Will the Real Aaron Rodgers Please Stand Up?

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystOctober 19, 2020

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) gets sacked by Tampa Bay Buccaneers inside linebacker Lavonte David (54) during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Jason Behnken)
Jason Behnken/Associated Press

Heads were turned in Titletown back in April when the Green Bay Packers traded up in the first round to select Utah State quarterback Jordan Love. There was speculation that the Pack could be preparing for life without arguably the best quarterback the franchise has ever had.

Questions about whether Aaron Rodgers was on the downslope of his career seemed to have been emphatically answered over the first month of the season as a red-hot Rodgers led the Packers to wins in each of their first four games. They looked like one of the NFL's best teams led by one of the NFL's best signal-callers. Headed into the bye, all was well.

Coming out of the bye is another story.

The Packers traveled to Tampa in Week 6 and got flattened 38-10 by the Buccaneers. In the loss, Rodgers was bad—like multiple interceptions and a completion percentage under 50 bad. And with the game out of reach, he watched the last seven minutes of the fourth quarter from Green Bay's bench.

Now, some will no doubt say it was just one bad game, a fluky outing from which the 36-year-old and the Packers will quickly rebound. And that may well be true.

But after watching them get thoroughly dominated in their biggest test of the season to date, it's also fair to wonder if we overreacted to the quarterback's hot start.

Jason Behnken/Associated Press

In fairness, it really was a hot start.

Through the first four games this year, Rodgers was completing 70.5 percent of his passes—a career high for a season in which he had over 100 attempts. He was averaging 303.5 passing yards per game—the first time he had averaged over 300 yards per contest since 2011. He had tossed 13 touchdown passes without an interception and had a passer rating of 128.4—a gaudy number even for the all-time leader in that last category.

That he was doing it without top wide receiver Davante Adams (who had been sidelined since Week 2 with a hamstring injury) was all the more impressive.

Rodgers got Adams back for Week 6, and when Green Bay scored on its first two possessions to go up 10-0, it looked like he and the Pack were headed for another huge outing.

They didn't score another point the rest of the way.

On the Packers' third series, something happened that hadn't all season long: Rodgers threw an interception. In fact, he threw a pick-six to Tampa's Jamel Dean that put the Buccaneers on the board.

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

Jamel Dean pick-six on Rodgers 😱 It’s Aaron’s first INT of the season (via @NFL) https://t.co/ntTbHwBN13

On Green Bay's next possession, something happened that's even rarer than Rodgers tossing a pick-six: He threw an interception on a second straight series. That second pick set up a go-ahead touchdown for the Buccaneers, and Tampa never looked back.

Things went downhill quickly from there.

Facing a ferocious Tampa pass rush that sacked him four times and hit him over dozen times, a rattled Rodgers looked as bad as we've ever seen him. When he was pulled from a blowout loss, he had completed just 16 of 35 passes for 160 yards. His passer rating was just 35.4. Per ESPN's Rob Demovsky, that was the second-worst mark of his career:

Rob Demovsky @RobDemovsky

Tim Boyle will finish the game, and Aaron Rodgers will finish with the second-lowest passer rating (35.4) in a game that he's started and finished. The only one worse was Dec. 14, 2014 at Buffalo (34.3). Rodgers wsa 16-of-35 for 160 yards, no touchdowns... https://t.co/Ur3hs6lXqx

Now, before the pitchforks are handed out, no one is saying Aaron Rodgers is a scrub. Or that he's finished. Or that he isn't still a top-10 NFL quarterback. Those assertions would sail right past "hot take" territory.

But the folks who were ready to call this one of Rodgers' best seasons ever and start chiseling his name on another MVP trophy may have gotten a little carried away.

After all, while the Packers won 13 games and the NFC North in 2019, they did so without huge numbers from their quarterback. He threw for over 50 fewer yards per game in 2019 than he had through four games in 2020, tossed a relatively modest (by his standards) 26 touchdowns and posted his lowest passer rating (95.4) since 2015.

Rodgers also benefited from some favorable matchups to start the 2020 campaign.

In Week 1, the Packers faced a Minnesota Vikings team that entered Week 6 ranked 27th in pass defense before allowing 371 passing yards and four scores to the Atlanta Falcons' Matt Ryan. Then came a Detroit Lions team that's 28th in total defense. Green Bay's Week 3 opponent (the New Orleans Saints) just allowed rookie Justin Herbert to throw for 264 yards and four touchdowns. In Week 4, it was a Falcons squad that has allowed more passing yards per game than every team in the league but one.

Murderers' row it ain't, and only one of those teams ranked in the top half of the league in sacks headed into this week's action. The Buccaneers were a different story, coming into the contest 16th in passing yards allowed and fourth in sacks.

It showed.

Now, as one might expect, Rodgers wasn't about to call Sunday's struggles anything but a momentary setback.

Jason Wilde @jasonjwilde

Aaron Rodgers: "This is, I believe, an anomaly, not the beginning of a trend. And we’ve got a chance to prove me right next week."

On at least some level, he's probably right. In Week 7, the Packers head to Houston for a date with the Texans' 25th-ranked pass defense. Then comes a rematch with Minnesota's terrible secondary.

But there are going to be matchups with tougher pass defenses and better pass rushes, especially in the postseason. And it's a safe bet that Green Bay's opponents will watch film of Sunday's game and try to get after Rodgers like the Buccaneers did.

Of course, it's not a state secret how to counteract that strategy. The Packers need to get the run game going. Aaron Jones had just 10 carries against Tampa's stout run defense, and once the Packers became one-dimensional, the Bucs were able to pin their ears back.

One bad game is hardly the end of the world for either Rodgers or the Packers, who are only half a game back of the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears. As bad as Rodgers looked Sunday, the sky is most assuredly not falling.

But while we can't overreact to the bad we saw Sunday, we also need to admit that maybe, just maybe, we did overreact to his first four games against mediocre defenses. Rodgers isn't going to have a passer rating under 40 for the season, but it's also not going to be north of 125.

The truth, as it usually does, lies somewhere between those extremes.