Super/Human: Understanding Aaron Rodgers

Aaron Rodgers puts up superhuman stats and seems magically averse to mistake-making. But his dominance comes from a very human place.
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The last few years have aroused a vague but persistent suspicion that Aaron Rodgers was and is cheating at football. How he would do this is unclear, but to spend time watching Rodgers play has been to become more and more convinced.

In 2009, Rodgers threw 30 touchdown passes and only 7 interceptions; in 2010, a more modest but still mindblowingly good 28 TDs/11 INT; in 2011, 45(!) over 6(!!) on the way to setting the single-season record in passer rating; he finished this year at 35/8. His career TD/INT ratio, at 3.72, is the best in NFL history among QBs with enough throws for the stat to be meaningful, and it’s not even close: he’s one full touchdown per interception better than the second-best, Tom Brady, at 2.72. Somewhere along the line, Aaron Rodgers figured out how to stop throwing picks while putting up the same kind of numbers—and the same volume of big plays—as passers who commit the aforementioned cardinal quarterbacking sin way more often. There are some good explanations for all this. The best one, though, or the one that feels most right in the face of this evidence, is that Rodgers is cheating, or has cracked some sort of code.

Put yourself in the mindset of a twentysomething Packers fan. Growing up on Brett Favre has conditioned these fans to a certain outlook on probability: for every three beautiful long balls down the middle, there must be two mid-sack shovel passes delivered straight to defensive linemen. (Really, it’s almost exactly 3:2; Favre’s career TD/INT was 1.51.) Now, come with me one step further: try to put yourself in the mindset of a twentysomething Packers fan who, after moving to Los Angeles in 2009 and sleeping through the start of many Sunday games—this is my personal protest against the idea of football at 10 AM—has discovered the magic of setting a DVR recording for the start of the game, then joining an hour or two later. 

This someone is able to skip all commercials and timeouts, to rewind and fast-forward at will, and even to go straight from the end of one play to the start of another as if I was editing together a cut of the game for ESPN Classic. Not only does this remove the getting-screamed-at-about-warrantees-by-Denis-Leary aspect from the game, but it provides a purer sense of what’s happening. It is also the single easiest way to confirm that Aaron Rodgers is some kind of Time Lord. 

***

What’s special about Rodgers is not just the plays he makes, but the alternate realities he avoids. It’s one thing to connect for 250-plus passing yards per game; five active quarterbacks do that. But to do that while largely avoiding interceptions, fumbles, misread blitzes, and the kind of season-ending or career-ending injuries that afflict and destroy similarly mobile quarterbacks: that is not something other quarterbacks do, and it crosses the line into alchemy.

This is, oddly or not, even more evident when viewed from a couch in Los Angeles with a DVR-empowered remote control in hand. With the power over the temporal state of the football game that remote allows, Rodgers is revealed ever more clearly as something like the protagonist of Braid albeit transplanted from a puzzle-platform video game to the gridiron. There’s no evidence of this, although of course there wouldn’t be, but the results bear it out: Rodgers is capable of rewinding time and making a different decision whenever everything goes to hell.

Remember the pick Rodgers threw to Troy Polamalu in Super Bowl XLV? Of course you don’t, Rodgers rewinded that and redid it. The ACL sprain that took him out halfway through this year’s shellacking of the Texans, and took the Packers out of 2012 playoff contention? That never happened either—not, at least, after Rodgers fixed it.

Naturally, he can’t undo everything bad, or people would get suspicious. For verisimilitude’s sake he leaves in a handful of concussions, balls knocked out of his hand from behind, a bad call in Seattle, some handoffs to Alex Green. These are the minor mistakes. Aaron Rodgers knows enough not to distort the space/time continuum for picayune stuff.

After Aaron Rodgers warps time, he has to then, Men In Black-style, convince the entire audience that it didn’t see what it thinks it saw. This works on ordinary people, but would not, I thought, work on me. When I made it to the Metrodome on Sunday to see Rodgers play live for the first time in my life, I had a nagging fear that my secret knowledge of his Time Lord status might somehow counteract Rodgers’ power. And for a bit, this really did seem the case: over a total of six dismal plays in the first quarter, the Packers ran twice, threw a pass tipped by a Viking and another that was almost intercepted, and completed two to Jermichael Finley. Why, unless something was terribly wrong, would a master of time and space ever choose to throw to Jermichael Finley?

Which, you know the answer to this: Aaron Rodgers is just a very talented guy who knows what risks to take, and who has the ability to make those decisions stick. Over the next three quarters, Aaron Rodgers proceeded to show me exactly why I had been thinking about him all wrong. A quarterback of such astute awareness and fast-twitch genius has no need for superpowers. It’s good enough for Aaron Rodgers just to be Aaron Rodgers.

***

On third and goal in the second quarter, down by 13 points, most quarterbacks are in “touchdown or die trying”-mode. Rodgers, on the other hand, took a more gradual approach. He threw another ball to an obviously-held Finley, drawing attention to the penalty and buying the Pack another three downs, all of which they would need. In real time and this real context, this wasn’t the play of some omniscient time god; it was a smart, economical decision, unflashy and low-risk and offering an improved chance of eventual reward.

Later in the same quarter, about to get sacked with thirty seconds left and no timeouts, Rodgers went down quickly and voluntarily, hurried up the offense, threw a quick screen to Finley (again!), who picked up a few yards and made it out of bounds to set up a field goal. It’s the kind of situation that would have doomed Favre—or, for that matter, any number of self-styled hero QBs who prioritize throwing up a terrible pass over taking a sack. This was not lordly or grandiose or anything but humble and smart and weirdly, almost disturbingly calm

Rodgers isn’t superhuman anymore than any quarterback is, and his constant hedges reflect his awareness of that. A few more downs is a better deal than a forced ball. A good look at a field goal is better than a hero-balling Hail Mary. If Rodgers has a superhuman gift, it’s that he can somehow think, amid all that violence and noise, in the dry percentages of efficiency and risk-avoidance. And this, not the ability to turn back time, is how he avoids throwing interceptions.

If it was a shock to me to realize that Rodgers was human, it was a bigger to shock to realize that there was a genuine superhuman on the field in the dome. Adrian Peterson, at this point perhaps the strongest candidate for the league’s MVP, is an artist in the medium of football. He’s fast, smart, runs with vision and purpose, and seems to be drawn toward the opposing end zone by some impossibly strong invisible power. He exudes strength while never seeming to need it, twisting his body sideways to evade a defender or slip through a hole. The human shrapnel in his wake suggests that it would hurt like hell for him to run into you, but Peterson seems more inclined to flow around a defender than to smash directly into one; he’s a current, not a wave. Whatever your metaphor of choice, Peterson at his best seems more than human, and accomplishes more on his own than any individual is supposed to be able to do in this most collective of sports.

Aaron Rodgers will never be and can never be that kind of overwhelmingly athletic presence. His last moments on the field on Sunday were spent throwing a back-shoulder pass to Jordy Nelson for a touchdown. It was the quintessential Rodgers play: a short, accurate pass, placed exactly where his receiver can get it, and no one else can touch it. He assessed the situation, minimized risk, and made his decision. After that, there’s only so much any human can do.

Illustration by David Rappoccio.


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