For the thousands of words written and spoken about it, the Matt LaFleur-Aaron Rodgers partnership stands in stark contrast to our legitimate, useful understanding of how the pairing fares to this point. From questions about audibles and worries about style, fans and observers are anxious to see actual football.
That said, wondering how much Matt LaFleur adapts his offense for Rodgers provides a fascinating case study in scheme evolution. Sean McVay whispers into Jared Goff’s ears before the snap because he has to, not necessarily because he wants to. LaFleur needs to do no such whispering for his quarterback.
Kyle Shanahan took Matt Ryan out of shotgun where he’d operated much of his career before (and since) and pushed Ryan out of his comfort zone in the process. Rodgers offers the most adept on-the-run thrower in the history of the league. Asking him to boot out of play action to make throws outside the pocket should be giving him license to play exactly the way he wants to play, with deep shots abounding.
Whether or not Rodgers “likes” to turn his back to the defense in play-action calls doesn’t practically matter. We know he can do those things. Bringing this offense more in line with other LaFleur/Shanahan/McVay offenses only means an extra four or five play action throws a game. It’s hardly a huge ask for Rodgers.
On the other hand, Rodgers likes to play with the defense in front of him, to analyze and process information pre-snap. As capable as he is to destroy defenses with his supreme physical gifts as the most complete skillset we’ve ever seen at the position, he likewise dominates on the mental side of the game. There’s never been a quarterback who can manipulate defenses, bending them to his will, pre-snap quite like Rodgers.
Taking that tool out of his toolbox doesn’t make sense.
So how does each each in this story complete his journey? Can they function together as co-protagonists, or does one turn heel as antagonist, unwilling to meet the other somewhere in the middle?
There are at least two simple, scheme-friendly ways to give each guy what he wants.
Unholster the pistol
When Rodgers hurt his calf in 2014, Mike McCarthy smartly modified the offense to accommodate him (frankly, one of the last major such adjustments McCarthy made for the better). They started running more plays from the pistol, particularly play action.
The reasons are simple: it’s fewer steps to get from the ball to the back, easing the burden on the quarterback’s legs while injured. In this case, the pistol vs the shotgun allows for a more genuine fake with the running back and offensive line able to carry out the ruse more convincingly. It may not seem like much, but a single step can be the difference in having a window vs. not.
One key byproduct of the changing mesh point is how long the quarterback loses sight of the defense. Watch this play from last season and notice Rodgers only has about a step and a half with his back turned before he’s up and firing.
A shorter distance means less time not seeing the defensive action and a built-in throw allows Rodgers to make a quick decision once he sees once he’s able to re-spot what’s going on.
LaFleur gets to the play action looks he wants in a more natural way than out of the shotgun, while also creating a closer facsimile to how his quarterback has become accustomed to playing.
Tennessee used this concept last year under LaFleur and McVay deploys it with the Rams as well. It wouldn’t involve making substantive changes to the offense to make it work and would allow the Packers to play more naturally out of formations this team knows well.
Expand the RPO
These might be three dirty letters to supporters of old school quarterbacking, including Rodgers himself. The modern RPO game strikes some as a cheat, a way to get around quarterbacks unable to process the entire field.
Simplifying the game for the quarterback shouldn’t, however, be viewed as a negative. What’s more, the Packers already had versions of the RPO going back several years. While I’ve suggested in the past they ought to expand their use of the concept, McCarthy did add to what can be called the Favre RPO.
Though he’s not the originator of this type of RPO, Brett Favre is responsible for bringing it to Green Bay: the old stand and fire to an uncovered receiver on a called run. It’s not an RPO in the way we think of it more broadly, as there’s no read happening live. Favre would see the cornerback playing 10 years off and believe, rightly, they had a better chance of picking up five or more yards if he just fired a laser out there than trying to bash everyone’s brains in along the interior.
McCarthy added a little tunnel screen/slant action so Rodgers could make similar reads after the snap, rather than simply just before it. Here is the play working to perfection in the red zone for a touchdown.
Teams have taken those principles and adopted them for RPO's like this one the Packers ran Thursday night for a touchdown. pic.twitter.com/6ESrauoehR— Peter Bukowski (@Peter_Bukowski) October 2, 2017
Notice Rodgers’ field of vision. He’s looking at the defense the entire time to see what’s going on. It’s possible he’s made up his mind as soon as the ball is snapped, but right up until he throws it, Rodgers can still put the ball in Jamaal Williams’ belly.
LaFleur’s arsenal of more traditional RPO’s from his time with Sean McVay suddenly become more appealing options. Play from shotgun, allow the quarterback to use his estimable brain power, and give Rodgers options. Assuming Rodgers doesn’t see this as gimmicky, it allows him to keep his eyes downfield and theoretically out of harm’s way deeper in the backfield from the gun. If Nick Foles and Jared Goff can bust teams up with these concepts, Rodgers should have no problem doing the same.
Running more RPO looks also frees LaFleur up to get to play action from shotgun, someone Rodgers also has experience doing. Make a play-action concept look like an RPO, get linebackers guessing, and create over the top. Here’s a play from LaFleur’s time in LA where we get a version of “illusion of complexity” he’s always mentioning.
It looks like an RPO, but it’s really just a play-action pass.
And still others have taken the action, and mimicked it to create confusion. There's no "read" here from the Rams, but it looks like it. pic.twitter.com/1bFgipUg68— Peter Bukowski (@Peter_Bukowski) October 2, 2017
If I’ve thought of these, there’s no question LaFleur and Rodgers have done the same. This offense will evolve each week, not just to fit the opponent but because the Packers have a genius-level player under center (or in the pistol/shotgun) and there’s a clear commitment to making an offense that works for everyone.
These are just two simple ways. There are myriad more options at their disposal and all of them provide good reasons not to listen to the noise out there about this team. Absent on-field storylines to talk about, we’re left to discuss minutiae, much of which won’t be worth the paper it’s no longer printed on. The offense we see in September won’t be the one we see in November and December. When we do see actual football from this offense, there’s a good chance we’ll see more pistol and RPOs than we did before. If they work, we’ll get even more of them.
If there are problems — and we aren’t sure there are — they’re reconcilable from a football standpoint. What we have yet to figure out is if this coach and this quarterback can get together on a plan that not only works for each of them individually, but most importantly one that just plain works on the field.