– Bill Annechino
You may have heard, but the NFL has had an ongoing story for the last year and change about the air pressure inside of footballs. If your memory is extra sharp, you might even remember a certain quarterback having a preference for playing with footballs with an air pressure that wasn’t considered to be within NFL regulation. The NFL has since cracked down on the air pressure in their footballs, regulating it more than they probably ever thought they would have. But what about the quarterback who went on record about his air pressure preference? What if I told you that, once the balls started being properly inflated, this quarterback immediately started averaging almost 2 fewer yards per attempt and his career trajectory took a sharp downward turn. Oh wait, you think I’m talking about Tom Brady, don’t you? Na, Brady’s fine; this isn’t about him. In fact, he has been better since that fateful AFC Championship game than he was beforehand. In addition, the Patriots have gone 18-5 (including playoffs), whereas the Colts, in one of the ultimate “maybe you should be living yours instead of hating mine” moments, have gone 10-12. I already told you that this article wasn’t about Brady, it’s not even about the Colts. No, in this article, I attempt to explain just what in the hell has happened to Aaron Rodgers.
Consider the following quote from Rodgers, in defense of Brady, from November 30 of 2014:
“I like to push the limit to how much air we can put in the football, even go over what they allow you to do and see if the officials take air out of it.”
Rodgers seemingly doubled down on this sentiment on January 20, 2015:
“It’s not an advantage when you have a football that’s inflated more than average air pressure. We’re not kicking these footballs.”
Up to this point in the career of Aaron Rodgers, he was seen by some as possibly the most talented quarterback to ever play the game of football. In his 7 years as a starter, he had already won a Super Bowl and 2 regular season MVP awards. He was also averaging a god-like 8.3 yards per attempt. He had even posted a passer rating of 106.6. Simply put, this guy was good. He was really good.
But then, 2015 happened. His 2014 campaign had seen him average 8.4 yards per pass attempt on his way to his second MVP. He had also posted a rating of 112.2. In 2015, his yards per attempt dropped all the way to 6.7, and his passer rating fell 20 points to 92.7. A lot of people wrote it off as a statistical hiccup, the kind of thing that happens over a long career. There were rumors that Rodgers had been playing through an undisclosed injury, and that a combination Jordy Nelson’s absence and Eddie Lacy’s fatness had hurt the Green Bay offense more than we all expected it would. After all, this was Aaron Rodgers we were talking about, and his counting stats didn’t look all that bad: 3821 yards, 31 touchdowns and just 8 interceptions. Still, something didn’t quite seem right.
This trend has continued into this season for Rodgers. He is on pace to throw almost the exact same amount of yards and touchdowns, with a few more interceptions. He has also posted a career low in yards per attempt and passer rating so far this season, with 6.5 and 88.4, respectively. Now, “what is wrong with Aaron Rodgers?” has become the preeminent question of the NFL season, and no one has any real answers. Again, there are rumors of a possible injury, and some people have begun to point out supposed flaws in his mechanics. I have to wonder whether Rodgers would have tried to play through this mysterious injury for 22 (including playoffs) games now? It is also dubious that a player as skilled as Rodgers once was would have a glaring mechanical error costing him production and not fix it, if not immediately than certainly before we got to this point. If you don’t believe my theory about the football air pressure, and you don’t subscribe to any of the other explanations out there, you’re left with one option: Aaron Rodgers is washed up.
I personally do not think this is likely, but I began to wonder if there was a precedent for something like this. We all know that Rodgers sat for 3 years behind Favre, and this is his ninth season as a starting quarterback. So, ideally, I wanted to find a quarterback who played for 8-10 seasons at a high level, then hit a wall and was never the same guy. Initially, I pegged Jim Kelly as the best Rodgers comparison. Kelly played at a reasonably high level for 10 years, before hitting a wall in his 11th year and retiring after that. But, Kelly never really approached the level that Rodgers had been at, pre-slump. Surely, one of the all-time great quarterbacks had a similar career arc as Rodgers. Then, like a message from Mormon-Heaven, I had my answer: Steve Young.
If you were to give certain parameters to a football robot and asked it to create a player, you would tell that robot you were looking for a quarterback who sat behind an all-time legendary quarterback, then stepped out from behind that legend’s shadow and won 2 MVP awards and a Super Bowl title in his own right, played 8-10 seasons at a high level, and then fell off. The robot would look at you for a moment, then spit out Aaron Rodgers. Then, it would spit out Steve Young. Young started his career in the USFL, before coming to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for 2 years, before they traded him to the 49ers, who were looking for a backup to Joe Montana (Tampa Bay has always been a poorly-run team, this isn’t a new development). After sitting for 4 years behind Montana, who some consider to be the greatest quarterback of all time (we know this to be false, because Tom Brady), Young finally got his chance in 1991, after Montana suffered an arm injury that would keep him out the entire year. After securing the starting job, Steve Young would play 8 seasons at a high level in San Francisco, winning 2 MVP awards and a Super Bowl in 1994. In his 9th season, the cumulative effects of at least 7 concussions forced him to retire.
It may not be a perfect comparison, but the precedent exists. I am not saying that Rodgers is going to retire after this season, or that he will never play at a high level again, but we have seen something like this before. Now that we have established the four possible causes of his decline, it’s time to figure out which one is the most plausible. Let’s start with the least-likely.
I do not think that it’s possible Rodgers’s problems are being caused by a mechanical issue. Rodgers played the quarterback position at a near-perfect level for several years, so it’s reasonable to assume that he knows what good mechanics feel like. When you do something every day, for most of your life, you get a feel for how it’s supposed to feel when it’s done right. Arguing that Rodgers has both forgotten what that was supposed to feel like, and what to do to correct it is too far of a stretch for me. I could see having a mechanical issue in a game or two that leads to a few bad throws, but to be going on for a year and a half? The only way that could possibly be happening is if there’s an injury he’s not telling us about, which brings me to my next point.
I also don’t think Rodgers has been dealing with a phantom injury for the better part of the last two years. The man who Rodgers replaced in Green Bay was well-known for his propensity to play through any and all injuries, but Rodgers is not Favre. It’s not crazy to think that, by seeing Brett put himself through hell to keep his ironman streak going, Rodgers may know better than anyone how performance can be affected by a lingering injury. If you had proposed an injury as the reason his 2015 season was subpar, I could maybe see that, but the fact that he hasn’t gotten surgery or made an appearance on the team’s injury report casts that into doubt. Additionally, would the Packers really let Rodgers keep going out there and playing sub-par football if they knew that it was being caused by an injury? All of this is technically possible, but I do not see it as likely, so perhaps we need to face a world in which Aaron Rodgers truly is post-prime.
The NFL is not like the other professional sports leagues, which allow a player to age gracefully and hold on for years and years past their prime. As we saw with Jim Kelly and Steve Young (and countless others), once it’s gone, it’s gone. Especially for quarterbacks, whose margin of error is slimmer than just about any other players in sports. If Rodgers truly is washed up, then I would expect to see him hit a wall. Remember when Peyton Manning suddenly wasn’t Peyton Manning anymore? It never came back. We are all still waiting for Rodgers to turn back the clock and have one of his vintage Rodgers games, where he shreds a defense for 3 touchdowns in the first half. Until that game happens, however, we can’t be sure that Rodgers hasn’t hit the downside of his career. Unless, however, that downturn is being brought on by a factor beyond an aging body or diminished skills.
Crazy as this sounds, I think the football air pressure is the main reason for Aaron Rodgers not looking like Aaron Rodgers anymore. Hear me out on this one; it’s a bit of a doozy. We know a few things about Aaron Rodgers. He’s a guy who holds grudges, taking delight in beating the 49ers (they passed him up to draft Alex Smith first overall way back in 2005). He is famously rude in person to people who remark upon his less-than-impressive height. We also know that he’s a sensitive guy. Think back to the 60 Minutes interview where Greg Jennings and Clay Matthews got on Rodgers for being susceptible for letting things get under his skin. Is it really that far of a stretch to think that not being able to throw a football with the kind of air pressure that he prefers is having an effect on both his physical and mental performance? It certainly seems more reasonable than suggesting that he’s been hiding an injury, or forgotten how to throw a football, or even that he’s washed up. Nearly two years after the original incident, I think it’s clear that the ultimate loser of Deflategate wasn’t Tom Brady, Roger Goodell, or us for having to sit through the endless media coverage: It was Aaron Rodgers.
– Bill Annechino (Twitter)