What Makes Aaron Rodgers Great?

Yahoo’s excellent Shutdown Corner blog recently previewed the NFC North on their weekly podcast, and things got interesting when host Greg Cosell started to talk about Aaron Rodgers and how he faltered in 2015 when Jordy Nelson was lost for the season:

“Aaron Rodgers is ridiculously gifted, that’s not even a question. But Aaron Rodgers, to me, is not a true rhythm quarterback the way we think of a Tom Brady or a Drew Brees … to me he’s kind of a ‘jazz beat’ quarterback. He’s a little off rhythm, and even when he’s at his absolute best he plays that way. But he’s so gifted he can play that way and be really good. At times though, the issue is that Aaron Rodgers got out of his own rhythm, which is different than a normal rhythm. That’s what I saw when I watched tape later in the season. I thought there were a lot of throws he left on the field later in the season … now whether Jordy Nelson brings all that back, it’s hard to say. But there’s no question Jordy Nelson makes everybody better.”

Greg Cosell does not understand what makes Aaron Rodgers great.

I see where he gets the idea that Rodgers is a “jazz beat” quarterback, but it’s misguided. Surely he is a great improviser; who hasn’t loved the image of Rodgers dodging to his left only to suddenly set his feet and deliver a laser 30 yards downfield?

But Rodgers is not a jazz musician. He’s a heart surgeon. He’s an F1 driver. He’s Mozart.

Rodgers does not operate on a different beat from other quarterbacks. He just does the things that other quarterbacks do even better than they do.

Here’s what I mean. Off the top of my head, three of Rodgers greatest games would include his 2010 playoff dismantling of the Atlanta Falcons, the Super Bowl win over Pittsburgh, and his six touchdown game against Chicago. 

In each of those games, Rodgers’ success did not come on a “jazz beat.” He wasn’t making things up as he went along. Rodgers destroyed his opponents through meticulous preparation, flawless execution, and extreme efficiency.

Aaron Rodgers is the kind of player who beats you before the ball is even snapped, because he knows what you’re going to do.

A look at Rodgers’ stats further dispels the image of someone who needs to freelance to succeed. Though he rarely tops the league charts in volume stats like total yards or even touchdowns, Rodgers frequently finds himself among the leaders in anything related to efficiency. In both of his MVP seasons, Rodgers led the NFL in adjusted yards per attempt, a stat that combines passing attempts with yards gained and touchdowns. He also regularly ranks among the league’s best in touchdown percentage, which is a simple measurement of how often a quarterback’s passes result in touchdowns.

Just as importantly, Rodgers rarely makes killer mistakes. He hasn’t thrown double digit interceptions since 2010, and he’s done it just twice in his eight years as the full-time starter.

This is not the statistical profile of a jazz musician or (dare I say it) a gunslinger. This is the kind of player who beats you before the ball is even snapped, because he knows what you’re going to do.

Now, to return to Cosell’s analogy, I think his final point is ultimately true: Jordy Nelson’s return will help Rodgers return to what he does best. It’s really hard for a guy who demands precision to be ultra-precise if he’s working without his favorite tool. You wouldn’t expect a heart surgeon to operate without a scalpel or Mozart to make music without his first chair violin or an F1 driver to… use whatever important tool racecar drivers use. Rodgers needs the magnificent machine he operates to be at its peak to be his very best, and last year it wasn’t.

Rodgers is a great quarterback. He’s probably one of the greatest ever. But it might not be for the reason Greg Cosell thinks it is.