Even coming off a 6-10 season and with the implementation of a new defense under yet another defensive coordinator (the fifth in seven years), the buzz surrounding the 2009 Packers seems to be upbeat headed into training camp. Early chatter is about the Packers making a return to the playoffs as a possible NFC North Champion in a vastly improved division.
The main reason for such positive vibes is quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Entering his second year as the starter, the 25-year-old is one of the top quarterbacks in the league and one less worry for the Packers.
"I think Aaron has done a very good job," Packers coach Mike McCarthy said in June. "I think he's a lot more mature, the way he handles himself in different spots. He does a great job being around the teammates, putting in the extra time. I know the strength staff feels very good about his conditioning. He's done a great job in there. He's definitely put the time in. That creates credibility, and I think it shows when he's on the field."
Rodgers can stake a claim to having the best first season for those following the legends at the quarterback position. His 93.8 quarterback rating was sixth in the NFL in 2008, and he was among the top five in five other statistical categories.
Even more impressive is how he stands historically. Not only was he just the second quarterback to throw for more than 4,000 yards in his first season as a starter (Kurt Warner was the other), but he blew away others who had been in his position. Of the quarterbacks who have followed those generally regarded as the top 10 signal-callers of all time, only Steve Young can compare to the kind of statistical success that Rodgers had in Year One. Check out the numbers for Young and the others (with the leading numbers in bold):
— Steve Young (following Joe Montana in SF, 1991)
101.8 rating, 10 starts, 64.5% completions, 2,517 yards, 17 TDs, 8 INTs
(Note: Montana was traded to Kansas City in 1993, but spent much of his last two years in San Francisco injured, thereby giving way to Young in 1991.)
— Aaron Rodgers (following Brett Favre in GB, 2008)
93.8 rating, 16 starts, 63.6% completions, 4,038 yards, 28 TDs, 13 INTs
— Danny White (following Roger Staubach in DAL, 1980)
80.7 rating, 16 starts, 59.6% completions, 3,287 yards, 28 TDs, 25 INTs
— Brian Griese (following John Elway in DEN, 1999)
75.6 rating, 14 starts, 57.7% completions, 3,032 yards, 14, TD's, 14 INTs
— Jay Fiedler (following Dan Marino in MIA, 2000)
74.5 rating, 15 starts, 57.1% completions, 2,402 yards, 14 TDs, 14 INTs
— Tommy Kramer (following Fran Tarkenton in MIN, 1979)
69.3 rating, 16 starts, 55.7% completions, 3,397 yards, 23 TDs, 24 INTs
— Cliff Stoudt (following Terry Bradshaw in PIT, 1983)
60.6 rating, 15 starts, 51.7% completions, 2,553 yards, 12 TDs, 21 INTs
— Richard Todd (following Joe Namath in NY, 1977)
60.3 rating, 11 starts, 50.2% completions, 1,863 yards, 11 TDs, 17 INTs
— Bert Jones/Marty Domres (following Johnny Unitas in BAL, 1973)
Jones – 28.8 rating; Domres - 55.2 rating; 14 starts combined, 45.5% completions, 1,692 yards, 13 TDs, 25 INTs
— Scott Hunter (following Bart Starr in GB, 1971)
46.1 rating, 10 starts, 46.0% completions, 1,210 yards, 7 TDs, 17 INTs
If there was a knock on Rodgers in his first year as a starter, it was a perceived inability to lead a late comeback. But it could be argued that the Packers' defense was equally, if not more to blame for such failures. By season's end, the unit was one of the worst in the league.
In six games a season ago (at Tennessee, at Minnesota, vs. Carolina, vs. Houston, at Jacksonville, at Chicago), Rodgers led the Packers on game-tying or game-leading drives in the fourth quarter, only to see defense or special teams falter. A missed 52-yard field goal cost the Packers a win at Minnesota and a blocked 38-yarder cost the Packers a win in Chicago. Rodgers never got a chance in overtime against the Titans, and against the Texans, the clock expired on a game-winning field goal by Kris Brown.
In losses to the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Bears, Rodgers did have a shot at the end of the game, albeit in difficult or almost-desperation situations. Interceptions in three of those games ended the Packers' comeback hopes.
A fairer assessment would be to look at Rodgers' fourth-quarter statistics, which were only slightly below his overall numbers. In the final quarter, Rodgers' rating was 87.8 with a 60.8 percent completion rate. He threw eight touchdowns vs. five interceptions. His yards per attempt dropped from 7.5 to just 7.4 and his interception rate was up by only 0.9 over the final 15 minutes.
Five of the above-mentioned quarterbacks posted more wins than Rodgers in his first season, the only category in which he was average. With wins being the most important factor in measuring a quarterback then, Rodgers has room for improvement. Check out the numbers from Year One to Year Two for the others:
— Hunter: 4-8-2 to 10-4 record (6-game improvement)
— Griese: 6-10 to 11-5 (5-game improvement)
— Todd: 3-11 to 8-8 (5-game improvement)
— Young: 10-6 to 14-2 (4-game improvement)
— Kramer: 7-9 to 9-7 (2-game improvement)
— White: 12-4 each of the first two years (no drop-off)
— Fiedler: 11-5 each of first two years (no drop-off)
— Stoudt: lost his job to Mark Malone as Steelers went from 10-6 to 9-7
— Jones/Domres: 4-10 to 2-12
Where will Rodgers fall when the 2009 season is over? Well, history seems to suggest more than six wins, but then again, Rodgers bucked the trend when it came to statistics in Year One following a legend. McCarthy has preached more about Rodgers' intangibles this offseason.
"I just think Aaron Rodgers today has more credibility with his teammates and probably with the media and the fan base," he said. "I don't think anybody ever questioned could Aaron Rodgers be a top-flight quarterback if you watched him practice every day, and that's always the biggest hurdle you have to overcome as any player, particularly at the quarterback position. Can you transfer that to the playing field, and I think that something that Aaron can really draw from his experience this past year is how consistent that he was as a first-year starter.
That's something that he needs to keep a hold of and it needs to stay a big part of his game, because his consistency and his decision-making, his ball accuracy, keeping us in favorable plays is his greatest asset to this offense. It gives us an ability to week in and week out continue to grow and improve and attack our opponent with a lot of versatility. He's had an excellent offseason."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org