Aaron Rodgers vs. Matt Ryan: The free play advantage

NFL: NFC Divisional-Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys

When it comes to Aaron Rodgers, especially while trying to get a grasp on what may occur Sunday when the Green Bay Packers travel to Atlanta, gamesmanship is difficult to measure.

In the build-up to this weekend’s NFC championship, you’ll see a dozen graphics showing Aaron Rodgers and Matt Ryan with comparable 2016 regular season stats, but quarterback rating can’t put a number on Rodgers’ historic ability to get inside your head.

You’ve probably heard this before: Rodgers’ mastery of the hard count and “12 men on the field” quick snap has resulted in 14 touchdowns on free plays since 2008. The runner-up has 4.

The Packers have drawn both penalties more often than any other team since Rodgers became the starter.

Those are phenomenal numbers when you think about what Rodgers’ skill and mastery at managing the game has meant to the Green Bay Packers over the course of the past decade or so.

With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at these numbers and how it may play into Sunday’s championship.

 NFL: NFC Divisional-Green Bay Packers at Dallas Cowboys

You Can’t Please Everybody

Not everybody is a fan of Aaron Rodgers’ unrivaled talent for drawing penalties.

After Sunday’s victory over the Cowboys, Skip Bayless offered congratulations with a heavy dose of sarcasm:

So what happens in that first series? It’s 3rd and 5, incomplete, and Aaron Rodgers, the greatest trickster in NFL history, he tricks them with another quick snap 12-men-on-the-field. Way to go. If you can’t beat ‘em, trick ‘em. Aaron, I’m impressed….It’s just so beneath a great quarterback to have to trick another defense.

If tricking the defense is truly beneath a great quarterback, perhaps Skip also has ethical concerns with the play action pass, or draws, or a wide receiver taking a handoff on an end-around and violating the gentleman’s agreement that wide receivers cannot pretend to be running backs.

Of course Skip is being ridiculously irrational, but his reaction is instructive: This is the psychological effect of gamesmanship. Frustration. Impotence. Embarrassment. The suspicion something unfair has occurred and will occur again.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Gamesmanship: the art of winning games by using various ploys and tactics to gain a psychological advantage.

Sorry, Skip, but football is a game of trickery, and Rodgers has the resume to back up the title “Greatest Trickster in NFL History.” Fourteen touchdowns on free plays.

And if an opponent finishes a game without taking the penalty bait, before you pat them on the back realize they suffered countless mental and strategic inefficiencies that won’t show up in the stat line. The pass rush will be a fraction slower. Blitzers will take a stutter step and tip their hand. Personnel packages will concede some mismatches. Winded and banged up players will stay on the field a few extra downs.

And after spending a week preparing for Rodgers and knowing exactly what’s coming, what’s the psychological effect when #12 still catches you with your pants down?

Dallas safety Barry Church: “We practiced it all week. He caught us.”

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb (18) celebrates with quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) after scoring a touchdown on a hail mary in the 2nd quarter in the NFC Wild Card playoff football game at Lambeau Field. Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY Sports

Green Bay Packers wide receiver Randall Cobb (18) celebrates with quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) after scoring a touchdown on a hail mary in the 2nd quarter in the NFC Wild Card playoff football game at Lambeau Field. Rick Wood/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA TODAY Sports

Aaron Rodgers’ ‘Pants Down’ Moment

You’ve heard a lot of theories explaining the Packers 21-3 hot start against the Cowboys.

The most comforting to Cowboys fans is blaming the famous bye-week rust. But the Dallas offense started with a strong drive and a field goal, and the defense was on the verge of a three-and-out stop.

I’m squinting but I’m having a hard time seeing the rust.

Enter the “pants down” moment:

It’s 3rd and 5, incomplete, and Aaron Rodgers, the greatest trickster in NFL history, he tricks them with another quick snap 12-men-on-the-field.

Troy Aikman said linebacker Sean Lee told him, “Yes, we are going to substitute but we’re going to be smart about when we do it.”

The Cowboys spent a week developing and practicing a “smart” strategy to counter Rodgers and he made them look dumb the very first time.

Do you remember when you were a kid, and Dad said, “Don’t touch that, it’s hot. Don’t touch that, it’s hot,” and you touched it, and it was hot?

How smart did that make you feel?

Take that “I touched it and it was hot” feeling and times it by an offsides penalty for a free play touchdown only three plays later.

A week of preparation and the very first series #12 dings you for both his signature tricks.

Frustration. Impotence. Embarrassment.

The suspicion something unfair has occurred and will occur again.

Football is a game of momentum. The Packers scored the next two possessions on the way to a 21-3 lead.

Gamesmanship may not always show up in the stat line, but this week I guarantee it’s on the minds of the Atlanta Falcons.

And the Dallas Cowboys.

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