On the eve of his fourth trip to the NFL playoffs, Aaron Rodgers sat down with broadcaster Bob Costas and obliged a big-picture conversation.
The Green Bay Packers quarterback has started a Pro Bowl. He has won the league's MVP award and was the MVP of Super Bowl XLV. What's left to accomplish?
A total of 29 quarterbacks have won Super Bowl titles. Only 11 have won multiple championships, as the chart shows, and that achievement represents the next step on Rodgers' career path. His style makes him ideally suited for the historic profile of multiple champions, and he isn't hiding from the meaning of a second Super Bowl as Saturday night's divisional-round game at the San Francisco 49ers approaches.
"I really believe that you earn your paycheck during the season," Rodgers told Costas. "[You] play at a high level and get your team to the playoffs. And then the postseason is all about creating your legacy. The great quarterbacks are remembered for their playoff successes and triumphs and Super Bowl championships and Super Bowl MVPs. We've got one here, and we want to add to that."
Rodgers is universally considered one of the NFL's top quarterbacks (near-unanimous, at least). Still, there are many examples in league history of elite quarterbacks who couldn't win multiple championships. Look no further than Rodgers' predecessor in Green Bay.
So what could separate Rodgers? Simply put, he is the least error-prone quarterback in league history.
Turnover totals are among the most reliable indicators of team success, and for quarterbacks, that mostly means interceptions. As you may know, Rodgers has, by far, the lowest interception rate -- interceptions per attempt -- in NFL history.
Most focus on yards, completion percentage and touchdowns in this fantasy age, but you might not realize that Rodgers has thrown only 46 interceptions in 2,665 regular-season attempts over his career. His corresponding interception percentage of 1.73 is well ahead of the second-best in history, the 2.06 percent of the New England Patriots' Tom Brady, and is among the few statistics that don't have to be curved for the modern-day explosion in NFL passing numbers.
In his seven playoff starts, Rodgers has thrown four interceptions over 253 attempts. That percentage of 1.58 is fourth-best in postseason history. It's worth noting that in his four most recent games -- the final three of the regular season and Saturday's wild-card victory over the Minnesota Vikings -- Rodgers hasn't thrown a single interception while tossing 11 touchdowns.
Why are we locking in so heavily on interceptions? I recognize that more goes into winning championships than a quarterback who doesn't throw picks. If that were the only criterion, cautious quarterbacks such as Alex Smith (10 interceptions over the past two seasons) would have multiple rings.
For the purposes of this post, let's accept that we've limited ourselves to excellent quarterbacks. We're trying to determine what can elevate them into the best of the best.
The gang at Cold Hard Football Facts tracks this topic in great detail on their insider site. The correlation between interceptions and victories, especially in the playoffs, is overwhelming.
This season, teams that threw fewer interceptions than their opponents won 80 percent of their games. As playoff intensity ramped up beginning in Week 14, that winning percentage jumped to 95.7. Since Rodgers became their starter in 2008, the Packers have won 90.2 percent of their games in those situations.
Taking care of the ball is especially critical in the playoffs between teams that are presumably closer-matched than in the regular season. In a study updated through most of 2009, CHFF found that a team's chances of winning a playoff game drops about 20 percentage points with every interception it throws. Teams whose quarterback threw just one interception in a playoff game won only 56 percent of their games. Two interceptions dropped that winning percentage to 31.4.
You might think we're hashing our way to an obvious conclusion. Interceptions are bad. We know that. But it's not that Rodgers simply avoids interceptions. Over a five-year span, he has avoided them to a substantially better degree than any quarterback in league history. History tells us the Packers have a better playoff advantage with Rodgers than most any other quarterback. Ever.
Consider Rodgers' predecessor, Brett Favre -- who threw five interceptions in 12 career playoff victories and 23 in 10 postseason defeats with Green Bay. In the three playoff games that led to his only Super Bowl victory, Favre threw one interception in 71 attempts.
On its own, a dearth of interceptions won't take Rodgers and the Packers to another championship. But it probably provides the clearest path to building that legacy.