There are many things about the NFL Network's annual Top 100 Players poll that give pause. Of course, that's the way it should be -- these things are subjective, and even if you don't think that Tim Tebow should be on the list at all, or that any NFL player ranking that doesn't have Justin Smith in the top 5 is a load of hooey (two opinions of mine), there can be little doubt as to who the best player in 2011 was. The only question might be, where is the beginning and end of your selection criteria? Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was named the NFL's best player in the Network's player-set list, and if you're going by just the regular season, there's really nobody else it could be.
"It's very humbling. It's a great honor," Rodgers told the NFL Network following the show in which he was named the top man. "Anytime you're recognized with that professional respect from your peers, that really means a lot to me. So I'd like to thank them for the votes. Obviously this is a recognition that doesn't get done without an incredible group of people around you. That's often lost when the focus is on one individual. My teammates, my coaches, our tens of thousands of owners that we have there in Green Bay and across the country -- I've got to give them a lot of thanks as well."
Drew Brees finished second in the poll, and Tom Brady dropped from first last year to fourth this time.
"There are so many incredible players on that list," Rodgers said of the competition. "Often the quarterback in our game gets a lot of the focus, but if you look at that list, all the way down to 100, it's a great thing for the league. There just so many great players. Great young players, great guys kind of in the middle of their career and veterans playing at a high level as well. I'm fortunate and blessed to have this recognition but Tom [Brady] to me is still that high watermark that I've been trying to get to. And the way that Drew [Brees] has played the last couple years, especially breaking the record last year. He's playing incredible. And those are guys whose careers I'd like to model my own after."
He's already there. Put simply, and even in a quarterback-driven league, Rodgers redefined productivity and efficiency in ways that even Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees have not done. His 2011 passer rating (a flawed stat, we know) of 122.5 was the best in any single season in NFL history. His Adjusted Net Yards per Pass Attempt of 9.39 yards per pass was the second-best of all time, behind Manning in 2004. His interception percentage against attempts (1.2 percent) was one of the best in history among qualifying quarterbacks, but it's far more impressive because he threw 45 touchdowns to just six interceptions, which gave him a touchdown percentage of 9.0 percent, the second-best of the 16-game era, behind Manning's 9.9 percent in 2004. Only three players have cracked the 9.0 mark in yards per pass attempt in the new millennium -- Manning in 2004, Kurt Warner in 2000 and Rodgers last season.
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So, we see a lot of Manning's 2004 season here, and we may well wonder -- why is Rodgers' 2011 season more impressive? Well, start with the fact that in 2004, Manning benefited from a running back in Edgerrin James, who rushed for over 1,500 yards that season. Makes play action a lot easier when you have that than when your leading rusher trucks for 578 yards, as James Starks did. John Kuhn was the Packers' goal-line weapon in 2011, and he scored four rushing touchdowns. Rodgers scored three. Adding the fact that teams are playing far more nickel and dime defenses than ever before, and it's clear that Rodgers is doing his thing with more defensive options arrayed specifically against him.
Rodgers' mobility underscores another key aspect of his value -- in the last three seasons, per several different metrics, only Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger are consistently more efficient when flushed out of the pocket than when they're in the pocket or throwing from a designed rollout or other quarterback motion play. That's the most frustrating thing for defenders facing him -- just when you think you've got him on the run, you figure out that this is where he wants to be.
Here's the scary part -- Rodgers could be this good for a while. He won't turn 29 until Dec. 2, he has the best overall receiver corps in the NFL, he and head coach/offensive guru Mike McCarthy are in lock-step, and while his touchdowns may regress a bit (45 in one season after an average of 28.7 per season in the previous three years), his interceptions should stay low, his mobility should continue to be a serious plus, and if he can get a balanced offense around him ... well, who knows? He could put up even sillier numbers if the stars align.
That's why Aaron Rodgers is the consensus No. 1 player in the NFL -- he makes us wonder if we're looking at a quarterback the likes of which we've never seen before.
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