Is Aaron Rodgers the Best NFL Quarterback at Exploiting Defensive Penalties?

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is arguably the best passer in the game -- in more ways than you know.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is heralded as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history due to his incredible blend of intelligence, athleticism, and arm strength.

Rodgers currently holds the career record for Passer Rating among NFL quarterbacks (minimum 1,500 passing attempts), is fourth in career passing yards per attempt, tops in career interception rate, and is one of two post-merger quarterbacks to rank in the top-10 in career touchdown rate.

Long story short: he’s really good.

One part of Rodgers’ game that is also unparalleled, however, is his ability to catch opposing defenses committing penalties. His hard count is one of the best ever at getting offsides or neutral zone infraction calls, he routinely catches opponents with too many men on the field, and he can sucker even the best defensive backs into committing pass interference.

Though much is made of this skill anecdotally, we haven’t seen its value quantified. With numberFire’s incredibly incisive  Net Expected Points (NEP) metric helping us to assign value to plays, we can now examine just how much the game awareness of the Green-and-Gold’s signal-caller is worth.

So, how good is Aaron Rodgers at getting free plays?

There’s No Such Thing as a Free Play

First, let’s define what we mean by a “free play” and how we track those plays down. When football folks talk about a free play, they tend to mean any penalty committed by the defense that allows the offense to gain an extra down or extra yardage by jumping across the line early or messing with a receiver: offside, encroachment, neutral zone infraction, defensive holding, defensive illegal contact, defensive pass interference, etc. These allow a no-harm chance for the offense to take a big shot downfield and then choose to enforce the penalty if they fail or decline if they’d have earned more yardage without it.

We do draw a distinction, however, between “free play” penalties and defensive personal fouls -- such as facemasking, roughing the passer, unnecessary roughness, or unsportsmanlike conduct. Those are really just the cherry on top for an offense, but they’re not something the quarterback themselves can help to influence.

Aaron Rodgers has been vocally recognized as one of the best quarterbacks in the league to draw opposing defenses offsides on hard counts (where the quarterback barks to simulate the real snap count), and can purportedly spot defenses manhandling his receivers with ease. But just how good is he?

The table below shows the top-six offenses in the NFL in terms of “free plays” gained from a defense.

Rank Team Total Penalties
1 Green Bay Packers 40
2 New York Giants 33
3 Arizona Cardinals 32
4 Indianapolis Colts 31
5 Carolina Panthers 29
6 San Diego Chargers 29

There are some notable veterans in this list of quarterbacks, with Rodgers, Eli Manning, Carson Palmer, Andrew Luck and Matt Hasselbeck, and Philip Rivers. All of these passers are savvy enough to notice when defenses are out of position and take advantage of their carelessness.

Still, a total number of penalties doesn’t tell us as much as we’d like. We can gather from this that Rodgers gets the most of these kinds of calls (by a longshot), but does he get the most value out of them?

Penalty Shot

numberFire has made it possible for us to glean this kind of performance data right from the play-by-play information of a game. If you’ve watched any games recently with  numberFire Live sitting open on your laptop beside you, you know how incredibly insightful these Win Probability and Expected Points analytics can be, especially when seen in real time.

I mentioned Net Expected Points (NEP) before; how will this help us figure out how good quarterbacks are at getting free yardage? NEP helps us take the numbers we get from the box score and assign them contextual value so they relate even closer to the game on the field. By adding down-and-distance value, we can see just how much each play and each team as a whole influence the outcome of games. For more info on NEP, check out our glossary.

By looking at how many yards the penalties gained for the offense, as well as adjusting for the down the penalty occurred on, we can get a better idea of how impactful a penalty was and, therefore, its value.

Which quarterbacks take the most advantage of defensive carelessness?

The table below compares the top 12 teams in the league with at least 25 free play penalties in terms of yards gained, NEP gained, and cumulative Win Probability Added (WPA). Who reigns supreme?

Rank Team Yards NEP WPA
1 Green Bay Packers 404 (1st) 50.93 (1st) 95.77 (6th)
2 New York Giants 314 (3rd) 37.57 (3rd) 96.56 (5th)
3 Arizona Cardinals 383 (2nd) 40.92 (2nd) 87.70 (9th)
4 Indianapolis Colts 252 (7th) 36.62 (4th) 101.66 (3rd)
5 Carolina Panthers 191 (17th) 27.86 (12th) 54.89 (19th)
6 San Diego Chargers 203 (15th) 28.37 (11th) 64.69 (14th)
7 Minnesota Vikings 246 (9th) 29.35 (10th) 85.92 (10th)
8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 268 (5th) 33.23 (6th) 78.07 (11th)
9 Houston Texans 169 (22nd) 23.11 (19th) 47.36 (22nd)
10 Denver Broncos 190 (18th) 24.48 (18th) 59.93 (16th)
11 St. Louis Rams 251 (8th) 29.67 (9th) 59.78 (17th)
12 Tennessee Titans 242 (10th) 32.96 (7th) 97.24 (4th)

The results are in, and it’s clear: the only team that comes anywhere near the Packers in terms of value added through defensive penalties is the New York Giants, and they are a solid step down in value, though right behind in rankings. Across the board, Rodgers’ Packers top the charts in penalty totals, penalty yardage, penalty NEP gained, and still have a strong showing in total Win Probability Added.

While things like a quarterback’s awareness or hard count seem hard to define, quantifying the results of these types of penalties allows us to break this data apart and really see who reigns supreme in these traits from a tangible perspective.

And in this arena, Aaron Rodgers is as good as advertised.