The fearless quarterback wins in January (and February)
Joe Burrow and Matthew Stafford, unlike the league MVP, haven't been afraid to drive the ball downfield. Not surprisingly, they're playing each other in the Super Bowl.
Award shows stink. They’re only worth watching for the minuscule chance that the host will roast somebody. Of course, the last two decades, even this has been watered down to corny nothingness with everybody offended by everything. RIP, Norm MacDonald, and his ether of an ESPY’s monologue. Give some credit to Keegan-Michael Key for trying his best last night at “NFL Honors,” given the ultra-sensitivity of our times.
His line that Patrick Mahomes “forgot how to play football” after seeing a picture of Joe Burrow’s outfit at halftime wasn’t too bad when the camera zoomed in on a stone-faced Travis Kelce.
Of course, Key could’ve really needled the man of the hour: Aaron Rodgers.
The Green Bay Packers quarterback locked up his fourth MVP award last night but, oh, I don’t know, Key could’ve jabbed Rodgers for dubbing 2021 as some sort of “Last Dance”-like, Michael Jordan-like run when, it turns out, he’s essentially Karl Malone. A perfectly dominant regular-season quarterback, all Rodgers has done for a decade is fall short in the games that matter most. He has said himself that legacies are defined in the playoffs so all four of these MVP ceremonies sure ring hollow given all four have come after playoff defeats in 2011, 2014, 2020 and 2021. And no playoff loss was more damning than this season’s defeat at Lambeau Field to the Jimmy Garoppolo-quarterback 49ers. The Packers produced all of 10 points on offense and Rodgers’ apathetic performance was the reason.
Which brings us to the Super Bowl. The difference between the two quarterbacks playing on Sunday and a guy like Rodgers says everything you need to know about this Rams vs. Bengals showdown. Whereas Rodgers played afraid of his own shadow against the 49ers — refusing to throw it downfield or into coverage or toward any wide receiver who’s not No. 17 — both Matthew Stafford and Joe Burrow play the position fearlessly. So, it’s high time we all rethink how we judge quarterback play in 2022 and beyond. Let’s quit obsessing over passer rating, for starters. Given how these rules are set up for all quarterbacks, a passer rating above 100 doesn’t mean much anymore. It’s time to take this statistic out to pasture once and for all. Let’s also quit drooling over the fact that any quarterback can go an entire season with single-digit interceptions, too.
Attempting 531 passes in a season while throwing only four picks is impressive, as Rodgers did in 2021, but how many plays did he leave on the table? How many times did he fail to give someone a chance? I thought Bob McGinn put it perfectly. This Packers offense was “more efficient than explosive.” That’s on the MVP quarterback.
Stafford threw an NFL-high 17 interceptions with four pick-sixes. Not good!
Burrow was sacked an NFL-high 51 times and threw 14 picks himself. Not good!
But guess what? Both were unbothered. They trotted back out the next drive and kept taking shots deep. This is a sport built on the vision of men like Don Coryell. Long ago, the San Diego Chargers mastermind of a coach created an offense that slams the gas pedal for four quarters and most everyone else has been copying it since. I’ll take this mentality over a passive one. Burrow and Stafford play the position like apex predators — that’s what wins rings.
Hey, guilty as charged. No way did I think we’d see Stafford in a Super Bowl. As bad as his rosters were in Detroit, he still had that nasty habit of making a mistake at the worst possible time. Nonetheless, head coach Sean McVay believed Stafford would unlock new pages in his playbook, and he was right. Stafford completed 18 passes of 40-plus yards this season, the most in the league, and those are the type of plays that change games. Cincinnati threw the ball considerably less — Burrow’s 520 pass attempts ranked 15th — yet the QB finished with an NFL-best yards per attempt.
Limiting turnovers is important… but big plays matter more.
Both are entertaining quarterbacks who will go down swinging. Not throwing the ball away.
Somewhere, Coryell is smiling.
Possibly, Matt LaFleur wanted Rodgers to test the 49ers’ so-so secondary more deep. As wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling explained last offseason, the Packers’ offense is a blend of two playbooks — what LaFleur calls and what Rodgers actually audibles at the line of scrimmage. He has full autonomy to do whatever he wants presnap, and thanked LaFleur for such freedom in his MVP acceptance speech on Thursday night. But if the Packers needed more proof to rip the Band-Aid off and move on, that loss to the 49ers should’ve done the trick. Rodgers wasn’t under duress as LaFleur suggested. As noted, Rodgers had 3.5, 5.5, 3.0, 3.5 and 3.2 seconds to throw on his five sacks. More than enough time to make a decision.
Rodgers was resistant to keep the ball in play and when he had Allen Lazard wide open on a crosser to keep a game-winning drive alive late, he forced an incompletion to Davante Adams. Even his final 225-yard total was inflated by Aaron Jones’ 75-yard catch-and-run. The Packers seem publicly content with Rodgers’ postseason mediocrity, once again doing everything in their power to convince him to stay. Of course, it beehoves LaFleur and president Mark Murphy to speak this way even if they did want to move on to Jordan Love in 2022. Anything said to contrary would hurt Rodgers’ trade value. If the backdoor agreement made last July gives Rodgers the ability to choose his destination, my money’s on the Denver Broncos. Rodgers likes LaFleur but loves Nathaniel Hackett. Those two have a particularly special relationship.
The trade haul won’t be what it could’ve been a year ago, but Green Bay can still collect a package of players and draft picks to compete next season and beyond. There’s still a lot to love about the roster GM Brian Gutekunst assembled, too. Kenny Clark is a star at defensive tackle. A.J. Dillon’s ascension will continue in 2022. Even with this team’s salary-cap problems, there’s a lane for Gutekunst this spring. He can set this team up to compete now and in the future… if they’re willing to part with a certain quarterback.
But enough of that for now. It’s a long offseason. We’ll get around to examing this all.
Sunday is about the Bengals (and Burrow) and the Rams (and Stafford).
Burrow is going to take his shots to Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. This throw still says everything we need to know about the best quarterback in 2021. On fourth and 5 — trailing San Francisco, 20-6 — Burrow is pressured, does a near-360 to escape right and flings a touchdown to Chase in the back of the end zone. A traditional camera view doesn’t do the play justice, either. Zoom out and you’ll see Chase still running left as Burrow releases the ball right, toward the pylon.
It’s a patently absurd throw that required a dose of everything: athleticism, arm strength, intelligence, touch and, uh, rocks. The Bengals lost this game in overtime, but the 2020 No. 1 overall pick was magnificent.
No doubt, Cincinnati believed getting to the Super Bowl was real that night.
The narrative around Stafford right now would be completely different if Jaquiski Tartt catches a punt return of an interception in the NFC Championship, but he’s going to keep gunning it to give his team a chance to win. Unlike Rodgers, he continued to challenge the 49ers deep and threw for 337 yards. If the Packers did trade for Odell Beckham Jr., would that really have been the difference? He still needs a quarterback gripping it and ripping it.
Deep into the playoffs, everything gets tighter. Receivers rarely ever leak wide open, thus winning in January demands an element of risk. That doesn’t mean a guy like Rodgers is awful this time of year. He’s merely OK. Human. Bleh. Since his epic 2010 run, he has won seven times and lost nine times.
After toiling in Detroit, Stafford finally got the opportunity to bring his style to a do-or-die environment. He’s averaging 9.1 yards per attempt, unloading game-winning throws deep to his all-world receiver and proving many of us wrong. To hell with passer rating. These are the plays that matter most. And we should get used to seeing Burrow treat hostile playoff games like he’s back in Athens, Ohio. He’s a 25-year-old reading the field like a 35-year-old. No hit to the jaw and no interception into a tight window is going to give Burrow the yips Sunday night, either.
Count on this quarterback winning some MVP hardware himself these last 10 years.
Chances are, however, he won’t be able to attend the NFL’s red carpet festivities because Burrow will be preparing for a Super Bowl.