On Aaron Rodgers And The Nature of Super Bowls

It’s the offseason, so football talk is hitting all sorts of topics. Lately, one I’ve been hearing a lot about is how Aaron Rodgers “only” has one ring and how that somehow means he’s not as good as some people say.

Football is a complex game with all sorts of variables, especially when you get down to the playoffs. This isn’t like basketball or baseball or hockey where you have to win a few games to prove that your team is truly better. With one game elimination, anything can happen. If someone has a gimmick play or a new schematic wrinkle to unveil, it can win a game and there is no going back to the film room to adjust for the next few games.

One little thing can end your season.

Missed call on a big play? Season over. Twisted ankle or head shot takes a guy out? Season over. That funny-shaped ball bounces the wrong way? Season over. Someone had a fight with their girlfriend, is feeling sad that day, and messes up? Season over.

Those factors, and many others can impact a game, and one game is all it takes to end your season. The best team doesn’t always win, that’s why they’re called upsets.

You can’t judge an individual player based on team accomplishments like Super Bowls.

Let’s use Aaron Rodgers as a case study. Rodgers is the de-facto best quarterback in the NFC over his career. So why does he “only” have one ring? Because winning the Super Bowl is hard. Because there is a lot that goes into it and one player – even at the most important position – is still just 1 out of 22 of the moving pieces on the field (not including the refs) and is on the field for less than half of the plays.

So 1 divided by 22, multiplied by about 45% (typical offensive snaps in the game) makes the QB about 2% of the game. Even if you say QBs are 5 times as important as the average player, that would make them 10% of the game. They would need to be 25 times as important as the average player to even be half of the game. Sure, you can argue the math and impact blah blah blah, but the reality is that QB is extremely important, but still not the end-all.

We’re going to use Aaron Rodgers as a case study for the QB Ringsz narrative by looking at what he did each year as a starter.

2009
The Packers had a look of a hot 11-5 team that could run through the playoffs. Their offense was on fire. They scored 45 points in their first playoff game. In 11 playoff games that year, with 22 results, there was only one time that year where a team scored more than the 45 that Packers put up… it just so happened to be their opponent that game. The Packers had an offense that looked like it could just outscore anyone. Their defense looked good enough most of the year (holding 6 of their last 8 opponents to 14 points or fewer), with a solid trio of Pro Bowl caliber corners in Charles Woodson, Tramon Williams, and Al Harris. The problem was Al Harris, who had been playing a lot of slot, got hurt. Sure enough, in the playoffs, Steve Breaston led the Cardinals with 7 catches for 125 yards while working almost exclusively out of the slot. Throw in a questionable facemask call on the game-deciding play and it illustrates how narrow the margin is between winning and losing. Look at the NFCCG game that year for another example of how thin the margin is between winning and losing.

2010
The Packers win, Rodgers gets his belt. All is well with the world. The “Best QB = Ringsz” argument holds up for one year.

2011
The Packers beat the Giants in the regular season, on their own turf. So no one expected the Giants – a 9-7 team with the worst record in the NFC playoff field – to come into Lambeau, where the Packers hadn’t lost all year, and knock off the 15-1 defending champs. How did this happen? With a four-man rush that has become the stuff of legends, and propelled their team to a Super Bowl victory. No one could stop that defensive line, including the pinball scoring Patriots, who scored 513 in the regular season – over 100 more points than anyone else in the conference that year. The Giants held the to 17 in the Super Bowl. In year a year where the Packers looked like a dominant team, they didn’t play well against a dominant front that they had beaten not long ago. That’s the nature of the game.

2012
The Packers were cruising, looking good, and even started off their playoff game against the 49ers with a pick 6. Then, out of nowhere, Colin Kaepernick unleashes the read option run. And boy did he ever run. He set a record for rushing yards by a QB in a game with 181, besting the playoff record by 70 yards, and more than tripling the total output of all the Packers running backs combined. Who saw that coming? No one. That’s how unpredictable the playoffs are and, without a series of playoff game like all the other major sports, one slip up like this means your year is over. It’s a harsh reality. Looking back ,people remember it as a landslide, but this game was still tied in the 3rd quarter before Erik Walden’s complete inability to hold outside contain just turned the game into a one-note joke. Even this was a battle. Again, the Packers looked like a team that could win it all, but then one player did something no one had ever seen before ans caught them totally off guard. Season over.

2013
Rodgers missed most of the year with a broken collarbone, miraculously came back to lead his team to a home playoff game against the 49ers team that embarrassed them the year before. Rodgers, despite only having a week back to play, was in good enough form to keep his team in the game, tied up late in the 4th, when Micah Hyde had a ball drop softly into both his hands, with nothing but frozen tundra between him and the end zone. He dropped it. The 49ers kicked a game-winning field goal as time expired. The 49ers lost the NFCCG when they couldn’t get in the end zone from inside the 5. The team they lost to obliterated their opponent in the most lopsided Super Bowl in decade. This shows how slim the margin is between runaway Super Bowl champ and just another first round also-ran.

2014
Feel free to skip this one – I’m sure you already know the story of how the Packers lost. Sure, some people want to point to Rodgers stats. But let’s not forget that he was playing on a torn calf in a the toughest road venue in the league against the best defense of our generation. One of his interceptions came when they were in the red zone and he tossed a 50-50 ball on what was obviously a defensive offsides that the refs missed. No way Rodgers throws that ball if there’s no defensive penalty. Not blaming the refs, just filling in the context on what led to this and how unlikely it wall was. That one play could have been enough to change the outcome of the game… so could the fake field goal, so could the Burnett mid-game nap, so could the ridiculous 2 point conversion, so could the onside kick, heck the overtime coin toss could have changed the outcome. I have to reiterate, though, this isn’t sour grapes and complaining – it’s meant to illustrate how razor thin the margin is between going to the Super Bowl and being one of 30 also-rans and why the QB cannot be the sole recipient of credit or blame.

2015
The Packers were down to Jared Abbrederis and James Jones after Jeff Janis got hurt on his last touchdown. Their tight end was Richard Rodgers. The fact that Aaron Rodgers could get a team like that to overtime is about as close to a miracle as you can get. His two throws to Janis – which netted 101 yards on a single drive – were just plain physics-defyingly silly. When all your receivers get hurt – except Jared Abbrederis and James Jones (two guys who were both cut in the preseason) – your tight end is Richard Rodgers and your o-line gets banged up, you usually don’t win the Super Bowl. This marked the 3rd year in a row that the Packers season ended when the defense gave up a score on the last play of the game. Can you really blame a quarterback for that?

2016
This was brutal. Here’s how the game started:

Falcons score
Packers march down and miss a FG
Falcons score
Packers march into red zone and their fullback fumbles*
Falcons score

*Fullback was in because all the RBs Eddie Lacy, James Starks, and Don Jackson were out injured.

The game starts 17-0. I’ll forgo the defensive failures and say that Rodgers led two scoring drives (while missing his top 3 running backs) that resulted in 0 points. Given how close playoff games usually are, this was devastating – especially when the defense lets them score on their first three drives. Atlanta’s Win Probability (as calculated by ProFootballReference.com‘s Win Probability Model) was already over 90% in the first quarter. It topped 99% in the second quarter. This game was over early. Forget the math, though, the mental strain this puts on a team and the situations this puts your team in schematically make this an almost insurmountable deficit.

The Packers were down to their 7th string cornerback. They had only 3 total corners healthy enough to play in this game and Ladarius Gunter had to cover Julio Jones. Do you really expect a QB to overcome that? All the corners were out, all the running backs were out, and there was a flu virus going on among the team. Don’t forget that the offensive line got so banged up that defensive tackle Letroy Guion was playing offensive line. I would say that doesn’t bode well, but I guess I really can’t be sure since I have never seen that before in my life.

There was a lot that went into this loss, but it’s really hard for me to put it on Rodgers, or any QB for that matter. The real story here is: you can’t blame the QB – or any individual player – for a loss like this.

So Rodgers “only” has one Super Bowl. What does that mean? Well, if you look back at the history of his playoff career, my big takeaway is that winning is hard and involves a lot of variables – relatively few of which are even impacted by who is playing quarterback.

At the end of the day, there are 22 players on the field at a time and even the best players are only on the field for a little fewer than half of the plays. It’s too complex of a game to put that much credit on one player, even if it’s at the most important position of the game.

No QB – not Dan Marino, not Trent Dilfer, not Brett Favre, and certainly not Aaron Rodgers – should be judged by Super Bowls.

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