Best, worst NFL QBs of Week 14: Time to get Rodgers some help, optimism for Lock

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers slogged through a surprisingly sluggish game Sunday against the Redskins. On this, we should all agree. The only question is whether it was the result of poor quarterback play, inefficient playcalling, an insufficient supporting cast or some combination of the three.

With crumbling infrastructure around Rodgers, football intelligentsia tiptoed around direct criticism of the uniquely talented quarterback during the final two seasons of the Mike McCarthy era. His tendency to hold the ball well past initial reads can lead to big plays. But is there any way around holding Rodgers accountable for the Packers’ poor offensive performance in their 20-15 victory over the Redskins? The Packers, after all, managed just six points after the first quarter and completed only one pass that traveled more than 15 yards past the line of scrimmage.

We’ll start there for ESPN’s Week 14 QB Awards, our Tuesday assessment of quarterback highs and lows using unique data culled from ESPN Stats & Information and NFL Next Gen Stats.

Waiting, Waiting, Waiting Award: Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers

On paper, Rodgers was provided some hefty advantages against an undermanned Redskins defense. The Packers’ offensive line turned in a dominating performance, allowing their running game to average 4.5 yards before encountering first contact and giving Rodgers 3.5 seconds before his average throw — the longest in a game he has completed in the past four years.

Overall, the Packers’ line recorded the highest pass block win rate of any team in a game this season (92%), according to ESPN metrics that use NFL Next Gen Stats. Rodgers was pressured on only 24% of his dropbacks, his fourth-lowest total of the season. So, why didn’t Rodgers roll up more than 181 passing yards? With all that time, why didn’t he go downfield more often?

There are two possible answers here. The first would suggest that Rodgers either missed open receivers with regularity or didn’t trust his arm to get the ball there. The second, of course, is that there weren’t many open receivers. All we know from a data standpoint is that most of the receivers he did target were open. Accordingly to NFL Next Gen Stats, only 3.6% of his targets were into a tight window, with a defender within one yard of the target. That data, however, does not tell us how close defenders were to other receivers in the play.

What we can glean is that Rodgers was finding and throwing to receivers who had a good chance to make the catch. And an initial viewing of the game suggests that both answers apply.

On a first-down play with 1:55 remaining in the second quarter, for example, Rodgers overlooked multiple open receivers. As analyst Ben Fennell illustrated on Twitter, Rodgers instead tried to escape the pocket and was tackled 2 yards behind the line of scrimmage. Later, on a third down early in the third quarter, Rodgers threw the ball away on a rollout after what appeared to be an incorrect route by at least one receiver. The point is that it would be wrong to completely blame or exonerate Rodgers.

According to game charting from ESPN Stats & Information, 22.5% of his passes were off-target, the ninth-highest rate in Week 14. He certainly made some poor throws, and when you consider them in the context of Rodgers’ 56.5 QBR since the start of the 2018 season, you realize he has objectively played at a lower level during the past two seasons than during the height of his career. He is like many other quarterbacks in the league: He needs help from his teammates, and not just some of them.

Buzz Lightyear Award: Drew Lock, Denver Broncos

The Broncos have won both of Lock’s starts this season, the second courtesy of the highest single-game QBR (98.7) for a quarterback not named Lamar Jackson this season. QBR tends to favor quarterbacks who stress defenses in other ways besides the passing game. Jackson does so with zone-read plays. So, it’s worth noting that Lock took off only three times and gained 15 yards in the Broncos’ rout of the Texans on Sunday.

So what did Lock do to merit this week’s QBR? Most notably, he was exceptional against a variety of defenses the Texans used.

In building a 31-3 halftime lead for the Broncos, Lock was 8-of-9 on passes against the blitz and 4-of-5 when he was under duress. He also completed 4 of 5 passes that traveled more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage and made plays when the Texans played back in coverage, shredding their four-man pass rush for 14 completions and three touchdowns on 16 attempts.

Of course, it’s only fair to note that the Texans entered the game ranked No. 21 in defensive QBR (54.0), having surrendered the fifth-most touchdown passes (25) in the league through 13 weeks. But they had stifled the Patriots seven days before. I know you want me to conclude that Lock has shown potential to reach “infinity and beyond,” in homage to the Buzz Lightyear “Toy Story” character after whom he modeled Sunday’s celebration. But after two starts, let’s just say Lock has given Broncos fans a reason for optimism at the end of a lost season.

Speak Up Award: Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

Mayfield was shamed into apologizing Sunday, shortly after he implied that the Browns’ medical staff had mishandled receiver Odell Beckham Jr.’s sports hernia injury in training camp. But while his comments might have been poorly timed, overshadowing a victory that kept the Browns on the fringe of the playoff picture, they brought necessary attention to a mostly misunderstood part of the NFL injury landscape.

NFL teams fanatically minimize public information about the physical condition of players, in part for liability issues but mostly for competitive reasons. Teams believe the fewer details available about a player’s injuries, the better. This approach does a grave disservice to players, whose performances are rarely seen in the proper context with their health. The Browns had referred to Beckham’s injury as a “hip” or “groin” since training camp, but it wasn’t until Sunday that multiple reports identified it as a sports hernia.

Beckham’s 59-catch, two-touchdown season makes a lot more sense when you realize he has been playing through an injury that ultimately will require surgery to correct. And in his case, as Mayfield’s comments point out, there was a point during the summer where a decision was made to forgo that surgery and avoid missing games. Such decisions can be enormously frustrating to players, who are trying to help their teams even though their performance will likely be compromised with no public explanation.

Mayfield almost certainly was trying to use his platform to back up a teammate. The message might have come out at the wrong time, but generally speaking, we need more public discussion about the health of football players — not less.

Dime of the Week Award: Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks

Wilson might have lost ground to Baltimore’s Jackson in the MVP race, but he is still completing an absurd number of passes that require a high level of precision. His 35-yard throw Sunday night to receiver DK Metcalf was the latest example.

On the play, Russell drifted left in the pocket and then fired a dart down the left sideline on third-and-22. Metcalf was 1.3 yards away from the sideline and surrounded by two Rams defenders when he caught the ball. The play had a 16.2% completion probability, making it the most difficult connection of Week 14.

Overall this season, Wilson has added 5.3% to his expected completion rate, the second most for quarterbacks who have started the majority of the season. He is also responsible for four of the 14 most difficult throws of the season, a group for which Sunday’s dime to Metcalf does not even qualify.

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