There might be some initial growing pains, but expect this Green Bay team to be in contention for an NFC North title.
The NFL returns Thursday night, and immediately we get to dive headfirst into this season’s most fascinating storyline: the marriage between Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur.
Imagine you’re LaFleur. You’re a 39-year-old first-time head coach. The football world did a double-take when news broke that you’d be the first hire off the 2019 coaching carousel. You have called plays in the NFL for all of one year—2018 in Tennessee. To many, you’re unknown. Because of that, critics grimace at the Titans’ 2018 offensive stats: 27th in scoring, 25th in yards (never mind that in Tennessee your subpar QB, mediocre offensive line and limited skill position personnel would have generated much worse statistics for a lot of play-callers—an explanation of how a 27th ranked scoring offense overachieved doesn’t fit in a tweet or television graphic). And so even though you’re one of football’s best young offensive minds, onlookers question how you landed one of the most prestigious head coaching jobs in all of sports.
Part of the job’s prestige is that it comes with a QB whom every offensive coach has fantasized about scheming with. And while you're beyond thrilled to be partnered with him, not every coach has fantasized about actually working with Aaron Rodgers. He might be the most talented passer to ever play, but the word “uncoachable” has been whispered in some NFL circles. Others believe he helped run previous head coach Mike McCarthy out of town. Rodgers is smart, frank and, thanks to a $98.7 million guaranteed contract from a publicly owned team, more powerful than anyone in the Packers organization. And not only are you, LaFleur, here to work with the man, you’re essentially tasked with reprogramming him.
For all of Rodgers’s greatness, the Packers have just one Super Bowl appearance since he took over (though they are third in the league with nine playoff wins in the last 11 years). That hardly represents futility, but for perhaps the most talented QB of all-time, one Super Bowl appearance can be viewed as disappointing. We could debate how much or how little Rodgers himself is to blame, but the bottom line is the Packers, as constructed around Rodgers, have failed to fulfill their total potential. Change was needed, and because no sane person who employs Aaron Rodgers would consider changing quarterbacks, the only choice for Packers czar Mark Murphy was to change the system around Rodgers. So, Murphy hired LaFleur.
Never has a Hall of Fame QB in the latter part of his prime been cast into the type of schematic overhaul that Rodgers is enduring under LaFleur. Naturally, there has been much scrutiny on how the change is going, with observers quick to spot and perceive bumps in the road. In June, NFL.com’s Michael Silver wrote an outstanding, comprehensive piece about Green Bay’s changing dynamic. Unfortunately, many media outlets just isolated one quote from Rodgers:
“I don’t think you want to ask me to turn off 11 years [of recognizing defenses]. We have a number of check with mes and line-of-scrimmage stuff. It’s just the other stuff that really not many people in this league can do. That’s not like a humblebrag or anything; that’s just a fact. There aren’t many people that can do at the line of scrimmage what I’ve done over the years.”
And some lampooned LaFleur for telling Silver, “Aaron and I have had some good talks, and we’re going to have to talk a lot more—and one thing we have to work through is the audible thing.” Figuring out this sort of thing is precisely what any new coach and quarterback would spend the spring and summer doing, and both Rodgers and LaFleur gave Silver a lot more context than what you just read above. But it didn’t matter. The narrative was set: coach and QB at odds.
What critics didn’t explore is why there even was an “audible” gap for Rodgers and LaFleur to bridge. In McCarthy’s system, the Packers often aligned in static spread formations and ran isolation routes. This approach is perfectly conducive to making changes at the line of scrimmage. LaFleur’s approach is not—at least, not in the same way. It’s built on unique formationing, pre-snap motion and intricate route combinations. An offense does not have time to line up, gyrate through all this, then change the play and do it all again. And there wouldn’t be many reasons to change the play anyway because the formations and pre-snap motions are designed to either regulate or undress a defense. In other words, the offensive look forces the defense into a predictable coverage or it forces the defense to reveal disguises in its coverage. Once the ball is snapped, the route combinations are built to exploit what the QB just read. Often, there are two sets of routes, with one designed to beat one type of coverage and the other designed to beat another.
Still, as LaFleur has acknowledged, it’s imperative that he and Rodgers find a happy medium on the audibles. Earlier this week, LaFleur told the media that Rodgers has been given full freedom at the line of scrimmage, but it remains to be seen what, exactly, that entails. Rodgers was right: You don’t want to completely ignore the play-changing acumen he has amassed over 11 seasons as a starter. But you can’t force audibles into a system that’s not built to receive them. Let’s remember: LaFleur’s system works. In the simplest form, it’s a hybrid of what he ran under Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, two of football’s best offensive architects.
The real issue is not how Rodgers handles the system before the snap, but rather, how he handles it after the snap. In McCarthy’s spread iso approach, Rodgers never had to play under strict dropback timing. He could get the ball out right away or a little later—there was room to play around. But in a system built on highly specified pre-snap gyrations and post-snap route combinations, precise timing is key. And LaFleur is famously particular about details in the passing game—especially at quarterback.
Under McCarthy, Rodgers left a lot of open receivers on the field. Easy completions were bypassed for harder completions. The results, obviously, were more positive than negative, and there were many times Rodgers made a questionable read but produced a bigger play than the correct read would have yielded. But in this approach, Green Bay’s offense was naturally inconsistent. And that inconsistency got worse when the receivers and backs around Rodgers got younger.
So what happens this season when Rodgers drops back, bypasses an open receiver and runs around? What does the 39-year-old first-time head coach say to his 35-year-old future Hall of Fame QB? What does he say if the play Rodgers makes in this scenario turns out better than the play he should have made? LaFleur is too smart and too disciplined to evaluate plays strictly on results. He has been trained to evaluate a process. Master the process and the results, in the grand scheme, will take care of themselves. It’s a wise notion but one that can easily get overlooked in the heat of battle, when the results translate immediately to wins and losses. How Rodgers and LaFleur do here will determine the Packers’ fate.
TUNSIL AND STILLS ARE TEXANS
Yes, the Texans grossly overpaid for ex-Dolphins Laremy Tunsil and Kenny Stills. Not only did they give up two first-round picks and a second-rounder, they also took on veteran-sized contracts in 2020 and will likely have to fork over mega money to Tunsil in 2021, right around when it’s time to address Deshaun Watson’s second contract. If the Texans had used one of those first-round picks to draft a player of Tunsil’s caliber, they would have had him for five years at a relative bargain (barring drastic changes in the upcoming new CBA).
But understand this: Shoddy offensive line play ruined Houston’s chances of a Super Bowl run last year. Bill O’Brien did not trust his offensive tackles and so he kept extra men in to block. That removed the number of eligible receivers for Watson and invited defenses to blitz. The result was 62 sacks and a snake-bitten young QB who failed to build on the pocket passing progress he showed as a rookie. Tunsil is one of the few left tackles who can combat any pass rusher on an island. Not only does his arrival stabilize the left edge, it allows O’Brien to put more eligible receivers out in routes. And now one of those receivers will be Stills, a brainiac who can align anywhere and read defenses while running routes. That’s valuable in an O’Brien system that prioritizes “option” and “choice” routes. Plus, the Texans can eventually play first-and second-round rookies Tytus Howard and Max Scharping at guard, lending badly needed upgrades to their interior O-line. The domino effect from Tunsil’s and Stills’s arrival can be huge, especially when you consider it points to better conditions for an ascending young QB.
This was written before the Texans traded for Tunsil and Stills, but I’ll stick with it. Jacoby Brissett is a big strong pocket passer who has mobility to fall back on and has shown the acuity to work later into his progressions. Factor in outstanding arm strength and you have almost the complete foundation for long-term success.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Redskins at Eagles
With left tackle Trent Williams holding out, Washington’s makeshift offensive line faces Philly’s vaunted four-man rush right out of the gates. Yikes. Expect Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz to bring a Cover 0 blitz early in the game. Schwartz likes to plant this seed in the opposing quarterback’s mind, and Washington’s Case Keenum is the type of QB you want to get playing fast. The more frenetic Keenum is, the more likely it is he throws into coverage.
Chiefs at Jaguars
The chances of Andy Reid taking a deep shot early in this game? 99.9%. And there’s about a 97% chance that it will be to Tyreek Hill coming out of a slot alignment. The Jaguars are a Cover 3 zone-based defense breaking in a young nickel linebacker—either third-round rookie Quincy Williams or 2018 seventh-rounder Leon Jacobs. By aligning inside, Hill gets away from Jalen Ramsey (who will travel with Hill) and matched on one of those ‘backers when the Jags are in zone.
Steelers at Patriots
The only reason Stephon Gilmore would not travel with JuJu Smith-Schuster is if Bill Belichick wants to double the Steelers’ new No. 1 receiver. In that case, he’d match up his No. 2 corner (likely J.C. Jackson, who has the physicality to contest Smith-Schuster) and a safety, leaving Gilmore on an island with Donte Moncrief or James Washington. However it’s sliced, it’s a tough matchup for the Steelers; look for their passing game success to come predominantly late in the down, with Ben Roethlisberger extending plays.
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