GREEN BAY, Wis. – Enjoying a postgame glass of wine after Sunday’s victory over the Seattle Seahawks, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur talked to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer about the leadership that had played a role in the team’s 8-2 start.
“It absolutely starts with Aaron [Rodgers],” LaFleur said, “and then it goes to Davante [Adams] and Marcedes [Lewis], guys like Randall Cobb, the experience he brings, guys like Allen Lazard. Bobby [Tonyan] was so integral, and it’s a shame he’s not going to be with us till the end of it. Aaron Jones. We just have so many dudes.”
LaFleur mentioned that Elgton Jenkins is there too, as is all-world left tackle David Bakhtiari, who’s still working his way back from a torn ACL. He brought up defensive captains Adrian Amos and Kenny Clark, newcomer De’Vondre Campbell, emerging star Rashan Gary, and injured defensive cornerstones Za’Darius Smith and Jaire Alexander.
Which is why, at one point, I stopped LaFleur and told him it sounded like he was just reading off the starting lineup.
“I know, that’s my point,” LaFleur said. “It’s hard to pinpoint who, exactly, because it’s so many guys that just bring so much. It’s Darnell Savage. Kevin King.”
And on he went.
The story over the last two weeks in Green Bay, understandably, has been Rodgers, his positive COVID-19 test, his resulting absence from the team and the subsequent airing of his thoughts on the vaccine on The Pat McAfee Show.
But there’s been another story unfolding along with it. That’s one of a team that, because it’s capable of handling that noise, might wind up being a roundabout beneficiary of it.
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Getting back the team’s All-Pro cornerback, All-Pro left tackle and Pro Bowl outside linebacker, to state the obvious, would be a huge lift to the 9-3 Packers.
For more than a decade, the mere presence of Rodgers has made the Packers championship contenders. After winning Super Bowl MVP in 2010, Rodgers won NFL MVPs in 2011, 2014 and 2020. Green Bay went 15-1 in one of those seasons and reached NFC Championship Games in the other two. Rodgers played like an MVP in 2016, dragging a team demolished by injuries to a championship game.
This team is different. The defense is legit, ranking No. 3 in scoring. The Packers almost won at Kansas City without Rodgers, and they beat Seattle in a bizarro week in which Rodgers showed up after a 10-game COVID isolation on Saturday and led the team on Sunday. They are tied for the best record in the NFC even with an offense that is down 10 points per game from last year’s prolific clip.
That’s not all that’s different. For years and years, Green Bay’s roster was populated by a group of eight to 10 high-priced stars. From there, all the blanks were filled in by low-cost youngsters. Sensing what was at stake this year, general manager Brian Gutekunst assembled a veteran-laden roster by pushing millions of cap dollars into 2022. Players like Lewis, Cobb, Campbell and Whitney Mercilus might not have been considerations even a couple years ago. They are (or were, in the case of Mercilus) key players now.
“We’ve got a lot of veterans that have been in this league a long time, that understand what it takes, that have competed at the highest of levels, that have won a lot of games,” LaFleur said on Wednesday. “That definitely makes it a lot easier when you’re talking to the team and they’re saying the same things.”
There’s a second-contract player in every position group. In every meeting room, there’s a veteran leader there to help deliver LaFleur’s message, provide leadership and share knowledge.
That leadership shows up on the practice field and on gamedays, with a proven player ready, willing and able to show the right way through word and deed. A great case in point came at Thursday’s practice. While the receivers ran routes, Adams stepped out of the line and struck up a conversation with tight end Josiah Deguara. Judging by the gestures and movements, Adams was either talking about route-running or a specific play. After their talk, Deguara lined up, ran a slant-and-go and hauled in a deep ball from Jordan Love.
With a different kind of team, led by a different kind of roster, the hope is it will deliver a different kind of result for the playoffs.
“I think we bring a lot of value just for the experience, the leadership aspect of it,” Adams said. “A lot of times, I’ll see younger guys looking for leadership throughout games whether they’re not playing as well that game or they’re having trouble reading stuff. Just having guys who have done it before, it kind of eases your mind a little.
“When I was young in here, coming in, things are just moving 100 miles per hour, a little too fast for me. I’d see how Jordy (Nelson) and Randall were taking things and it kind of slows me down a little bit. Because it’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re young in this league. To be able to look over and see the confidence and kind of pull that from somebody, whether it’s in the locker room or out on the field, whatever it is, that was extremely valuable for me. I try to be out there and be as confident as possible, let those guys know that guys like me, ‘Cedes, ‘12,’ for special teams, Mason (Crosby), we’ve been here doing it for a long time. We all open books, ready to help whoever.”