GREEN BAY, Wis. – As second-year quarterbacks coach with the Atlanta Falcons in 2016, Matt LaFleur helped Matt Ryan win MVP honors and get to the Super Bowl.
In his first year as head coach of the Green Bay Packers, LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers fell a game short of the Super Bowl.
On Friday, while general manager Brian Gutekunst said he wouldn’t pass up a good quarterback prospect in this year’s draft, his focus was on the near future rather than the distant future.
“I thought Aaron had a really, really good year, especially adapting to a completely new system,” Gutekunst said. “There were times he had to carry us, and I thought he did that. I think this was one of the years we had a team that didn’t always have to rely on that quite as much. I think he’s still playing at an elite level.”
However, a good general manager always is thinking about the future. Even if Rodgers has a Ryan-style season in his 36-year-old body, and even with needs at receiver and linebacker, among other spots, Gutekunst would be remiss to completely ignore the quarterbacks board in the draft room. Even with Brett Favre at the height of his powers, former Packers general manager Ron Wolf routinely fortified the quarterback room. He drafted Mark Brunell in the fifth round 1993, Jay Barker in the fifth round in 1995, Matt Hasselbeck in the sixth round in 1998 and Aaron Brooks in the fourth round in 1999. Ultimately, none of those players started a game for the Packers, but Wolf spun Brunell, Hasselbeck and Brooks into additional draft picks.
“Obviously, he’s still playing at an elite level, but for me, I was raised by Ron Wolf and Ted Thompson, if there’s a quarterback we think can play, that’s a starter in the National Football League, we’ll never pass that up,” Gutekunst said. “But I’m really glad 12 is back there. Really excited to see what he can do in Year 2. I know Matt talks a lot about Matt Ryan and what he did in Year 2, the comparatives there. Obviously, Aaron has played at an elite level a long time. Seeing what (Rodgers) did in Year 1 with Matt, I’m just really excited where the offense and him can go.”
Rodgers is coming off a second consecutive subpar season by his lofty standards. In last week’s NFC Championship Game drubbing at San Francisco, he threw two interceptions (one was irrelevant at the end of the game) and fumbled three times (one lost).
During the regular season, the quarterback with the best passer rating in NFL history finished 12th with a mark of 95.4. Rodgers topped a 100 rating in only five of 18 games and finished 21st in completion percentage.
Nonetheless, during his season-ending news conference on Wednesday, LaFleur said Rodgers is “still one of the most talented players out there,” and, echoing Gutekunst, said he was “excited about moving forward into the future.”
It’s been a tumultuous few seasons for Rodgers. With the Packers getting into gear in 2017, he suffered a broken collarbone at Minnesota. He played through a knee injury in 2018, a season that ended with a 6-9-1 record and the firing of Mike McCarthy as coach. Meanwhile, he went from a series of star-studded receiver corps to one of the most mediocre in the league. The combination of a new offense and a lack of weapons no doubt played a role in Rodgers’ struggles this season.
Rodgers, however, enjoyed the ride this year, even while taking a back seat at times to running back Aaron Jones and the team’s improved defense.
“Just watching him throughout his career, there were some challenges we faced, not only him but some other guys on our team, where I said I was really proud how those guys faced those challenges,” Gutekunst said. “They really came together as a team, and that really takes your best players, your leaders, to do that. He obviously was a big, big part of that.”
Late in the season, Gutekunst and Rodgers agreed to a restructured contract that trimmed Rodgers’ cap hit for 2020 to about $22.19 million. That freed up about $11.4 million of cap space but increased his cap numbers to $36.33 million in 2021, $39.85 million in 2022 and $28.35 million in 2023.