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Dougherty: Aaron Rodgers taking more risks with his body in determined bid for second ring

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GREEN BAY - The play that jumps out most about Aaron Rodgers’ 2021 season isn’t a spectacular throw or any of the touchdown passes that have convinced odds-makers to make him a slight favorite over Tom Brady for NFL MVP with three games to play.

No, it was a failed scramble for the end zone against the then NFC-leading Arizona Cardinals in Week 8 that stands out.

With less than four minutes to play in that game and the Green Bay Packers’ lead down to four points, Rodgers had a chance to put away the win. Facing third-and-goal from the Cardinals’ 5, Rodgers took the shotgun snap, was pressured quickly and bolted the pocket. With nobody open he scrambled to his left and went for the end zone with one fast-closing defender between him and the goal line, and three others in pursuit from the side.

As Rodgers crossed the line of scrimmage, his chances for scoring didn’t look good, but he put his head down and went for it anyway rather than slide and live to fight another day. The Cardinals slammed the door and stopped him just inside the 1. But the outcome didn’t change the fact that Rodgers, about two months shy of his 38th birthday, took a big risk – he easily could have sustained a concussion or taken a shot to his throwing shoulder – to win a game in mid-October.

It was one of several times this season Rodgers has taken the hit rather than sliding to safety when he has ventured outside the pocket – in fact, he took two more just last week on scrambles in the Packers’ 31-30 win over the Baltimore Ravens.

It sure seems that in what might be Rodgers’ last year with the Packers, he has been taking a few more calculated risks with his body than in the past few years. The difference is subtle, whether he has been scrambling or taking the occasional hit while delivering the ball from the pocket. But it surely appears to be the case even if Rodgers doubts it.

“It’s just about doing the right thing,” Rodgers said this week. “Sometimes you feel like if you’re at 8 yards you might as well try to get to 10. But I’m trying to be smart out there and trust my instincts.”

Rodgers obviously knows a quarterback can’t take a lot of shots, either in the pocket or outside it, if he wants to stay on the field long. One reason he’s still in good football health at age 38 is because he has learned how not to take the big hit, either by getting the ball out fast or sliding when he runs. Nobody’s suggesting it’s a good idea for Packers’ most important player to stand there and take shot after shot, especially at age 38.

But even if it’s infrequent, there are times when to win a game a quarterback has to take the hit as he delivers the ball rather than throw it away, or go for that extra yard on a scramble rather than take the safety slide.

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Matt LaFleur referred to that mind-set shortly after taking the Packers coaching job in 2019 when he talked about “no-flinch” throws and referenced videotape he’d found of Rodgers standing in the pocket and snapping off a throw to Jordy Nelson just before taking a shot by the New York Jets’ Bart Scott in a 2010 game.

“One of my favorite clips of him,” LaFleur said at the time.

It even carries over to throwing occasionally into the tightest of windows, as Rodgers did last week to Marquez Valdes-Scantling near the end of the first half against the Ravens. Rodgers took a calculated risk with less than a minute to go before halftime and zipped a throw to Valdes-Scantling over the middle even though he had to fit the ball over one linebacker and just past the ear of another who was right on the receiver’s hip, with a safety a few yards behind the play as well. It was the kind of throw you’d more expect to see from Brett Favre than Aaron Rodgers.

When asked this week about the risk-reward of that kind of play, LaFleur went through some of the factors the quarterback has to consider – the game situation, the level of trust in the receiver, the type of coverage. Then he got to the most important:

“The one thing that is so imperative, especially at the quarterback position,” LaFleur said, “is you better be decisive and you better be on time. And as long as our guys are doing that, I feel confident they’re going to make the right decision.”

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That throw was decisive, as was his run against Arizona. It’s hard not to wonder if Rodgers is feeling more urgency than ever to win a second Super Bowl. In the decade since winning the title in the 2010 season, he has lost four NFC championship games, including last year as a home favorite against Tampa Bay. It’s worth noting, by the way, that one of the most important plays of the Packers’ win over Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV was Rodgers’ risky third-and-10 completion to well-covered Greg Jennings down the middle seam while protecting a three-point lead late in the fourth quarter.

“(Rodgers) is trying to win a ring and pushing the envelope to do whatever it takes,” said a scout who works in the NFC West Division.

Rodgers might doubt there’s anything to that, but one stat at least hints at a subtle shift in his play. According to Pro Football Focus, with only three games to go he’s on pace to take more hits (32) – that is, hits on plays where he still got the throw off – than in any season going back to at least 2015.

It might not seem like a bid deal, but Super Bowl seasons can come down to a handful of plays, and that includes taking calculated risks you wouldn’t take very often.

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