he had to run back to the sideline with his route. If he could have kept going across the field he would have been wide open, but the route called for him to go back.
"Stepped up in the pocket, actually. John Kuhn, who’s always making the play that probably no one ever sees that helps make a play go…. His role in that play is to chip the widest rusher and then get out into his route, which would be a swing route to the right side.
"He sees the looping nose tackle coming around and hits him enough, almost in to me. But I was able to step up, and [Kuhn] hits him to where he falls down behind me. Great play by John. Stepped up in the pocket, was going to throw it to Greg, and then saw Jermichael kind of cutting behind him and had to kind of jump or move my feet in an attempt to get my hips open to that throw. Jermichael made a really nice catch, and a big first down."
Most quarterbacks are aware of the pass rush and what is happening around them. But I think that description gives you a sense of how Rodgers' mind works and why he was never close to hurrying a throw into coverage. You can see how the game moves slow enough for him to take it in with great detail, instant understanding and an innate sense of where his reads will lead him.
Monday night, Rodgers will face a Minnesota Vikings team that has gotten pressure on opposing quarterbacks (24 sacks) but rarely intercepted them (six in 298 attempts). The Vikings are expected to get veteran cornerback Antoine Winfield back for this game, but they will face a quarterback who is tightly cocooned in the mother of all zones. Hang on. History awaits.