As part of my week-long 2019 NFL preview, I’ll be reviewing 10 of the teams that intrigue the most this upcoming season. As you might’ve guessed from the image above, we’ll start things off with the Green Bay Packers.
There are many who believe that the pairing of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and new head coach Matt LaFleur is a thought experiment that could best — if not only — be described by Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton Jr.:
Cal: “We go together like Chinese food and chocolate pudding.”
Ricky: “Yeah, but Cal, those are two things that don’t really go together, though.”
Cal: “We go together like cocaine and waffles.”
Ricky: “No, like, for instance, if I say peanut butter and… ?”
Cal: “… ladies.”
Ricky: “No, jelly.”
Cal: “You like to put jelly on a lady?!?”
The embattled — and now deposed — Mike McCarthy was Green Bay’s head coach for 13 of the 14 years that Rodgers has been in the NFL. Together, they had eight playoff appearances, six division championships, and a Super Bowl win.
But under McCarthy’s offensive guidance — or total lack thereof — Rodgers effectively developed into the NFL’s Thelonious Monk: a virtuoso improvisationalist whose genre-bending mastery most often arises amidst the organized chaos around him.
After the Packers hired LaFleur to be the team’s head coach, the presumption is that LaFleur is going to ask Rodgers’ to run the former’s offense, with it’s Shanahan-ian roots comprising lots of structured play-action, clearly defined reads, and timing-based decisions.
And that’s why this year’s Green Bay Packers —or, more specifically, their head coach + quarterback pairing — remains one of the most intriguing subplots of the 2019 NFL season.
Because, as much as any team in the league, they’re going to have to figure out — figuratively speaking — how to make sure that when the head coach (and chief offensive architect) is talking about a sandwich ingredient, the doesn’t see it as something you could also slather on a female.
For all of his football transcendence, this past spring — in the aftermath of a 2018 season in which Rodgers finished with the 2nd lowest completion %, 2nd-most losses as the starting quarterback, and worst QBR of his career — was the first time, in a long while, when the football-viewing world really started to omit Rodgers from the “best quarterback in the game” conversation.
Bleacher Report’s post-mortem of Green Bay’s 2018 season doubled as an unintentional hatchet job on Rodgers. Rodgers took a big fat “L” in the social media world after his rather dainty response to teammate David Bakhtiari’s beer chugging antics at a Milwaukee Bucks game. And a few of Rodgers’ former teammates still don’t hold back about the quarterback’s sometimes prickly personality.
The truth is somewhere in the middle of the “Rodgers is beyond reproach” and “Rodgers is on the precipice of an Eli Manning-like decline but doesn’t seem to realize it yet” dichotomy. We’re probably piling on in the aftermath of Rodgers’ first “bad” season since 2008, which coincided with the McCarthy-Rodgers relationship becoming untenably hostile.
In fairness to Rodgers, he was very much shackled by McCarthy’s playbook that had about as much depth and diversity as the two-run, two-pass play options from the old Tecmo Bowl video game for Nintendo.
But in defense of McCarthy, getting Rodgers to acquiesce to basically any type of structure was often like trying to control a teenage girl who’s two weeks away from going off to college on the other side of the country.
Put another way, Rodgers reminds you of the NFL’s version of Rajon Rondo — a genius-level talent who always believes his way is better than your way (and is often right about it), and will only acquiesce to a coach who can match that intellect, and thus have the credibility to challenge him.
LaFleur and Rodgers have started things off on the right foot, by and large, in their own way. But at the risk of stating the ridiculously obvious: this entire experiment will only last as long as the two of them can maintain some semblance of mutual professional respect, and personal chemistry.
The other part of this equation is that LaFleur doesn’t need Rodgers to play like the 2018 edition of Patrick Mahomes. In fact, you can safely say that LaFleur is smart enough to figure out that he has to work with the hand he’s been dealt.
If he learned nothing else from wunderkind Sean McVay, he’ll have learned to use player strengths within the context of an offensive system that’s been (mostly) proven to work — as opposed to the tried-and-(un)true philosophy of NFL coaches entailing taking uber-talented players and forcing them to play in a cookie cutter scheme ill-suited for their talents.
Consider that LaFleur has been on various offensive staffs which:
- Was among the pioneers in making the zone-read en vogue in the NFL (in Washington).
- Turned a milquetoast quarterback leading a pretty-good-but not great offense into the league MVP orchestrating one of the 10 best offenses in the history of the NFL.
- Transformed a moribund offense (overseen by the shining definition of mediocrity) into a juggernaut with the multiplicity of a Swiss Army knife.
Hell, in Tennessee, he was the one guy who finally had the epiphany that “we have a 6’3”, 250 lb. monster of a running back, who ran a legit 4.4 in the 40 yard dash, has the footwork of a tap dancer, built his NFL Draft stock by bulldozing defenses in the SEC, AND has minimal tread on his tires … what would happen if we didn’t limit him to carrying the football no more than 11 times per game?”
(side note: if you need any further proof that Mike Mularkey is an imbecile, consider that the fact he told anyone who’d listen that he wanted to run a “smash mouth” offense in Tennessee, but never allowed Derrick Henry to carry the ball more than 176 times over the course of a season. It was the football equivalent of publicly declaring war on everyone, buying a bazooka, and only using it to shoot squirrels running around in your front yard).
In fact, the elusive obvious in this entire LaFleur-Rodgers conversation is that while the talking heads will debate the semantics of whether Aaron Rodgers will turn his back on play-action passes exactly the way LaFleur would prefer, the truth is that LaFleur’s biggest contribution might be bringing more of a run-pass balance than we’ve been accustomed to seeing in Green Bay.
If there’s an overlooked character in this entire saga, it’s running back Aaron Jones. McCarthy turned the concept of “watching Aaron Jones do awesome things early in a game and following that up by completely neglecting him for the rest of the game” into Wisconsin’s #1 drinking game. The extent to which McCarthy neglected Jones was mind-numbing, if not borderline criminal. Over his first two seasons, Jones averaged 5.5 yards per rush and 6.5 yards per catch, and scored 12 touchdowns (in 24 games). Despite this, he averaged less than 12 total touches per game over said 2 years.
Jones now finds himself in the polar opposite situation. Every single NFL staff that LaFleur has been since 2012 has had a lead running back carry the ball more than 225 times.
For all the consternation around the dreaded “running back by committee” in Green Bay, I would be downright shocked if Jones didn’t get in the neighborhood of 220 carries this year (meaning I wouldn’t put a single penny into the “Jamaal Williams and/or Dexter Williams will be meaningful contributors” stock(s), and you shouldn’t either).
Between Jones coming into the 2019 season in peak physical condition, and an offensive line that was already among the top 10 in the NFL in run-blocking yet bolstered their one weak spot at right guard, LaFleur can do wonders for Rogers and the Packers’ offense by imbuing it with a sense of balance that it’s seemingly lacked for quite some time.
None of this, of course, is to say that the Packers are suddenly going to run the single-wing like Tom Osbourne’s Cornhuskers. LaFleur isn’t suddenly going to take one of the most gifted quarterbacks of our generation — a guy who’s averaged 34 touchdown passes and over 4,300 yards per season, while completing just under 65% of this passes over his career — and turn him into the dreaded “game manager.”
Especially not when Rodgers still has one of the 5-to-7 best wide receivers in the NFL on one side (Davante Adams), and emerging talents on the opposite (the fantasy football community is torn over whether to anoint Geronimo Allison or or Marquz Valdes-Scantling as the “breakout out receiver on the Packers,” but they’re almost certain that at least one of them — if not both — is going to have a very productive season).
And that’s what makes this entire LaFleur-Rodgers experiment so interesting. In culinary terms, you have two proverbial chefs who are very used to doing things a certain way — and they’ve done so with success. And in Green Bay, they arguably have all the ingredients one could ask for.
The hope from the Packers fans and organization as a whole as it that these two chefs — with their beliefs, experiences, and styles— are able to have their respective backgrounds coalesce into a whole that’s greater than the sum of the individual parts.
Because if they decide they’re each going to cook their own dishes and let the chips fall where they may, there’s a good chance that the Packers’ fandom is going to end up with a meal consisting of Chinese food and chocolate pudding — it might seem fine initially, but you take it in, it’s going to leave you wishing you hadn’t.