World’s Best Preview: Packers Ace Chemistry Exam

Bill Huber

In team sports, chemistry is hard to put a finger on. What is it? How do you build it? And how much does it really matter?

The Green Bay Packers seem to have it, with several veteran players pointing to it as a factor in why the team is 8-2 heading into Sunday night’s heavyweight showdown against the San Francisco 49ers (9-1). An offseason filled with change, headlined by the hiring of a 39-year-old coach by the name of Matt LaFleur, has the Packers back in championship contention.

LaFleur came to Green Bay with a strong X’s and O’s resume from his relationships with the Rams’ Sean McVay and his counterpart on Sunday night, the 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan. There’s more to football than playbooks, though. Sometimes, it’s playtime – not playing time – that matters.

“Getting to shoot my coach with a paintball, I mean, I don’t know how you bond any better,” tight end Jimmy Graham said with a smile on Friday.

Former coach Mike McCarthy had his annual team-bonding activities, too, so it’s not as if the paintball outing that replaced the final practice of the June minicamp will be the reason why the Packers get back to the playoffs. But after 13 years of McCarthy, LaFleur has brought in a welcome change that has permeated every phase of the team.

“You want to create an environment where people enjoy coming to work,” LaFleur said. “And I think then it happens organically, but you’ve got to have the right people, there’s no doubt about it. I’ve said it before, I think Gutey (general manager Brian Gutekunst) and his staff have done such a great job of assembling a bunch of guys that are not only really good football players but are really good people.”

Talent and chemistry have combined to put the Packers atop of the NFC North. Back-to-back wins against Chicago and Minnesota to open the season and a big bounce-back win at Dallas were tangible results of the intangibles forged during the offseason practices and training camp.

Following the strong start, Rodgers frequently uses the word “special” to describe the possibilities for this year’s team, which is almost a decade removed from winning Super Bowl XLV. He used that word twice at his locker on Wednesday in looking ahead to Sunday night.

“As opposed to years past, where maybe I went out of the country, I didn’t do it this time,” Rodgers said of the bye week. “Maybe I was a little more appreciative of where we’re at at 8-2 and how special the opportunity could be if we can take care of business the last six games of the regular season. We know what we have. We have a great football team at their place on ‘Sunday Night Football.’ What else could you ask for?”

Without the slightest bit of hyperbole, this is the Packers’ biggest game since Rodgers dragged a ragtag bunch to Atlanta for the NFC Championship Game in 2016. The winner on Sunday night will take a huge step toward claiming the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs.

Gutekunst and LaFleur have authored quite a turnaround. Two consecutive seasons out of the playoffs led to an offseason of tremendous change with the hiring of LaFleur and the addition of four immediate starters in free agency. To be sure, the schematic imprints made by LaFleur and the performances of guys like Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith made a tremendous difference.

Spending outlandish amounts of money in free agency, of course, guarantees nothing but a big number on the expense side of the financial ledger. Similarly, change for the sake of change sometimes means nothing. Other times, however, change means everything. That appears to be the case for the Packers.

“The guys that were acquired in free agency have been a huge boost for the team,” right tackle Bryan Bulaga said. “New faces, new energy, new personalities, new perspectives. It brings a new light and a new energy. Guys pull from that. It was a new start for everyone. Guys that have been here – myself, Aaron, Mason (Crosby), Tramon (Williams) – and have been in the same system, when you get something new brought in, it does bring you some new energy. You feel like you can start all over again and build from the start, kind of like when you’re a rookie. All those things together and you’re working hard and everything’s moving in the right direction, these types of things happen. It’s been fun.”

The chemistry is something felt by Williams, too. Williams signed with the Packers last offseason in hopes of making a run to a second Super Bowl championship. Instead, McCarthy was fired and the team finished 6-9-1.

“Last year was tough,” Williams said.

Not this year. The hiring of LaFleur and the influx of talent has reinvigorated a team that had fallen on hard times following eight consecutive playoff appearances. Za’Darius Smith was a franchise-changing signing with his production, charismatic personality and leadership making him a team captain. Every time the defense makes a big play, they celebrate as a group. Preston Smith marked his 10th sack by announcing he’d be purchasing a Rolex for every member of the defense.

“It’s fun because these guys make it fun,” Williams said. “It’s my teammates, the vibe to this team. The young guys, they keep me where they are. You’ve got 23-, 24-, 25-year-olds and I’m able to blend right in with those guys. I’m 36 years old but I’m able to blend right in. Yeah, I live a different lifestyle. I’m married with two kids. You’ve got these young guys who some of them may have girlfriends, some of them may not but, at the end of the day, we’re brothers. We’ve got each other’s backs. That’s the way we treat each other – with love. It’s a totally different vibe and chemistry to this team right now. We try to build every week. We’re not one of those teams that, as soon as the day’s over, we’re running home because we don’t want to be in the building. We’ll go eat with a bunch of guys later today or tomorrow, go watch games together. It’s different than it has been for years, I’ll tell you that.”

Bulaga struck the same chord.

“The energy with the team and the camaraderie and everything that was so common around here that kind of faded away the last two years because we weren’t winning, that’s back,” he said. “Guys are having fun. They’re enjoying being around each other. That’s what this thing’s all about.”

The Packers won’t win on Sunday night because of their chemistry – 49ers general manager John Lynch spoke recently of identifying players with “talent and what we call spirit” – but they certainly are in this position in part because Gutekunst didn’t simply buy football players and LaFleur wasn’t hired simply because he spent a year in meetings alongside the esteemed McVay.

“Winning and playing together, man,” receiver Davante Adams said. “We got out of the blocks this year and handled it the way it was supposed to be handled. You could see it. Winning’s fun. When you’re winning (and) you do it together in all the phases and everybody has a little bit to do with it, it makes it a lot more fun on top of Matt – he’s introduced a little bit of a more fun and celebratory environment and culture on this team. It’s something what we’ve bought into.”