Miami, Florida: The final destination.
These are the voyages of the 2019 Green Bay Packers. Their twenty(ish) game mission: to exploit opponents’ weakness, to seek out victory at any costs and to boldly go where only George Siefert and the 1989 San Francisco 49ers have gone before: the Super Bowl with a rookie head coach.
That is the ultimate task Matt LaFleur faces as he prepares for his first trek onto the field as a head coach tonight as his Green Bay Packers face the Chicago Bears to engage the NFL’s 100th season.
So what will the Packers have to do this season in order to say “make it so” to a fifth Lombardi Trophy?
It starts with the head coach. The spotlight on the Packers usually shines on quarterback Aaron Rodgers and it always will, but this season it’s also on their coach and the intensity is even brighter. Rodgers is entering a season in which he turns 36 in December. The team just replaced long time head coach Mike McCarthy with a young offensive whiz kid in LaFleur and the year prior replaced general manager Ted Thompson with a younger hybrid version of himself and his mentor Ron Wolf in Brian Gutekunst.
While Gutekunst has made his own mark on the course of the franchise thanks to his more assertive approach to free agency and player acquisition in general, it will be LaFleur who will ultimately determine the 2019 campaign’s final destination. That is a lot to ask of a 39-year-old in his first head coaching job, but a lot of rookie head coaches don’t inherit one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game in Rodgers, the league’s best left tackle in ,David Bakhtiari and a top-five wide receiver in Davante Adams.
When you take those players and insert them into LaFleur’s system, a modern offense that schemes players open and runs a lot of play-action versus relying on isolation routes like McCarthy’s offense increasingly did in his final years, and there is a lot to be excited about. Seeing Rodgers and Adams in an offense designed to make the quarterback’s life easier is something Packers fans have been wanting to see for years and now they’ll finally get their chance.
Of course when you change head coaches for the first time in 13 years and he installs an offense that’s brand new to your generational quarterback, there are a lot of unknowns and the unknown can be terrifying. There has been a lot of discussion about “the audible thing” that has been driven by reckless media speculation, but you can not deny there are a lot of things riding on Rodgers and LaFleur getting on the same page. There is a rhythm to calling plays that they will have to develop and a trust that will have to grow. LaFleur has made it clear he wants to make Rodgers’ life as easy as possible and the quarterback would be wise to listen.
The Packers found themselves where they were the past few seasons almost solely because Rodgers single-handedly willed them there. Thompson’s misses in his final few drafts and McCarthy’s increasingly stagnant offensive system crippled the team but they still were in contention almost solely through Rodgers’ right arm and his brain. That has resulted in a swagger about Rodgers that exudes confidence but also has rubbed many the wrong way according to multiple reports during the offseason.
Rodgers buying what LaFleur is selling is going to be crucial. Throw in the hits Rodgers has taken from outside sources all year plus knowing he’s one ring away from catapulting himself into a different historical echelon and the smart money says he will but you don’t know for sure until the games start.
Then there’s the unknown of how LaFleur handles the adversity over the course of a 16-game season. At some point, the Packers are going to hit a crossroads. Can the 53 men on the roster look LaFleur in the eye and see someone that will carry them through and get them to where they want to be? The answer to that question could start to be revealed as soon as tonight. Soldier Field will be rocking and their defense will testing his new offense all night. How LaFleur responds under that pressure will give an early indication whether or not he’s up to the pressures of the job.
With all these unknowns, what exactly is known? Well for one, the Packers are going to run the ball more often. LaFleur has mentioned on multiple occasions how he wants to “marry the run with the pass” and this means feeding Aaron Jones, something fans have been clamoring for since last season when McCarthy forgot at times number 33 was even on the roster. Jones was one of the best running backs in football late last season before a knee injury derailed an otherwise promising campaign. He bulked up this offseason and eliminated sweets from his diet and Rodgers noted the running back was in the best shape of his career.
Unpredictability is also something that will be seen from the Packers’ offense this year, which again is something McCarthy’s offense was severely lacking. LaFleur’s system stems from what Mike Shanahan ran in Denver and that his son Kyle runs in San Francisco as well as what a lot of Sean McVay uses with the Los Angeles Rams. The offense specializes in doing a lot of different things from the same look. The Packers could be in offset I-formation where it’s a quick swing pass to Jones on one and play and then out of the same formation later on have it go to Jones on a wheel route the next. It keeps defenses guessing and when you add in Rodgers’ intelligence at the line of scrimmage, there’s a recipe for something good.
The word “potential” is thrown around a lot this time of year because there simply isn’t enough data to form any kind of logically sound conclusion. Logic right now would dictate that the Packers will be better than they were a year ago, but until more evidence is provided the best thing to do would be to hope for the best.
Who knows? Maybe by the end of the game tonight fans will look at the Packers’ performance tonight, raise one eyebrow and say “Fascinating.”