In order for the Green Bay Packers to get back to where they want to be, contending for titles, this team has to finish what it started when it hired Matt LaFleur. He’s in Green Bay for myriad reasons, but the most fundamental is simple: fix the offense. There may be no more elemental task facing any team in the league right now, as elite offense has been the best way to contend for a title. Four of the top five offenses by DVOA will play Sunday and we’re just a year removed from a quarterback throwing for 500 yards in a Super Bowl while still catching the L.
Brian Gutekunst and Mark Murphy started the offensive revamp. They have to push it forward this offseason by refocusing on surrounding Aaron Rodgers with talent at every level, to make his life easier.
While we often think about making the game easier for young quarterbacks, players still learning how to process information and make decisions, effective offenses often simplify things for the quarterback no matter his age. Josh McDaniels gives Tom Brady more wide-open throws than any quarterback in the league. Sean Payton finds ways to give Brees simple looks and short throws for run-after-catch opportunities. Sean McVay utilizes formational and space advantages to get defenders out of position and open up lanes for Jared Goff, and perhaps no coach in the league has made life easier on his quarterback this season through scheme than Andy Reid with Patrick Mahomes.
So, when Matt LaFleur gives a quote like, “I think anytime you can take as much off the quarterback as possible that only helps them out in the long run,” he’s thinking this same way. Just because an offense where the quarterback has to make everything hum can and has worked for the Packers doesn’t mean it’s the optimal way to run an offense. That starts, as LaFleur’s offensive system does, with running the ball.
Featuring Mark Ingram and drafting Alvin Kamara inexorably altered the path of late-career Brees. The run game spurred the Patriots to a blowout win against arguably a more talented Chargers team. And McVay coaxed a historic run performance out of the Rams against the Cowboys last weekend, an underrated facet of the LA offense the entire McVay run. They start with the run game.
The Packers already have a potential star running back in Aaron Jones and a more-than-capable second back with Jamaal Williams. What the team lacks is a true pass-catching back who can split out wide and catch passes, or create explosive plays in the screen game. Ironically, that guy was on the team, but he plays for the Ravens now.
Finding a complementary piece for Jones and Williams should be on the radar for Brian Gutekunst this offseason, though it’s not necessarily a priority. Bringing in LaFleur is the biggest step the Packers took in refocusing the ground game because his offense is predicated on running the ball. That sets up play action and everything flows from there. There will be jet motion to move the eyes of linebackers, so even if there is no run fake, they’re already out of sorts when the ball is snapped.
In terms of personnel though, there are clear priorities for the Packers front office as they look to free agency and the draft. The biggest hole on the team comes at right guard, where the Packers simply don’t appear to have even a baseline NFL starter. Lucas Patrick should be given the opportunity to compete, but everyone else should be shown the door.
Green Bay doesn’t have to spend major money to upgrade the position either, which says more about the quality of the players they have than the relative bargains potentially on the market. That said, James Carpenter or LaFleur’s former starting right guard Quinton Spain wouldn’t cost much and would immediately represent upgrades. While Packers fans clamor for a Bryan Bulaga replacement (for ... reasons) it’s the guard spot that desperately must be addressed. If that can be done in free agency—and it can be—the draft opens up even more for the Packers.
Priority No. 2 is find a pass catcher. Probably two. A run-after-catch threat who can play the slot to replace Cobb comes at a relatively lower cost than the ridiculous receiver prices we saw during a free agent bender NFL teams went on paying for receivers last offseason. Golden Tate or Jamison Crowder won’t come with serious pricetags and while they aren’t field-tilters, they would fit well into how LaFleur wants to give his receivers space to run and create after the catch on screens and underneath crossing routes. Guys who can get open quickly and run with it can kill in this offense.
There will be some players who fit that bill in the draft, guys like Marquise “Hollywood” Brown for one, but those players will take more time to get acclimated. That doesn’t mean the Packers should stay away from those options. If the opportunity is there to get an explosive talent like Brown, the Packers shouldn’t hesitate.
But if there’s one position where Green Bay ought to have its eye on for the draft, it’s tight end. George Kittle just set a single-season receiving record for a tight end in a Kyle Shanahan offense and if the Packers have guys they trust at tight end, it can be an enormous weapon the way this offense is designed.
Luckily for them, the top of this draft in particular will be loaded with top tight end prospects and the Packers should be in position to snag at least one. Let’s say they find a top pass rusher at 12 and let’s call him Jachai Polite. If Green Bay has already addressed the guard position in free agency, they can take a swing with Hollywood at 32 and hope one of the Smiths (Alabama’s Irv or Stanford’s Kaden) falls to 44. Suddenly, this offense is flush with talented playmakers at every level, a solidified offensive line, and a blue chip talent to add on defense.
This is the way the Packers ought to be building a team. One need only watch the games this Sunday to see how important this type of quarterback-centric team building is. In fact, the Patriots just went through this, taking a guard and running back with their pair of first-round picks in 2018. Give the quarterback every chance to succeed by surrounding him with talent.
For too many years, Ted Thompson focused solely on fixing the defense, something he was never able to accomplish due to a handful of big draft misses and the continued reliance on an outdated system with its equally anachronistic coach. Letting Josh Sitton and TJ Lang go might have been a fine decision had there also been even a baseline effort made to replace them with quality players. Green Bay got lucky with Lane Taylor.
Despite the clearly diminishing talents of Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson, Thompson thought it sufficient to let Trevor Davis and Geronimo Allison be the next guys up with Davante Adams. And it was three straight offseasons for this front office, between Thompson and Gutekunst, taking a swing with an aging, expensive tight end rather than finding a younger, more athletic option in the draft.
The front office must continue what it started with Matt LaFleur and spend the offseason retooling the players on this offense for once. That doesn’t mean don’t add defensive talent. They can and must. But this team lost its way as one built around its quarterback. This offense was at its apex with it had a bevy of offensive skill players, not just a big three with Rodgers, Adams and Jones.
Aaron Rodgers has made it look easy for a decade, while making life easier for the players and coaches around him. It’s time to repay the favor.