Dougherty: Aaron Rodgers still deadly throwing on the run, and now it's often by design
GREEN BAY - For the last few years of Mike McCarthy’s time as coach, the Green Bay Packers’ offense revolved around Aaron Rodgers breaking the pocket and making plays.
It’s not that much of an exaggeration to say the extended play was the Packers’ offense. It all was geared to Rodgers’ ability to throw on the run.
One of the striking changes in Matt LaFleur’s two seasons as coach is that while Rodgers is still making his share of throws on the move, a lot more of them are designed bootlegs rather than scrambles when the play breaks down. Even more striking, a large majority of those bootlegs are to Rodgers’ left, which is a much tougher throw for a right-handed quarterback than going to his right.
It’s a change that has helped Rodgers play some of the best football of his career this season and put him in the running for his third NFL MVP. He’s not the favorite — that would be Patrick Mahomes who according to the oddsmaker Bovada has 2-to-9 odds of winning his second MVP, whereas Rodgers’ are 4-to-1.
But three-quarters of the way through the season, Rodgers is having one of the best years of his career, at least statistically. His passer rating (118.5) is the third-best of his career through 12 games, behind only his MVP seasons of 2011 (125.3) and 2014 (118.6). His yards per attempt (9.5) are his best since ’14 (9.5), and his completion percentage (68.9) will be the highest of his career as a starter if he maintains this pace.
There are several reasons for his resurgence in a season in which he turned 37 a little more than a week ago, but one of them is LaFleur tapping into Rodgers’ ability to throw on the run, but often doing it by design rather than asking him to always manufacture plays on his own.
“I do enjoy how much we move the pocket,” Rodgers said this past week. “You know, it's not always on-the-run stuff, but we do a lot of (play-)action stuff that gets me into different launch points for — I’ve always been good throwing on the run either way.”
Just how good is Rodgers on the run? This week I asked two scouts who have been working in the NFL since the mid-1990s to rank the three best passers on the run they’ve ever seen.
One said Mahomes, Rodgers and Russell Wilson. The other, Rodgers, Wilson and “maybe Michael Vick.”
“Enough mobility to extend the play, excellent field of vision, deadly accurate!” was how one described Rodgers via text.
“Accuracy, dual threat,” said the other. “As you know, you better move that pocket or your QB won’t make it through the season.”
Especially noteworthy with Rodgers is how often he bootlegs to his left. In the last four games — against Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Chicago and Philadelphia — he has had 20 bootlegs. Fourteen were to his left.
His stats on those 14 are eye-catching: 12-for-12 passing for 125 yards and two touchdowns, which comes to a 149.6 rating. He also had two runs — a 1-yard sack for which he chided himself in a Zoom conference afterward for not throwing the ball away, and a 4-yard run on a first down.
Going to his right, he was 4-for-5 for 49 yards, plus a 5-yard touchdown run.
A good share of those boots to his left were underneath throws for modest gains — eight were completions of anywhere from 2 to 6 yards. So a lot of them were just keeping the sticks moving.
But also part of the mix were a 24-yard completion to Davante Adams, a 36-yarder to Marcedes Lewis and a 39-yard touchdown pass to Robert Tonyan. Also, one of the most impressive was a 2-yard touchdown toss to Allen Lazard against the Bears when Rodgers moved left, then threw back across his body over the middle for the touchdown.
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It’s not like Rodgers is the only quarterback in the NFL who can throw while running to his weak hand, but you’d have a hard time finding someone better. And one reason it works is defenses aren’t used to passers throwing accurately and downfield when running away from their throwing arm.
Rodgers said that going back to high school he was taught when rolling left to point his shoulder at the target while he ran. But when McCarthy came to the Packers in 2006, which was Rodgers’ second season in the NFL, quarterbacks coach Tom Clements coached him to run normally to his left until he was ready to throw, then flip his hips and fire.
He said one of his “least favorite” drills each offseason was a bag drill where the quarterbacks drop back, step over a series of footwork bags as they move laterally, then throw a deep comeback while on the move.
“What you learned on that is how fast you can run and flip your hips at the last minute to be able to throw an accurate pass,” Rodgers said. “I do credit and appreciate Tom and all the guys who we did that with …
“That was really important in my development of just kind of honing those fundamentals and learning how I could run it full speed, right or left, and still throw an accurate ball. And it really comes down to the timing of flipping your hips and shoulders in harnessing the speed in order to throw an accurate football.”
Rodgers still is making the occasional scramble play, too, and there are other reasons at age 37 he’s having one of his best seasons. But those boots are a sure sign that LaFleur’s offense is working for Rodgers as much as he’s working for it.