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PFF Data Study: The curious case of Aaron Rodgers, and his pairing with Matt LaFleur

Aaron Rodgers is five years removed from his second MVP season of 2014, and other than an insanely good run in the second half of 2016, his production hasn’t been on the level of other elite quarterbacks since the start of the 2015 season, as Ben Baldwin recently pointed out.

While grading out well in 2018 (Rodgers' 87.0 passing grade was the sixth-highest among quarterbacks), the passing offense he is supposed to orchestrate stalled and finished with an average-ish 15th-best EPA/pass play, a level that isn’t supposed to be his standard. A major reason he still grades out well is his lack of turnover-worthy plays, and he easily led the league with a turnover-worthy play rate lower than 1% in 2018.

This is where things get interesting.

Was Aaron Rodgers too conservative in 2018?

Not turning the ball over is, of course, a valuable trait, but what if it comes together with a lack of plays that help your team winning? As a surprise to nobody, turnover-worthy throws happen more frequently on deep passes (loosely defined as 10-plus yards down the field), but there is another distinction: On deep passes over the middle (between the numbers), they happen 7.6% of the time, on deep passes outside the numbers, they happen 5.8% of the time. However, deep throws between the numbers are generally more valuable to an offense, as they gain 11.4 yards and 0.52 expected points added (EPA) per attempt while deep throws outside the numbers gain 9.5 yards and 0.34 EPA per attempt. Rodgers himself isn't an exception in that regard, as 57% of his deep throws over the middle and 47% of his deep throws outside the numbers have graded positively over the last four seasons. This raises a natural question: Should Aaron Rodgers throw more passes over the middle of the field? And if the answer is affirmative, who was to blame for not throwing there in 2018, McCarthy or Rodgers?

Of the 35 quarterbacks who threw at least 75 passes of 10-plus yards down the field last season, Aaron Rodgers checks in 34th if we rank them by the percentage of those throws that targeted a receiver between the numbers. Together with him leading the league in combined sacks and throwaways by a fairly wide margin while playing behind the league-best pass protection per our PFF grading, this suggests he might have been risk-averse, avoiding contested target situations over the middle of the field at all costs.

Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly: We can’t credit his low turnover rate to this. We’ve built a model that predicts the probability of a throw ending up in a turnover-worthy play based on the exact target location, the targeted route, time to throw and game situation. Even after accounting for Rodgers not taking risks, he still ranks as the league's best quarterback in avoiding turnover-worthy plays. While this a good sign for Rodgers, it also suggests he actually should take more chances over the deep middle, since these throws are the most valuable in the game of football, and he has proven over the course of his career that the increased risk of an interception doesn’t apply to him as much as to most other quarterbacks. Given that the Packers were losing more often than usual in 2018, a little bit more risk to strive for a high reward would surely have come in handy for his team.

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