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Rhythm is the key to Aaron Rodgers MVP-caliber start to the 2020 NFL season

Even if you haven’t followed Aaron Rodgers that closely throughout his career, it’s fairly easy to tell that the player we’ve seen in recent years isn’t the same one who won a Super Bowl and two MVP awards. It’s not so much that the arm has declined, or that the decision-making has gotten worse, but rather the way he plays the position has decidedly changed.

The shift in his playstyle is not a new phenomenon; it started way back in 2015. That preseason, Jordy Nelson — who was coming off a 98-catch, 1,519-yard, 13-touchdown year — went down with a torn ACL. The trust and rapport Nelson shared with Rodgers went unreplicated with anyone else, and Rodgers posted what are still career lows in completion percentage (60.7%) and yards per attempt (6.7).

Rodgers has never quite been the same outside of his “run the table” guarantee at the end of 2016. Since then, he’s not had one season where he’s even cleared his yards per attempt mark from his first season as a starter (7.5, his previous low before 2015). He’s gone from averaging 20.3 throwaways per full season from 2008-14 to 44.5 from 2015-19. Something has just felt off.

Until Week 1 of the 2020 NFL season, that is, when Rodgers eviscerated an admittedly refurbished Minnesota Vikings secondary to the tune of 364 yards and four scores.

It’s not simply the fact that he dominated that should get Green Bay Packers fans excited, but rather the way he dominated. While his 94.6 passing grade was the second-highest he has earned in the regular season over his career (2010 Week 9 vs. Dallas being the highest, at 96.3), Rodgers has had other dominant outings in recent years, his 92.8 passing grade against the Raiders in Week 7 last year — when he went for 448 yards and five scores — being a prime example.

No. This Week 1 performance was different because of the rhythm with which Rodgers threw the ball. In that Raiders game, Rodgers' average time to throw was still 3.09 seconds, a figure higher than every single starting quarterback in the NFL averaged last season. On Sunday against the Vikings, Rodgers averaged a swift 2.25-second average time to throw. He was hitting his receivers within the structure of the offense.

That word, rhythm, is one Rodgers and many around the Packers' offense in recent years have used when discussing their struggles, and with good reason.

Rodgers’ inability to consistently find open receivers in rhythm is what’s caused the dramatic shift in his play. Everyone knows how talented he is at making plays outside of structure — so good, in fact, that he’s leaned on that part of his game more and more in recent years.

We define out-of-rhythm throws as those thrown long enough after the break of a receiver's route such that it's obviously outside of the original play design. Last season, Rodgers led the entire NFL with 137 attempts while out of rhythm with the playcall; he also had the second-highest grade on such throws of any quarterback. The problem is, here were his statistics on those plays:

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