'King' of the hard count: Why Aaron Rodgers is so good at drawing Packers opponents offside

Written By Billy Heyen
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(Getty Images)

Aaron Rodgers' cadence is familiar: "Green 19," the Packers quarterback will yell. "Green 19, hut."

That homage to the Packers' 1919 founding precedes essentially every Green Bay play. But it's not always exactly the same, and that's where the magic happens. There might be no one better in the NFL at working the hard count, especially in this season's mostly empty stadiums, than Rodgers. If the defense jumps offside, granting Rodgers a free play, he normally takes advantage, too.

“I always heard these rumors about Aaron and the snap count,” Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett told Packers News, “and his ability to get free plays. I think until you’re there and you see it consistently, it’s the darnedest thing you’ll ever see, the way that it’s choreographed, how the guys react. Both the offensive line, running backs and wide receivers, and the intricacies in how those guys disperse, it’s unbelievable. It’s one of those things as a coordinator, you’re just like, hey, do that again.” 

According to that Packers News story, Rodgers hard counts on about 20 percent of Green Bay's offensive snaps. But it keeps the defense honest on 100 percent of the plays that Rodgers runs. If the future Hall of Famer catches the defense off guard, one way or the other, it's major trouble. 

“When he turns it on,” Packers linebacker Christian Kirksey told Packers News, “he’s a bad man.”  

MORE: Aaron Rodgers contract breakdown

Inside Aaron Rodgers' hard count

Rodgers is "the king" of the hard count, Washington pass-rusher Ryan Kerrigan told The Washington Post in October. It's all about the small intricacies within the "Green 19" cadence.

Rodgers may throw in an extra "hut" or the word "set" or sometimes the word "go." Occasionally, he holds the second syllable of 19, almost as if suspending time. 

At least twice in the past two seasons, Rodgers has even yelled the words "hard count," and against the Eagles this season, it worked.

In a story by The Washington Post earlier in the 2020 season, reporter Adam Kilgore spoke with a Wisconsin-area voice coach, Pam Johnson, about what makes Rodgers' hard count so successful. It's because of the way he harnasses the "growl," Johnson said.

“This is authority,” Johnson told The Washington Post of Rodgers' guttural hard count “This is alpha. This is, ‘You do what I tell you to do.’ You don’t even have much choice. You better do what they tell you to do because they have more power.”

That explains why Rodgers can still get defenses to jump even when they probably know it's coming. Something in Rodgers' voice and cadence manages to basically invite defenders to jump across the line early. 

Sometimes, the defense is onto Rodgers. In a 2021 divisional round game against the Rams, Rodgers came to the line not needing to run a play before the quarter expired. That's an obvious hard-count situation, and one Rams defender yelled out "no snap, no snap." Rodgers began the hard count anyway, and L.A. linebacker Kenny Young told him, essentially, that the Rams wouldn't be falling for it.

All it takes is one player to break ranks, though, one player to inch across the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped. That's costly, because Rodgers might be better at dominating free plays than he is at his legendary hard count.

Breaking down Aaron Rodgers' free play success

First, to explain what a "free play" is in this context. When a defender comes across the line of scrimmage early, the offense can still choose to snap the ball. If the first action after that offside defender is the snap, the play can proceed essentially as normal. But there can't be a negative result for the offense, because at the end of the play, the offense can choose to accept the five-yard offside penalty rather than some sort of worse result, like an interception or fumble. So there's no risk, just reward.

The NFL keeps free play statistics but doesn't constantly release them, so for the sake of showing Rodgers' dominance, we'll use 2019 numbers that date back to 2006 from NFL.com. In that time, Rodgers threw more passes on free plays (84) than anyone in the NFL. And in that span, Rodgers threw for about 900 air yards on free plays than anyone else (air yards being how far a given throw travels in the air).

Rodgers averaged 25 air yards per free play throw tracked by the dataset. For context, he averaged 7.7 air yards per throw in his likely MVP 2020 season. Essentially, if Rodgers gets the defense to jump, he's always throwing deep, and his receivers know it.

In 2017, former Packers receiver Jordy Nelson told ESPN that the Packers have a code word that alerts the receivers that Rodgers is going to try to hard count and win a free play for his offense. 

"It's one word, we all line up and know what to do," Nelson said. "So it's worked for us multiple times over the years, it will continue to work for us. It's something that teams are prepared for now, so they've got to stay on the field. If not, we'll take advantage of it."

As Nelson said more than three years ago, it's continued to work for Rodgers. He's got the right voice. He's got the different variations in cadence and word choice, and maybe that doesn't even matter as much as the guttural tone that makes Rodgers the "alpha."

Some day, Rodgers may have to break out the hard count in Canton, Ohio when he's inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Of course, it's not the only thing that's contributed to an all-time great career. But just when you forget about it, you're jumping offside and Rodgers is chucking deep to keep moving up the record books. 

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