Aaron Rodgers raised eyebrows when he said the gap between the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers looks bigger than it is, but not with his head coach. On Wednesday morning, Matt LaFleur, as fired up as he’s been at the podium this season, expressed fiery discontent with the effort his team gave in the NFC Championship Game. When the 49ers beat the brakes off the Packers on Sunday, they didn’t just expose the personnel flaws on the roster—slow linebackers, plodding receivers outside of Davante Adams, no defensive line depth after Kenny Clark— though they certainly did that as well.
No, Kyle Shanahan and Robert Saleh demonstrated what Super Bowl-level coaching looks like, and their team played with have-to-have-it intensity their opponent flatly lacked. In other words, it’s not just who is on the field, but how they’re prepared and their mindset for the game. It reflects a need for improvement in talent, coaching, and leadership for the Packers to reach that proverbial next level.
LaFleur didn’t mince words on Wednesday during his end-of-season press conference. He was pissed.
“I just didn’t feel like we played with the same urgency, the same tenacity, the same toughness,” LaFleur lamented.
“I don’t understand that because you’re there. You have an opportunity to go play in a Super Bowl and for that that to happen is — it’s bothersome.”
Bothersome would be putting it mildly.
“We have to look at ourselves. Everybody ... Why weren’t our guys playing with their hair on fire? I think everybody in our organization has to do that.”
Of course, that self-reflection begins with LaFleur, who refused to endorse defensive coordinator Mike Pettine a day after reports came out that a change wouldn’t be “shocking.” In fact, LaFleur fired a shot across the bow of the defensive preparation as part of his disgust with his team’s play against the 49ers.
“It’s disappointing because it’s not like we didn’t know what they were going to do. We knew exactly what they were going to do.”
That’s on Pettine. If the team knew what was coming and still couldn’t stop it, that reflects a lack of preparation, or at least poor preparation, as well as execution. It also makes the second game this season where Kyle Shanahan read their mail. If that’s the team the Packers are chasing in the NFC, an inability to match wits would signal a fatal flaw in the coaching staff.
That preparation, the plan the Packers mentioned all week, must be better because we know the 49ers are as well-coached as any team in football. The same will be true next year for teams like the Saints, Cowboys, Rams, and Eagles, with whom the Packers will be fighting in the conference.
Low energy and effort stems from leadership, but not just the coaches. LaFleur, never one to be loose with words, obliquely referenced the play of his two prized edge rushers for sub-par play.
“We didn’t set the edge the same as we had been earlier this season,” LaFleur said, not naming Preston and Za’Darius Smith but calling them out nonetheless. If they’re leaders on this team, and it’s clear they are, they must play better, lift their teammates up, and make sure their intensity matches the moment.
For as outstanding as the Smith Brothers played this season and their estimable contributions to the culture in Green Bay, this stage is new to them. They’re not used to fighting in January as the faces of their franchise. Now, the Packers are looking to them to step up, as they look to Aaron Rodgers, Davante Adams, and the vets on the offensive line, to set the tone for these moments.
They know what it takes now and Green Bay needs them to respond accordingly. Considering the leap they were able to take from last year to this year, such a marginal improvement would come easier. They played integral roles in bringing this locker room together, and now they have the opportunity to buoy their brothers even further.
All the good culture in the world doesn’t replace talent either, though it can elevate teams to play beyond the sum of their parts.
Beyond Kenny Clark, the Packers start Dean Lowry, the definition of an OK starter. After that, there’s a cliff, with Montravius Adams not taking the leap forward we heard about in the spring and into training camp. Tyler Lancaster’s story inspires, but his play hardly does. Improving the defensive line next to the studs the Packers already have, even with more just OK starters, has the potential to improve this team in a larger way than the incremental talent increase would otherwise indicate.
A beefed up line keeps the linebackers freer, allowing the Packers to play smaller through this offseason, Brian Gutekunst can decide he wants a linebacker whose flaws require elite talent in front of him. When Martinez was at his best flowing downhill, he had Clark and Mike Daniels eating up blocks. If that’s what he needs to be good, then he’s not very good. That lack of vision, burst, and playmaking showed up again on Sunday. Even when he read the play correctly, he was slow to arrive or ineffective disengaging from blockers.
Upgrading the defensive line would make the linebacker’s life easier and vice versa. Green Bay has the opportunity to do both.
And the offense isn’t without blame. Despite the excitement over an improved game plan, the Packers offense listlessly moved through the first half with sloppy turnovers and conservative playcalling. LaFleur said he wants to up the tempo, something Rodgers mentioned in his post-game comments as well, but adding speed overall looks to be a priority this offseason.
Rodgers holding the ball won’t change, but when the rhythm passing game is called, he needs places to go with the ball. In a draft loaded with deep threats and run-after-catch mavens, the Packers can quickly upgrade the skill positions, bring back some of the young, talented receivers who have shown promise the last two seasons, and feel much better about their ability to match up with some of the deeper secondaries in the league.
Talent upgrades dominate the discussions for the offseason work and rightfully so as it’s the most obvious and relatable way fans can talk about getting better. Bring in better players and thus create a better team. It’s a start, but it’s not the finish line. Coaching, whether it’s upgrades to the staff or an adaptation of mindset, will have to be better to match the best in the league, and the leadership on this team can’t allow the kind of egg-laying we saw this season. Energy and effort are baseline expectations and this team failed in the biggest moment of the season to meet those expectations.
Adding talent only goes so far. The current stars and coaches who make up the institutional system that talent joins will determine how far the Packers go in 2020 and beyond.