Thursday, December 2, 2010

NFL Stats Can Be Deceptive: Who Said Aaron Rodgers Was Not Clutch?

This post is also on Bleacher Report.

Of late, there has been a lot of talk about how Aaron Rodgers, the QB for the Green Bay Packers, has problems finishing off "close" games. The win-loss record for the Packers since Aaron Rodgers took over, in "close" games (decided by four points or less), is currently 2-14. Yeah, it does not look good.

Normally, I am a firm believer in the truism: "Stats never lie". But on digging a little deeper into this, we get a very different perspective of that record.

Here, I am going to try classify all those 14 games in terms of what impact Aaron Rodgers had on the outcome.

Side Note: In this post, I am going to analyze only games that qualify as being "close". It is to see how Rodgers fares in crunch time situations. Not an analysis of how good or bad he is overall. There are games where he has been lights out which might have been blow outs. There are games were he has looked awful, which were big margin losses for the Packers. There were games (especially in 2009) where the O line could not keep Rodgers standing even in consecutive snaps. But here, we talk about only games decided by four points or less.

The Wins

Surprisingly, the Packers under Aaron Rodgers never had a "close" game win until this 2010 season.

1. Vs Detroit Lions (Week 4, 2010): GB Win, 28-26
To be honest, this win, although looks close, did not require any "clutch" performance from the GB offense. The defense had to hold off the Lions from coming back and winning in garbage time. Although, they did accomplish that, it ended up being closer than the Packers would have liked.

2. Vs Minnesota (Week 7, 2010): GB Win, 28-24
This was another game, where the Packers had a big lead heading into the 4th quarter, and the onus was on the defense to hold off Brett Favre from taking that lead away. The defense intercepted Favre 3 times and help put this in the bag. But a scoring drive or two for the Packers for some insurance points would have been nice.

The Cough ups

There were some "close" games where, if you had to point the finger at ONE thing for the loss, you would have to blame Rodgers. Interestingly enough, almost all these games were in the 2008 season, which was the first for Rodgers as the starter. Yes, there could be multiple reasons for the following losses, but the common pattern I see in these games is that the Packers had the ball at crunch time and the offense under Rodgers failed to score for the potential win (or tie).

1. At Tennessee Titans (Week 9, 2008): GB Loss, 19-16 OT
The Packers, in the 4th quarter of this game tied 16-16, had the ball at their own 18 with 4:24 left on the clock. They managed to reach the TEN 43 yard line, but went 3 and out and had to punt. Rodgers never got a chance to touch the ball again in the 4th quarter or OT.

2. Vs Carolina Panthers (Week 13, 2008): GB Loss, 35-31
In a tie game (28-28) in the fourth quarter, the Packers execute a long drive to the CAR 1 yard line, but cannot cash in a touch down and are forced to kick a field goal with 2:00 left in the game. A touchdown here here would have, at least, guaranteed a tie game if the Panthers scored a TD (barring a 2 point conversion by the Panthers). Then, in just two plays, that included a 89 yard connection between Delhomme and Steve Smith, the Panthers score a touchdown to take the lead 35-31. Rodgers and the Packers get the ball at their own 17 after the kick off with 1:24 left on the clock and two time outs left. The potential game winning drive is pre-maturely ended by a Rodgers interception with 1:19 left on the clock.

3. Vs Houston Texans (Week 14, 2008): GB Loss, 24-21
In the 4th quarter here, Rodgers threw a 9 yard TD to tie the game with 5:56 left. Packers got the ball back at GB 16 yard line with 4:37 left after a defensive stop. They then reached the HOU 32 yard line (Field Goal range), when on third down, Rodgers got sacked and the Packers were forced to punt from the HOU 38 yard line, passing up a 53 yard field goal. That allowed the Texans to drive 75 yards from their own 3 to kick the game winning field goal as time expired.

4. At Jacksonville Jaguars (Week 15, 2008): GB Loss, 20-16
The Jaguars score a touch down with 2:00 left and take a 20-16 lead. After the ensuing kick off, Rodgers got the ball at the GB 17 with two time outs left. He throws another ill-fated interception with 46 ticks left in the game. Game over.
It is also worth noting that, in the above games, Rodgers was not at his best at crunch time, in a three consecutive games stretch (Week 13 through week 15). It might have been a learning experience for him, as he never really blew a legitimate chance at crunch time after the Jacksonville game in his young career, yet.

5. At Washington Redskins (Week 5, 2010): GB Loss 16-13 OT
Packers were up 13-3 entering the fourth quarter. Somehow, they found themselves tied 13-13 at the end of the 4th quarter. In the 4th quarter, the Packers had four possessions total. Through the first three possessions in the quarter, the Packers had a total of one, yes that's right, ONE total first down. The final possession of the quarter, they finally had something brewing. They started that drive with 1:07 left and Rodgers took them from the own 21 yard line to the WASH 35 yard line. All that for Crosby to miss that 53 yard field goal (which hit the uprights and bounced out). Overtime.

The Packers offense was still anemic, punting on the first possession. After getting a stop on defense, Rodgers had to start the drive from own 19 yard line. The second play of the drive, he threw an interception to LaRon Landry, giving possession to Redskins at GB 39 yard line. That was enough to give the Redskins an easy opportunity to kick a field goal.

Deep Non-Impact

Of the 14 games in question, there were a couple of games where, Rodgers did not play a big part in coughing up. At the same time, he did not step up and come up big either. Simply put, these games had little or no impact from Rodgers at crunch time. Obviously, he is not without fault for losing these games, but he was not one of the major reasons.

1. Vs Atlanta Falcons (Week 5, 2008): GB Loss 27-24
The Packers were already down 27-17 with 3:35 left in the game. Rodgers orchestrated a 72 yard drive that culminated with a 4 yard TD pass. With less than 2 minutes left, the Packers had to try the on side kick, but were unsuccessful in recovering it. Falcons ran out the clock without the Packers touching the ball again.

The reason, I do not classify this as a clutch performance by Rodgers is because he got into his grove a little too late.

2.  At Minnesota Vikings (Week 10, 2008): GB Loss 28-27
The Vikings took the lead 28-21 with 2:22 left in the game. Packers had the ball at the GB 41 after a 31 yard kick off return by Will Blackmon. Rodgers took them to the Vikings 34 yard line. Only for Mason Crosby to miss the 52 yard field goal from there. Rodgers still could have done little more to give Crosby a more make-able game winning field goal.

3. Chicago Bears (Week 16, 2008): GB Loss 20-17 OT
It was a tie game 17-17 with 3:11 left in the game after the Bears kicked a field goal. In the following kick off, Will Blackmon again did his thing with a 30 yard return. A 15 yard penalty was added to this return, giving the ball to Rodgers at the CHI 35 yard line. Rodgers was able to move the ball to the CHI 20 yard line with about 20 seconds left in the game. Crosby's kick was blocked. Game went to OT and the Packers offense never touched the ball again.

Here again, it's not Rodger's fault that they lost, but at the same time, he didn't have to do much to put them in the position they were in.

4. Chicago Bears (Week 3, 2010): GB Loss 20-17
I am sure this game is fresh in everyone's head. The Hester punt return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. The self-inflicted pain caused by the million penalties. The dropped interceptions by Packer defenders. But the back-breaker of them all was the James Jones fumble at mid-field with 2:18 left in the game. The turnover not only stalled a potentially game winning drive, but also gave a short field for the Bears to kick their game-winning field goal.

This was a pretty gutsy performance by Rodgers until that James Jones fumble. But, it is hard to ignore the myriads of opportunities that Rodgers didn't take advantage of all game.
Clutch ...only in vain

1. At Pittsburgh Steelers (Week 15, 2009): GB Loss 37-36
 This was a classic back and forth shoot out. Props should be given to Rodgers here for keeping up the scoring, or else, the game would have gone out of hand mid way through. Towards the end, when the Steelers took the lead with a field goal (30-28) with 4:03 left in the game, they knew, if they kicked off, it was inevitable that the Packers will drive the ball for a score. And they decided to try an on side kick, which was unsuccessful and handed the ball to the Packers on a short field. It took Rodgers six snaps to throw a TD pass that would give the Packers a 36-30 lead (after a successful 2 point conversion) with 1:52 left in the game.

Although there was no artistic clutch drive, I put this game in as a "clutch performance" for Rodgers because he kept the Packers in the game time and again, more often than not, culminating drives into touchdowns. Just too bad that Big Ben had other ideas and the Packers defense could not hold off the Steelers from scoring that game-winning touchdown as time was expiring.

2. Vs Miami Dolphins (Week 6, 2010): GB Loss 23-20 OT
This was one of those games, the Packers will look back and point at countless moments where they could have done a tad little more to get a win. In the fourth quarter, Miami scores a touch down to take a seven point lead (20-13). Rodgers got the ball at own 31 yard after the ensuing kick off with 5:15 left in the game. He had his job cut out: start a 5 minute touch down drive to force over-time without giving enough time for the Dolphins to setup a game-winning drive in regulation. That is exactly what he did; scoring a touchdown with his feet with 13 seconds left on the clock. In overtime, after a defensive stop, he did go three and out. Dolphins kicked the game-winning field goal on the next possession.

Yeah, you can still blame Rodgers for not able to carve up a scoring drive in OT in the only possession he had. But his near-perfect game tying drive to end the fourth quarter, in my mind, warrants a "clutch performance" label for this game.

3. At Atlanta Falcons (Week 12, 2010): GB Loss 20-17
I bet Packer fans, have not gotten over this game, played just a few days ago. This game had the 8-3 Falcons go against the 7-4 Packers. The game was played at the Georgia Dome, which is arguably the toughest place for a visiting team to play this season. This game had the high energy playoff atmosphere as advertised. And I should admit, I was proud by the way the Packers fought, only to lose by a whisker. Here again, you can pick so many spots in this game, where a couple bounces the Packers' way could have changed the complexion of the game.

If you had to analyze Rodger's performance this game, he obviously would have graded badly because of his fumble in the second quarter at the ATL one yard line, essentially taking points off the board. But he more than compensated for that mistake with a drive for the ages towards the end of the game. The Falcons scored a touchdown in the beginning of the fourth quarter to have 20-13 lead. The following possession, the Packers reached the ATL 41, but could not convert third-and-one and fourth-and-one downs from there. After the turnover on downs, Falcons were forced to punt with a gutsy defensive stop.

Now, Rodgers had the ball at his own 10 yard line with 5:59 left in the game. That is where "the drive" started. On the way, he had to convert a fourth down at the ATL 21 yard line with just over two minutes left. He had to do it himself, as the Packers had been unsuccessful all game in converting short yardage downs with their run game. That brought the Packers to the ATL three yard line. But then, they had a couple plays where they lost yardage and then on fourth and goal from the five yard line, they had a false start penalty.

So now it was fourth and goal at the 10 yard line with 1:06 left in the game. This was it. Make a play here, and you are back in the game. Anything less than a TD, you essentially lose the game. The Falcons rush three, sending rest of their defenders into coverage, as they should. Rodgers scrambles to his left and throws a dart to Jordy Nelson in the back of the end zone by the left side line for a touchdown. It doesn't get more clutch than this drive. You can read more details about the drive here.

Unfortunately, it wasn't as perfect a drive as the Packers wanted, leaving 56 seconds on the clock. A big kick off return by the Falcons, plus a face mask penalty giving them a free 15 yards, made it easy for the Falcons to get a game winning field goal, starting the drive around mid-field.

The Verdict

As you can see, Rodgers did have his share of stinker moments (five games, by my count). But most of them were in his first year as a starter. The fact that, his second season as a starter on, he has had just one such game, speaks volumes of his maturity, development and the fact that he learns from his mistakes.

There were a number of games in which Rodgers did nothing to help, nor was he the reason they lost. And there were a couple of games where Rodgers, against all odds, kept the Packers in the game, only to let something else blow it. Like the defense unable to get a stop. Or a missed/blocked field goal.

We can conclude this for sure though: the notion that Rodgers plays sub-par at crunch time is the sole reason for 2-14 Packers record in "close" games is deceiving, to say the least.He will have moments in his potentially long Packer career to salvage that lopsided "close" games record to a more than respectable level. But, in reality, he has already had more "it" moments than what that record indicates. The Packers should consider themselves lucky to have Rodgers at the QB position...locked up for great things to come....for a long long time.

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