Air and Space: Aaron Rodgers' rare combo

October, 13, 2011
10/13/11
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Aaron Rodgers Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireGreen Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers is completing 71.7 percent of his passes and averaging more than 344 yards per game this season.
There is little doubt this year about the NFL's top-performing quarterback. Tim Tebow's 79-yard season has taken the league by storm and set a new standard for what a second-year quarterback ...

Whoops. Sorry.

No matter what metric you use, I think we can all agree that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers has had the NFL's best start to the season. He has produced the league's top passer rating, is atop the year's Total Quarterback Rating and is a fixture in the No. 1 slot of Mike Sando's MVP Watch over on the NFC West blog.

Around here, we've pretty much run out of ways to tell you all that. But after fiddling around with the excellent Pro Football Reference database, I stumbled onto a slightly different angle. (If you prefer to watch me tell you about it, rather than read any further, check out this week's NFC 411 video below.)

Rodgers has the NFL's top completion percentage (71.7) and is tied for the best average yards per attempt (9.6). Generally speaking, those two categories shouldn't fit together.

Yards per attempt is one way to measure downfield passing proficiency. Of course, several components go into yardage totals, including receivers' open-field running ability and the tackling skills of opponents. But the primary ingredient is the quarterback's success at pushing the ball down the field on passes that are relatively difficult to complete.

As a result, it's extraordinarily difficult to achieve a high completion percentage when you're consistently throwing lower-percentage passes. Consider Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who last season had the NFL's No. 3 average per attempt (8.2) but its 15th-best completion percentage (61.7).

On the other hand, a high completion percentage can be associated with passes that are easier to complete. Checkdowns and other short passes result in a lower average per attempt. Case in point: New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees had the NFL's highest completion percentage (68.1) last season, but his 7.0-yard average per attempt tied for No. 16 overall.

That disparity should give you some context for what Rodgers has done this season. He's completing a higher percentage of his passes than any other quarterback even while piling up big yardage numbers with what should be lower-percentage throws downfield. He has been more efficient and proficient than any other NFL quarterback, an exceedingly tough combination to achieve.

How tough? Since 1960, only three quarterbacks have posted a completion percentage of 70 or higher and an average yards per attempt of 9.0 or higher in the first five games of the season. The details are in the first chart accompanying this post.

In the entire history of the NFL, only two quarterbacks have ever finished a season (defined as 400 or more throws) with similar numbers. Both of them, Sammy Baugh and Joe Montana, are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The second chart shows the top five combined performances in these two categories.

I hope you're with me on how rare and special that type of season is. NFL passing statistics tend to fall off as the weather turns, so we don't know whether Rodgers can or will maintain this pace. But he has a chance at putting together the kind of special season that surpasses what passer rating, QBR and even an MVP award could explain.

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