The price we pay for great quarterback play is the ability to properly appreciate great quarterback play. It’s the worst part about all of these records being broken. We’ve become so desensitized to greatness that it barely even registers anymore. Take the single-game passing touchdown record. On opening night last year, Peyton Manning threw seven touchdowns. We all went crazy. And then Nick Foles did it a few months later. The reaction? Meh. Been there, done that. Never mind the fact that it had happened only five times in history before the 2013 season, that it hadn’t happened since 1969, and that passing rules had (before yet another revamp in 2014) largely remained stable since 2004, once we’ve seen greatness once, seeing it again isn’t all that great.
Did you know that five quarterbacks are currently on pace to throw at least 40 touchdowns this year? That would be half of the current all-time total, 10. Seven of those belong to active quarterbacks. Six of the seven 5,000 yard passing seasons in history have come from those same active quarterbacks, including five within the past three years. These numbers have become so commonplace that we can no longer separate what deserves our attention and what is just a symptom of the NFL’s pass-juicing rules.
That’s a shame because throwing six touchdowns in one half probably does deserve our attention. Had Aaron Rodgers played the entire game, it’s likely that he would’ve thrown 10. It’s now Thursday and nobody has two words to rub together. We’ve just sort of moved on, like we so often do with Rodgers. It’s so frustrating because it has blinded us to what should be a universal NFL truth: Aaron Rodgers is the greatest quarterback in the history of football. And frankly, it’s not even close.
Let’s examine the numbers. Aaron Rodgers has a career passer rating of 106.2. Only four other quarterbacks in history are within 10 points. The closest, Peyton Manning, is more than eight below at 97.8. That’s a difference of almost 8 percent. Lower Manning’s passer rating by 8 percent? You’d fall between Nos. 12 and 13. In the most widely accepted passing aggregation stat, the difference between Rodgers and literally anyone else is the same as the difference between Nos. 2 and 13. In fact, if you examined that 106.2 number as a single season, Rodgers’ career would qualify as the 25th best of all time. His entire career is better than all but the top 25 single seasons in football history. Manning, in second, would be 94th.
Rodgers’ entire career passer rating is better than all but the top 25 single seasons in football history.
Let’s go back to that single-season stat for a moment. Rodgers holds the record there too, at 122.5 for his 2011 season. He has an outside chance at breaking it this year, but regardless stands a very good chance of having only the third season above 120. One belongs to him, the other, Manning. Those are just his best seasons. In his worst season, his first as a starter in 2008, he posted a 93.8 rating. Again, that was his worst season. Manning and Tom Brady have, combined, posted numbers worse than that in 11 separate seasons.
In fact, on a per-throw basis, he blows Manning and Brady out of the water. Manning, the all-time leader in touchdown passes, has historically thrown a touchdown on 5.9 percent of his passes. Rodgers does so on 6.6 percent of passes. Manning is also likely going to break the all-time passing yardage record. His attempts gain an average of 7.7 yards. The Packers gain 8.2 yards every time Rodgers throws. Even Manning’s legendary completion percentage trails Rodgers, 66 percent to 65.5 percent.
Brady’s statistical claim to fame is his absurdly low interception percentage. He throws an interception on 2 percent of passes. Rodgers does so on only 1.7 percent of passes. For the record, that’s better than every single season in Joe Montana’s career. As much as I disagree with it, the conversation with those two always tends to revolve around playoff numbers. Well you know what? Rodgers beats them there too. He leads the trio in postseason passer rating, completion percentage, interception percentage, and touchdowns per game. He loses to Montana in only one major area: yards per attempt, by a meager .03 yards. Brady loses in every area. He’s an all-time legend, and I love Peyton Manning so much I’ve literally written a book about him (one that I’m ironically now contradicting). But the argument of Manning versus Brady has been resolved. The answer is Aaron Rodgers.
Rodgers does everything that they do, only better. He also does the things they don’t. Rodgers runs for around 250 yards per season. If he maintained that average through his age 38 season, he would end up with around 3,400 yards. That would get him to No. 6 on the quarterback career rushing yards list. Even with the current generation nipping on his heels, it’s a virtual lock that Rodgers ends up somewhere in the top 10.
He’s even the most consistent quarterback in history. He has never thrown four interceptions in a game. He’s only thrown three in a game three times, none since 2009. That’s the same number of times he’s completed less than half of his passes in a game. He’s so consistent that his team just doesn’t fall behind. A good team, or by extension, player, doesn’t win close games, it avoids them. Well, Rodgers has won 64 games in his NFL career and only needed a fourth quarter comeback in seven of them. SEVEN! That’s only 10.9 percent. Both Manning and Brady hover around 20 percent. It’s not that Rodgers isn’t clutch, it’s that he so rarely has to be. But hey, if you’re really into that sort of thing, just look at this year’s game against Miami. Or Week 17 last year against the Bears. When Rodgers has the rare opportunity to be clutch, he nails it.
The argument of Manning versus Brady has been resolved. The answer is Aaron Rodgers.
There’s no quarterback that comes close to Rodgers on paper. In football, he’s absolutely peerless. Among professional athletes, he does have one equal. His name? Michael Jordan.
Consider the 8 percent difference between Rodgers and anyone else in passer rating. Passer rating is the most widely accepted passing aggregation stat. The most widely accepted basketball aggregation stat is PER. Assuming you exclude the Washington years—think of it as a tax for the missed prime years during his first and second retirements—Jordan’s PER is 29.1 (and, for the record, he’d still be the all-time leader even if you include the Washington years and by a comfortable margin). Exclude No. 2 LeBron James because he’s active and basketball players decline at a much faster and more visible rate than quarterbacks, and the next closest finisher is Shaquille O’Neal at 26.43. The difference is 9 percent, pretty damn close to Rodgers at 8 percent.
In fact, the deeper you go with the Jordan-Rodgers comparison, the eerier it becomes. Remember how Rodgers’ entire career aggregated as a season would amount to the 25th best single year ever? If you do the same with Jordan’s PER, he’d be 30th. If you applied the same tactics to touchdowns (with Rodgers per-game numbers multiplied over a full season) and Jordan’s scoring, the pair ends up at 25th and 29th, respectively, with nobody coming close in either league.
Going beyond the numbers, consider the narratives surrounding their careers. Jordan entered the NBA at the height of the Magic-Bird rivalry, only to surpass them both. Rodgers entered the NFL at the height of the Manning-Brady rivalry, only to surpass them both. Jordan lost several potential championship years due to retirement. Rodgers lost several potential championship years waiting for Brett Favre to retire. Jordan was so good that the league decided to change the rules to accommodate him. Rodgers, among others, was so good that the league decided to change the rules to accommodate him.
It’s a worthwhile comparison mainly because there’s just nobody else in his class. Rodgers isn’t just the greatest quarterback of all time; he’s the greatest by such a wide margin that he has to be compared to someone in another sport. Montana was a great player, but more of a winner than an individual talent. That makes him Bill Russell. Brady and Manning are legends, but they’re just the appetizer, Bird and Magic. Aaron Rodgers is Michael Jordan. Let’s hope we haven’t watered the game down so much that we remember him that way.