GREEN BAY, Wis. — Aaron Rodgers grew up watching Steve Young scramble, stay alive in the pocket and connect on throws downfield several seconds after most NFL quarterbacks would have thrown the ball away. That is how Rodgers believes the position is best played, and it’s worked well enough for him to result in a Super Bowl championship and a Most Valuable Player award before the age of 29.
Rodgers is elite when it comes to performing under pressure from an opposing defense. Part of that is due to his ability to evade would-be-tacklers behind the line of scrimmage, along with his accurate throws on the run to receivers working to get open. But it’s all just part of the philosophy that Rodgers has been working to perfect for many years.
“It’s just the way I play; I like to extend plays when the opportunity is there,” Rodgers told FOXSportsWisconsin.com this week. “I’ve always been a pass-first guy outside the pocket. I think those guys are the most dangerous when you keep the play alive and you’re able to be in a position to throw the football outside the pocket.
“Over my career, I’ve had some extended plays, scrambles, runs, showing a little bit of athletic ability from time to time. It’s been a part of our game. There’s going to be those plays in every game and I’ve always tried to keep those alive.”
According to Packers quarterback coach Ben McAdoo, there is an average of six plays in every game that give Rodgers an opportunity to make something positive happen after a play has broken down.
“He’s a very competitive guy and is not very willing to give up on plays,” McAdoo said of Rodgers. “I think he listens to his feet well as he’ll go through his progression. He has a pretty good sense of when to throw the ball away and when not to. The scramble play has been very good for us.”
It does have its drawbacks, though. Rodgers has been sacked 46 times this season, the second-most in the NFL. Research and data from ProFootballFocus.com suggests that Rodgers is responsible for nine of those sacks himself, the most of any quarterback in the league. The reason for those nine sacks not being attributed to a Packers offensive lineman is because Rodgers, in those instances, held onto the ball too long and didn’t throw it away before being taken down.
“At times, I’ve taken some sacks and absorbed some hits that have been tough,” Rodgers said. “But I think most of the guys here, the organization, would say they appreciate and they’re OK with my style of football, where I’m going to extend plays and not turn the ball over a lot instead of forcing throws and taking some chances.”
Rodgers’ high number of sacks is one reason that his interception numbers are so low. Instead of forcing the ball into coverage or prematurely throwing it away, Rodgers has concluded that there is more to be gained by staying alive longer in the pocket than there is lost by taking a hit.
“The true art of it — and it’s a great credit to Aaron — is the transition from the in-the-pocket training to out-of-pocket training,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s very unique in his ability to do that. It’s a trained skill set, it’s something that’s part of our passing game, it’s something that’s coached and he’s exceptional at it.”
Last season, Rodgers had the fewest number of interceptions among quarterbacks with at least 450 passing attempts. This year, Rodgers and New England’s Tom Brady are the only two quarterbacks to throw fewer than 10 interceptions with more than 430 passing attempts. Brady, however, has been sacked 20 fewer times this season than Rodgers.
“I’m sure there’s a lot of times where Aaron could have thrown it away and he got sacked,” Packers offensive coordinator and former quarterbacks coach Tom Clements said. “There’s a lot of times he could have thrown it away and he made a great play. We don’t want him to get too conservative; just have to be smart sometimes and he’s done it recently.
“He has the ability to make plays by scrambling and a lot of them are big plays, especially down in the red zone. He extends plays and often times it results in touchdowns. So we don’t want to lose that.”
That also factors into Rodgers’ consistently high passer rating and the single-season NFL record that he owns from his 122.5 rating in 2011. Though it’s not quite as high this season, Rodgers still leads the league this year with a 106.2 rating.
“Tom (Clements) always encouraged just trusting my instincts, understanding there’s a fine line between holding the ball too long and trying to make a play and trying to walk on the right side of that line,” Rodgers said. “I would say ‘turn the film on’ to anybody who wants to challenge a lot of those scrambles. I think a lot of them were reaction plays where keeping the play alive has given us some pretty positive results, for the most part. We haven’t had too many negative-yardage plays or big turnovers because of some of these extended plays.”
The fine line that Rodgers has been coached about does not have specific rules to it. For the most part, it’s completely up to Rodgers’ discretion as to when to scramble and when to throw the ball away.
“When the bullets are flying, it’s challenging to have a concrete rule,” McAdoo said. “What you have to be careful of is taking the big plays out of the offense. There are times when you talk about throwing the ball away, more situationally, sometimes that dictates when to get rid of the ball. But we like to be smart about it — but at the same point in time you don’t want to take the big plays out of the offense.”
Rodgers has taken pride in his athletic ability for many years, especially after not being given much credit for that area of his game in high school and in college. For now, at age 29, with several solid years left in which he can use that athleticism, Rodgers has no plans to change his strategy in the pocket. But as he gets older, he may have to start throwing the ball away more like Peyton Manning does, who’s been sacked just 21 times this season despite more passing attempts than Rodgers.
“That’s why I work so hard in the offseason, is to make sure that I’m in good physical shape and I’m flexible enough to make the plays that I’m used to making,” Rodgers said. “I think when my game becomes a one-dimensional game, I hope that’ll be when it’s time to quit, because I hope I’m able to keep myself in such good physical shape that I can continue to play this way until I’m ready to retire.”