The Green Bay Packers are worse. After free agency, replacing Bryan Bulaga with Rick Wagner, losing out on Emmanuel Sanders to instead add Devin Funchess, and moving on from Blake Martinez for the oft-injured Christian Kirksey, everyone agreed the 2020 Packers were worse. Heading into the draft, they could change that narrative and flip it on its head by stacking the roster with explosive skill talent — maybe a run-stuffing defensive lineman and a speedy linebacker. Or a wide receiver. When that didn’t happen, the betting odds on the Packers dropped, the win total projections fell, and the Minnesota Vikings became the favorites in the NFC North.
Remember that? It was back in April, even if it feels like five years ago. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell made the Green Bay his No. 1 regression candidate for 2020: a fraudulent 13-3 squad who got worse, instead of better. The Packers went a remarkable 8-1 in one-score games last seasons, a number sure to regress in 2020. They were an 8-8 team, or 9-7 if they got lucky.
Until they weren’t. A 43-34 drubbing of the Vikings in Week 1 disabused observers of the notion Minnesota would be the better team while also providing the springboard for an MVP caliber season for Aaron Rodgers. This, of course, would be used against anyone who says Matt LaFleur is Coach of the Year. They were 13-3 last year! How could he win it? They’re going to be 13-3 at best this season. And look, he has the MVP!
Rodgers and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes have put together statistically similar seasons to date. They head the best two offenses in football by a mile, and each boast historically great numbers. The key difference: only one has Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, along with arguably the greatest play-caller of his generation. Not to mention, the Chiefs offense have faced the 25th-hardest schedule coming into Week 14, while the Packers are 6th.
If we’re splitting hairs, and that’s often what we have to do with multiple deserving candidates, shouldn’t the context bolster Rodgers when he doesn’t have the same kind of institutional advantages? Does the difference in offensive line play really bridge the gap between how dominant Kelce is relative to the next most impactful pass catcher for the Packers?
We have to judge it based in the context of expectations. We expected the Chiefs to be great and they have been. They should be because of all the talent they have around Mahomes in addition to his greatness. The Packers were supposed to come back down to Earth after being the worst 13-3 team ever, wasting Rodgers’ twilight seasons. They’d make the Wild Card if they were lucky.
LaFleur deserves consideration for Coach of the Year for many of the same reasons Rodgers rightfully sits at the top of the MVP discussion. This team got better instead of worse on the field, despite universal admonishment for not actually getting better on paper this offseason. Nearly every reason the Packers play improved since January stems from two people: Rodgers and LaFleur.
In the offseason, the pair cut down the playbook, emphasizing the looks Rodgers liked while LaFleur made his case for more pre-snap motion and built-in throws. The 41-year-old coach empowered his quarterback to change whatever he wanted at the line of scrimmage, to play out of empty even with big personnel, and to trust the offense. Rodgers put his faith in the second-year head man, starting getting the ball out quicker and finding that everything flowed more freely this season.
The details are better, the spacing of the offense more clean, in large part because of how LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett drilled it this offseason. That’s coaching. Processing on the field, making the right calls pre-snap, and executing post-snap falls on Rodgers. Building in more pre-determined reads and layups bolstered Rodgers’ completion percentage almost 8 full percentage points, putting him on pace to set a career high in that department.
According to Pro Football Focus, he’s put together by far the fewest turnover-worthy and negatively graded plays in the league, despite leading it in touchdowns. All of this comes with a cast of characters that was supposed to be lacking beyond Davante Adams. Even Adams’ vertiginous rise to the top of the receiver hierarchy in the NFL stems in part from the work Rodgers and LaFleur put in.
Adams has been this guy since 2017; he’s been waiting for his QB and coach to catch up (Headline suggestion: “Did the Packers waste Davante Adams’ prime?”). LaFleur is putting him in better positions to succeed — he’s leading the league in touchdowns from the slot for example — and his quarterback is having the best season with his ball placement since at least 2011 and maybe of his career. Much like LaFleur, Adams’ greatness too often gets overshadowed by Rodgers. This season, people are finally taking notice, but the Packers are also doing a better job of showing him off.
This offense went from good to great solely through internal development and growth. LaFleur nascent ascendence to the upper echelon of play-callers and play-designers set up the massive improvement in play-action efficiency where Rodgers went from one of the worst quarterbacks last season to the top guy in 2020. They focused less on shot plays and more on short and intermediate routes, and Rodgers makes the throws look routine even when they’re not.
Last season, Rodgers too often made difficult that which LaFleur tried to make simple. He’d hold the ball too long or miss open receivers. This season, his trust in the scheme and his players allow him to fire at will, a credit to the player and the coach. Sunday’s game against the Lions demonstrated it in microcosm. Each of the Packers’ first two touchdowns came on back-shoulder darts Rodgers put in exactly the right spot. Adams made the first play and scampered into the end zone, the kind of alpha moment we’ve come to expect. The second went to Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who put together one of his best games as a pro in what has easily been his finest season in the NFL. With amusement parks closed, he’s become Cheesehead Nation’s favorite rollercoaster.
LaFleur called the play “teaching tape” with how MVS aggressively attacked the ball with his hands, keeping it away from the defender. The throw also happened to be perfect. Imagine if instead of MVS, the Packers could make those same throws to Hill. Well, Mahomes doesn’t have to imagine it. That’s his life.
Perhaps most importantly, no one discredited Mahomes two seasons ago for his coach’s greatness when he won MVP. No one schemes up more innovative concepts, creates space for his players, or has more guys running open than Reid. We shouldn’t undermine Rodgers because LaFleur has likewise been great.
The award usually goes to a coach like Ron Rivera, who probably should win it if Washington goes 9-7 or 8-8 and wins the East given the adversity he and that team have overcome. But remember, this was a Packers team projected to be a 9-7 or 8-8 team coming into the year. After the draft, their projected win total literally dropped, falling to 8.5 or even 8 some places.
Ironically, their close-game regression has fallen: Green Bay sits at 3-2 in one-score contests this season. But if they go 13-3 after being projected for 9 wins, that’s a hefty margin of performance above expectation. Is Washington at 8-8 more than four games above expectation? The same is true for the Browns who had better Super Bowl odds before the season in some places, and the same or better win totals. Pittsburgh became the trendy “sleeper” pick before the year, so their success isn’t all that surprising. Miami with Brian Flores may have the best case, but they’re going to be hard-pressed to go 9-7 and make the playoffs. Is that a COY season?
If we want to built a narrative relative to expectation, Rodgers MVP season stands head and shoulders above Mahomes in that regard, and quietly, LaFleur’s looks much more impressive than the love he’s currently getting for the award reflects.
This team was supposed to be worse. They got better. Rodgers was supposed to be washed. He’s as good as ever. Much like players who make the leap from good to great, the hardest thing for a team to do is make that same jump. If the Packers were fraudulent contenders last year (and they were), then we have to acknowledge the accomplishment of transforming into legitimate ones in 2020 without adding any significant pieces. That means rewarding the two men most responsible for it happening.