Aaron Rodgers made it look so easy Sunday at the Meadowlands, taking the Green Bay Packers down the field in the final minute for a field goal that won the game and kept his team’s unbeaten season intact with only four weeks to go.
And in doing so, Rodgers added to the lore of a season that could be remembered as the greatest year an NFL quarterback ever has had. Already, experts say, it is clear that Rodgers’s 2011 season will have a prominent place in that conversation.
“Is Aaron Rodgers having the greatest year ever?” Brian Billick, the former Super Bowl-winning coach for the Baltimore Ravens, said recently. “You could certainly make a case for that.”
It is a season overflowing with superb quarterback performances. Drew Brees of New Orleans, Tom Brady of New England and Rodgers all are on pace to break Dan Marino’s single-season NFL record of 5,084 passing yards for the Miami Dolphins in 1984. Brees and Brady are on course to throw 40 touchdown passes apiece, and each has a passer rating above 105. Brees is completing more than 70 percent of his passes.
Yet even they must take a back seat to Rodgers in his season for the ages. Rodgers has completed 70.59 percent of his passes, just behind Brees’s single-season NFL record of 70.62 percent for the Saints in 2009. Rodgers’s current passer rating of 125.3 would top the record of 121.1, set by Peyton Manning for the Indianapolis Colts in 2004.
Rodgers’s 37 touchdown passes with four games left give him a chance to break Brady’s single-season mark of 50 for the Patriots in 2007. That season, Brady had 50 touchdown passes while throwing eight interceptions. Rodgers, at his current rate, would finish this season with 49 touchdown passes and seven interceptions.
Former NFL quarterback Trent Green said he thinks Rodgers’s season probably is headed toward the best ever. He noted that until this past Sunday, Rodgers hadn’t had a game all season with a passer rating below 110. Rodgers’s passer rating Sunday of 106.2 was a season low, though he threw for 369 yards and four touchdowns before leading the game-winning drive with 58 seconds remaining.
“When you talk about someone playing at a consistently high level, he’s doing it,” Green said. “He’s in such a zone. It doesn’t really matter what the defenses bring.”
Said Billick, who’s now an analyst for Fox and the NFL Network: “It’s easy to forget how great those other seasons were. Having said that, he is so special in so many areas. He is so complete in terms of what he can do both in and out of the pocket. He has such a great relationship with his receivers. So yes, it is possible that we may be seeing the best year any quarterback has ever had.”
Former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said the debate will come down to Brady’s 2007 season and Rodgers’s 2011 season.
“Those are the two you would compare,” Bruschi said recently. “It gets harder down the stretch in terms of production. It might come down to converting a key third down to win a game. It’s going to get tighter, and then we’ll have a clearer gauge to compare the two.”
Bruschi said he was, at least at that point, going with Brady’s season.
“Right now I’m going to take Tom Brady,” said Bruschi, an analyst for ESPN. “I know I’m biased a little bit. But I saw it first-hand. I recognize the greatness of what Aaron Rodgers is doing. But I witnessed the entire ’07 year. With the Patriots, we always believed the true football starts after Thanksgiving.”
Rodgers isn’t entering the fray.
“I don’t feel a whole lot of extra pressure because of some of the stuff that’s said about me outside the locker room,” he said Sunday at MetLife Stadium after the triumph over the Giants. “I care about my teammates’ opinions. But I think it is very humbling when you’re mentioned in the same sentence with anybody that I’m fortunate enough to be mentioned in the same sentence with.”
The 38-35 victory over the Giants upped the Packers’ record to 12-0 as they pursue a possible second straight Super Bowl title. Brady’s Patriots won 18 straight games in 2007, all 16 in the regular season and two in the AFC playoffs, before losing to the Giants in the Super Bowl to fall one game shy of what would have been the first 19-0 season in NFL history.
Billick said Rodgers “has probably got to go to the Super Bowl again or maybe that would be the thing that separates Brady’s season from the season that Rodgers is having now.”
Rodgers, Brady, Brees and Manning have played in the most passing-friendly era in NFL history, following rule changes in the past decade that have aided quarterbacks and receivers. The game was played differently when Marino set the passing-yardage record in 1984 and when San Francisco’s Steve Young set a then-record passer rating of 112.8 in 1994. It was played much differently when Sammy Baugh completed 70.3 percent of his passes, third-best ever, for the Washington Redskins in 1945.
“When you look at [Bart] Starr, [Johnny] Unitas and [Bob] Griese,” Billick said, “they were all sub-60 percent passers. It was a different game, different era, different style of play. . . . It’s so difficult to compare to some of the years that Otto Graham or Fran Tarkenton or Bart Starr had.”
But it is virtually indisputable that Rodgers’s season is shaping up as one of the best ever. The passing numbers and the victories dictate that, and Rodgers’s play also has an element of improvisational mastery when he scrambles out of the pocket that less mobile quarterbacks such as Brady and Manning can’t match.
“He doesn’t get frazzled,” Green said. “He throws the ball away sometimes, and yet he’s still completing over 70 percent of his passes. His accuracy gets better and better. There’s no drop-off whether he’s in the pocket or out of the pocket. Some guys can do one or the other. He can do both.”