If you cut through the tornado of Aaron Rodgers drama from the past 16 months, you will find that the Packers made two main mistakes. First, they failed to communicate their plan. A first-round investment in quarterback Jordan Love would have been a difficult sale, but the team could have spun it as a bid to secure their chances in case of a Rodgers injury. (Case in point: the New Orleans Saints, who went 9-1 in games not started by Drew Brees the past two seasons because they had reliable backups.) Second, they underestimated Rodgers the player. The Packers would likely not have made the Love pick at all if Rodgers had thrown more than 51 total touchdowns in 2018 and 2019.
Maybe that second mistake became motivation. The media wrote Rodgers’ MVP story as a tale of a lover scorned. But in retrospect, I wonder whether the Packers and the public put too much stock in Rodgers’ touchdown totals, first to rationalize their beliefs in his decline and then to paint the picture of his vindication. My research suggests that Rodgers was more similar in 2019 and 2020 than his touchdown totals those seasons can illustrate without extra context. And while that research informs our projection that Rodgers will produce at about halfway between his 2019 and 2020 efficiencies this year, it also provides a blueprint to try to find the next veteran quarterback who will bounce back after a disappointing fantasy season.
Rodgers fell temporarily out of the MVP race last October after he threw for just 160 yards, no touchdowns, and two picks in a Week 6 loss to Tampa Bay. But then he threw four touchdowns in Week 7, three touchdowns in Week 8, and four touchdowns again in Week 9. That middle performance spurred possibly partial commentary that Rodgers had similar statistics in the first half of 2020 as he did in each of his previous MVP seasons. After the next week, everyone seemed to share that perspective.
Touchdowns may mean less to an average Football Outsiders reader than they do to an average NFL fan or fantasy player, but they motivate MVP votes. Quarterbacks have won that award in each of the last eight seasons, and those eight winners either paced the league in passing touchdowns or finished within two touchdowns of first place. That is not a major injustice. Most of those quarterbacks finished first or second in passing DYAR and DVOA as well. But it struck me just how arbitrary touchdowns were as I watched Rodgers play pitch-and-catch with Davante Adams for a score from the 1-yard line in Week 8.
Then I watched Rodgers lob a short pass to Marcedes Lewis all alone in his half of the end zone in Week 9 after the 49ers sold out on a run fake.
And I watched Rodgers roll right and find Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the corner of the end zone, again in Week 9 and again from the 1-yard line.
Those touchdowns were some of the least impressive throws and decisions Rodgers made last season. But because they produced touchdowns, they moved the needle of his perceived value. As it turns out, simple touchdown plays have moved the needle a lot for Rodgers the last two seasons. In 2019, he threw just one touchdown from the 1-yard line and seven from inside the 5 while he and his teammates ran in four touchdowns from the 1 and 12 from inside the 5. In 2020, he threw eight touchdowns from the 1-yard line and 20 from inside the 5 while he and his teammates ran in just three and seven touchdowns from those distances.
The Packers offense was better in 2020 than it was in 2019, so some of Rodgers’ passing touchdown gains came from extra scoring chances. Still, many others felt like play-calling choices. Compared to the average quarterback last year, Rodgers threw about twice as many of his own touchdowns from the 1-yard line and saw his touchdowns skewed closer to the end zone.
That discovery me chuckle. In a sense, Rodgers was being a good teammate in 2019 in letting players such as Aaron Jones vulture touchdowns after the quarterback did much of the work to put Green Bay in a position to score. And he was labeled past his prime because of it. Last year, Rodgers followed a selfish tactic—whether dictated to him by play calling or not—of throwing disproportionately near the end zone, and now the world lauds him for it and calls him the MVP.
Rodgers deserves his MVP trophy. He led the league in passing DVOA. But he also led the league by throwing 4.6 more touchdowns than expected based on typical pass/run play calling near the end zone. To make that estimate, I calculated the average number of passing touchdowns and rushing touchdowns per drive at every down, distance, and distance from the end zone. For example, a first-and-goal at the 1-yard line becomes a passing touchdown 26.7% of the time, a rushing touchdown 64.4% of the time, and a non-touchdown 8.9% of the time. Then, I assigned quarterbacks touchdown surpluses of the rushing touchdown rates for the context of their scores minus their non-touchdown rates—since quarterbacks deserve credit for scoring in situations when teams sometimes failed to do so. Here are Rodgers’ biggest surplus plays from last season to illustrate that math.
|Aaron Rodgers’ Biggest Passing TD Surplus Plays, 2020|
I also assigned quarterbacks passing touchdown shortfalls whenever they or a teammate ran in a touchdown. Those shortfalls were just the passing touchdown rates at their downs, distances, and distances from the end zone. Combined, those surpluses and shortfalls estimate how many touchdowns quarterbacks gained and lost by friendly or unfriendly play calling.
|Adjusted Passing TD Leaders, 2020|
Rodgers led the position in net surplus (4.6), but he did not dramatically out-luck his fellow MVP candidates Patrick Mahomes (3.0), Josh Allen (3.6), Russell Wilson (2.6), or Tom Brady (1.9). And really, luck isn’t the word. Coaches are smart to let those elite quarterbacks throw near the end zone. As mentioned in the explanation of the surplus estimates, quarterbacks create fractions of touchdowns by throwing them in situations when, on average, teams sometimes fail to score.
It’s important to consider that even those exceptional passers do not outpace their expected touchdown totals every year. In 2019, Rodgers fell 2.1 touchdowns short of expectations. It was the third-highest shortfall in football. Mahomes (-0.4) and Brady (-2.0) fell short as well, and Wilson finished just better than neutral (0.5). And because of that, this accounting can identify attractive fantasy sleepers in quarterbacks who fell short of their touchdown expectations and are likely to bounce back the following season.
Baker Mayfield (-1.6) and Kirk Cousins (-1.0) had two of the biggest net shortfalls in 2020, but they seem to lack the ceiling of overachievement of other quarterbacks whose offenses are not so imbalanced toward the run. That should not be the case for Matthew Stafford (-1.3). He enjoyed a surplus of 1.0 scores in 2019 and was on pace for 38 passing touchdowns until a back injury cost him the second half of that season. His trade to the Rams introduces some uncertainty, but reputations would suggest that Sean McVay can only help Stafford’s production. We project Stafford for 29.3 passing touchdowns this season, already a top-10 total (with our projections accounting for possibilities of missed games). But he shares the upside of a massive increase in passing touchdowns with the 2020 MVP candidates that combined better play with friendlier play calling for their passing statistics.
Ben Roethlisberger (0.3) is a compelling candidate as well. Many expect the 39-year-old to decline in 2021, assuming the dramatic fall of his average depth of target owes more to his lingering shoulder injury than it does a choice to play the quick game. I think the opposite, and given that the Steelers had the most extreme pass-run ratio in football last season, it strikes me as rather unlucky that Roethlisberger finished so close to a neutral surplus of passing touchdowns. I recommend you entertain some chance of a touchdown surge in 2021.