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Aaron Jones, Not Aaron Rodgers, Is Driving the Packers Offense

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistDecember 20, 2019

Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones (33) takes a hand-off from Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) during the first half of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann)
Reed Hoffmann/Associated Press

Aaron Rodgers is the face of the Green Bay Packers, and the legendary quarterback's play will likely determine whether they get back to the Super Bowl for the first time in nearly a decade. But he may not even be the most impactful member of the Packers offense named Aaron.

While Rodgers has failed to stand out consistently this season, there's evidence that running back Aaron Jones has made a bigger difference. 

It's rare for a running back to impact games as much as a quarterback, but that has actually happened on multiple occasions in Green Bay this season.

The most recent example came Sunday against the Chicago Bears when Rodgers completed fewer than half his passes but Jones scored two second-half touchdowns to help lead the Pack to victory. One week prior, Rodgers fell short of the 200-yard mark through the air and was sacked four times, but Jones saved the day with 192 scrimmage yards on 22 touches as Green Bay defeated the Washington Redskins.

And last month when Rodgers posted what, at the time, was his lowest passer rating of the season against the Carolina Panthers, Jones scored three touchdowns and compiled 84 yards on seven touches in the second half alone as the Packers held on to win by eight points. 

Mike Roemer/Associated Press

That's three one-score victories down the stretch, all of which might have been one-score losses if not for Jones. 

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Statistics stating that Team X has a particularly strong record when Player Y runs the ball Z times are useless, mainly because teams run more when they have the lead. But a correlation between a running back's yards-per-attempt average and his team's level of success is more valid. 

For what it's worth, the Packers are 7-0 when Jones averages more than 4.0 yards per carry, and they're 4-3 when he averages fewer than 4.0 yards per attempt. 

But his impact extends directly to the passing game, where he and fellow back Jamaal Williams have caught a third of Rodgers' touchdown passes. The two have a combined 82 receptions for 659 yards and eight scores, and both rank in the top 15 at Football Outsiders when it comes to DYAR (defense-adjusted yards above replacement) in the receiving game. 

Pro Football Focus has an even more favorable view of both players as pass-catchers. Both have receiving grades in the top five at the running back position through 15 weeks. 

Jones is also tied with Christian McCaffrey for the league lead with 14 rushing touchdowns, he ranks sixth in DYAR (and third in success rate) as a rusher, and only three qualified backs—Alvin Kamara, Ronald Jones II and Devin Singletary—break tackles more efficiently.

It's probably true that the highest-rated passer in NFL history has helped take pressure off Jones and create opportunities for him as a receiver that he might not have in a lot of other places. But based on rate stats and advanced numbers, as well as observational evidence, it's pretty easy to conclude that Rodgers would be having a much worse season if not for his top two running backs. 

And it has indeed been a mediocre campaign for Rodgers, who doesn't have an injury to blame like he did when he struggled in 2018.

He's thrown 24 touchdown passes to only two interceptions (both of which hit the intended receiver in the hands), but 17 qualified passers (including Mitchell Trubisky and Kyler Murray) have higher completion percentages, 14 (including Jared Goff) have higher yards-per-attempt averages and 16 (including Murray, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston) have higher QBRs

Fifteen quarterbacks have led multiple fourth-quarter comebacks this season, but Rodgers is not one of them. Jacoby Brissett has a higher third-down passer rating, while 17 quarterbacks with at least 15 attempts in the fourth quarter of one-score games have higher ratings under those circumstances. That group includes Kirk Cousins, Joe Flacco, Josh Allen and Gardner Minshew II.

Per Ben Baldwin of The Athletic, who wrote in October that Rodgers is no longer elite, the 36-year-old's EPA (expected points added) value is barely above the league average.

Rodgers still ranks eighth in DYAR among qualified passers, but that's lower than Jones ranks among his peers in that category. He's got the sixth-highest bad throw rate in the NFL, and similar advanced numbers from Pro Football Reference indicate he hasn't been pressured significantly more often than average, nor has he been let down by his receivers. 

GREEN BAY, WISCONSIN - DECEMBER 15: Aaron Rodgers #12 of the Green Bay Packers looks on from the sideline in the second quarter against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field on December 15, 2019 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
Dylan Buell/Getty Images

His rating is still a lot higher when the Packers win, as are his cumulative stats. But he's completed 63.2 percent of his passes in victories and 63.6 percent in defeats.

Both Aarons have been extremely matchup-sensitive. Against opposing defenses that rank in the top 10 in DVOA (defense-adjusted value over average), Rodgers has a completion percentage of just 58.5, a yards-per-attempt average of just 5.5 and a passer rating of just 86.7, which is almost a 14-point decline from his full-season mark. Jones has averaged just 3.6 yards per rush against those same teams. 

They'll face another highly ranked and highly talented defense Monday night when they take on the Minnesota Vikings in a critical prime-time game.

Jones did have success against Minnesota earlier this season when he gained 150 yards from scrimmage on 27 touches in a victory over the Vikings. If he can do something like that again Monday against the league's fourth-best run defense in terms of DVOA, the nation might finally start to see that he's actually the straw who stirs the Green Bay offense. 

For now, though, Rodgers is inexplicably headed to another Pro Bowl, while Jones failed to make the NFC roster. But that's just another reminder that the Pro Bowl is a popularity contest more than anything.

In games and moments that have mattered most this season, the lesser-known Aaron has often set the tone for the Packers offense. 

     

Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012.

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