The Green Bay Packers’ fresh start began with a bright white coat of paint in the hallways outside the locker room, and a new seating chart and a full-sized basketball hoop in the team meeting room. After back-to-back losing seasons cost longtime head coach Mike McCarthy his job, Matt LaFleur wants to make things shiny, new and fun again around Lambeau Field.
“We’re pretty fortunate to do what we do. Who doesn’t want to have fun when they go to work?” LaFleur says. “It does not need to be an uptight environment. We can certainly come in, get our work done and have a ball doing it. I just think that you get more out of people when they enjoy what they do.”
The Packers clearly needed a change after McCarthy was fired with four games left in his 13th season as head coach, and the 39-year-old LaFleur believes altering the vibe in the building is as much a part of the new beginning as changing the offensive playbook.
He’s also making sure that the storied Packers franchise isn’t living in the past. So while acknowledging the team’s rich history, he doesn’t want the focus to be on the greats of yesteryear. Thus, among the remodeling, he’s added large murals featuring current players such as quarterback Aaron Rodgers, star wide receiver Davante Adams and running back Aaron Jones. “I wanted to make it about these guys, and when you come to the Green Bay Packers, obviously you respect the tradition, the history, but for us, and this football team, it’s about making history,” LaFleur says. “We’ll always pay respect to what’s been done here in the past, but for us, it’s about moving forward. And the expectation level is always going to be great in this organization.”
For the Packers to move forward, a new offensive playbook and play caller must get Rodgers back to being Rodgers; the stability of bringing back defensive coordinator Mike Pettine and infusing the roster with a host of defensive talent must get that side of the ball to pull its weight; and the special teams units — a perennial issue under McCarthy — must become an asset. If those things happen, LaFleur will have a chance to become the first coach in the team’s 100-year history to reach the postseason in his first year.
It’s up to LaFleur to revitalize Rodgers, whose frustrations with McCarthy became more and more obvious and whose own performance lagged. Rodgers, who revealed during the offseason that he suffered a tibial plateau fracture and a sprained medial collateral ligament during the first half of the 2018 season opener against Chicago, finished last season with a 97.6 passer rating, the fourth lowest of his 11 years as a starter. He threw for 4,442 yards and 25 touchdowns with only two interceptions, but he completed only 62.3 percent of his passes (his second-worst percentage as a starter) and absorbed a whopping 49 sacks (the third most of his tenure.)
“I think it’s going to be a fun process,” Rodgers says. “Matt’s a super-energetic guy. I think he’s a real straight shooter, an honest guy. Any great play caller-to-quarterback relationship is a partnership. Ultimately, we both know who the boss is — and it’s him. But it works best when it’s a partnership. I’m excited about working with him.”
Rodgers is also excited to be throwing again to Adams, who caught 111 passes last season and could surpass that in LaFleur’s offense. And with no other significant experience at receiver — the next-most experienced receivers are Geronimo Allison and Trevor Davis, who are going into their fourth seasons — it’ll be Adams showing the way for youngsters Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Equanimeous St. Brown, J’Mon Moore and Jake Kumerow.
At running back, no one in the NFL has been more explosive the past two seasons than Aaron Jones, who led the league in yards per rush (5.5) last season but has dealt with knee injuries each of his first two years. With LaFleur’s emphasis on the run, he’ll have to stay healthy and productive.
That’s the charge for veteran tight end Jimmy Graham, who wasn’t the field-tilting player the Packers hoped he’d be last year. Despite drafting his eventual replacement in third-round pick Jace Sternberger, the Packers want Graham to be the mismatch he was for defenses earlier in his career.
On the line, the Packers boast one of the NFL’s best left tackles in All-Pro David Bakhtiari, but the right guard job is wide open, and veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga is in the final year of his deal. It may be time for a youth movement there, especially with LaFleur’s switch to an outside zone run scheme that puts a premium on athleticism.
“We had a standard here of going to the playoffs every single year. We did that eight years in a row, and then the last couple of years obviously have been frustrating to finish,” Rodgers says. “I think we’re in a good spot.”
LaFleur’s first priority after taking the job in January was to retain Pettine, and once he did, the Packers set about acquiring the type of versatile pieces that fit well in Pettine’s defense. So in free agency, general manager Brian Gutekunst added outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith and safety Adrian Amos. Then, with his two first-round draft picks, he invested in the defense again, taking Michigan edge rusher Rashan Gary at No. 12 overall and Maryland safety Darnell Savage at No. 21.
The Packers also devoted their top two draft picks last year (Jaire Alexander, Josh Jackson) to the problematic cornerback position, giving Pettine a group in which only three contributors are over 26 years old and only one, Tramon Williams, is in his 30s.
“I feel really good about the defense,” Gutekunst says. “These guys have to come together as a team, but that takes a lot of work and a lot of time. I’m excited about Mike Pettine and the second-year guys we have in his system, but with the additions we’ve made, I think we’re very optimistic about what these guys can do.”
Despite tying for eighth in the NFL with 44 sacks, the Packers wanted to upgrade their pass rush, so they moved on from edge rushers Clay Matthews, who left in free agency, and Nick Perry, who was released. Now, Pettine has a host of players with varied skill sets he can plug into a myriad of spots.
“I’ll tell you one thing, just being an offensive coach my entire career, you can never have enough pass rushers, and I think we definitely upgraded our ability to rush the passer,” LaFleur says. “There’s nothing harder on an offense, especially if you can rotate guys through and just keep sending fresh guys at an offensive line.”
Veteran placekicker Mason Crosby had one bad game last season and a couple of other costly misses — including one that would have forced overtime as time expired in what turned out to be McCarthy’s final game — but he’s still the most reliable thing the Packers have going on special teams. After investing draft picks in punter JK Scott and Mississippi State long snapper Hunter Bradley last year and getting mixed results from both, the hope is they’ll settle in more in Year 2. Meanwhile, the search for a dynamic returner continues.
Even with Gutekunst’s commitment to improving defensive personnel and LaFleur’s vow to run the ball more, this team still rises and falls with Rodgers. After last year, it’s easy to forget how good Rodgers was during the Packers’ eight-game winning streak en route to a berth in the 2016 NFC Championship Game (2,384 yards, 21 touchdowns, one interception, 117.9 rating) and to start the 2017 season before fracturing his right collarbone (1,367 yards, 13 TDs, three INTs, 104.1 rating). If a new offense and new coach can bring back the old Rodgers, the Packers will be a playoff team once again.
Prediction: 3rd in NFC North
(Top photo courtesy of www.packers.com)