2020 very much has an “aside from that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?” kind of feel. There is one very big story that has dominated almost every aspect of everyone’s lives this year.
But OTHER than that, the Green Bay Packers have had a very good 2020, and there are no shortage of big storylines worth examining as we look back at this year. Here are our picks for the biggest and most important storylines of the 2020 calendar year.
Rcon14: Aaron Rodgers is BACK
There are a lot of interesting storylines with the Packers this year, but one matters far more than any other: Aaron Rodgers is Aaron F***ing Rodgers again. Since winning his last MVP in 2014, it’s been a rollercoaster ride. 2015 started out great and then turned into an absolute nightmare. 2016 started slow and then he was so blisteringly white-hot in the second half that he nearly nabbed the MVP from Matt Ryan. 2017 was lost to a collarbone injury. 2018 involved playing with a fractured leg and the general malaise and disgust that had set in during the McCarthy era. 2019 brought a new offense, but many of the same old problems for Aaron.
Now in 2020, he’s really re-invented himself again. No longer playing as a soloist or a one-man-army, Rodgers has settled in perfectly into the new offense. Not only has he settled in, but he’s become much more accurate once again. The offense improved, yes, but Rodgers also got better. Going from a frustrating shell of what he once was to essentially on-par with his peak is not something I think anyone foresaw this year, and it’s why Green Bay are legit Super Bowl contenders.
Paul Noonan: The Pettine Meeting
Rcon’s answer is obviously correct, but in the spirit of diversifying things a bit, if the Packers do go on to win it all (or get close) I wonder if we look on the Za’Darius Smith-led meeting with Mike Pettine sometime between December 1st and 7th as a turning point.
It’s very difficult to win the Super Bowl without a decent defense, as the 2011 Packers know all too well, and for much of the season we’ve often pleaded that “something has to change.” It looks like something finally did as the pass rush has been more aggressive and effective while Darnell Savage has suddenly turned into a monster in the secondary. I never thought this Packer defense could shut down Derrick Henry on a snowy day at Lambeau, especially while still playing elite pass coverage and getting pressure. Maybe that meeting was nothing, and this is all small sample size nonsense. Then again, maybe not.
Jon Meerdink: The Other Pettine Meeting
In January 2020, Mike Pettine was involved in another meeting, this time with Matt LaFleur. There was some rumbling outside of Lambeau Field that Pettine’s seat could (should?) be hot after several uninspiring performances by his unit down the stretch, not the least of which was the defense’s complete meltdown in the NFC Championship. But Pettine emerged from his meeting with his job intact, and LaFleur, having navigated one of the first big decisions of his first offseason with the Packers, said it was never in doubt.
Whether it was or wasn’t is a question for historians and take artists to debate, but what can’t be argued is this: LaFleur’s decision to keep Pettine has and will define a large part of the 2020 season. Even a reinvented Rodgers could be sunk by a poor defensive performance in the playoffs, and Pettine’s role in the defense will be a significant determining factor.
Tex Western: No new receivers, no problem
All spring and summer, it was a constant refrain: The Green Bay Packers didn’t do enough to help out Aaron Rodgers. The only notable addition at wide receiver all offseason was Devin Funchess, a player who opted out before the 2020 season due to COVID-19. The Packers drafted a quarterback, a running back, and an H-back with their first three selections, missing out on players like Justin Jefferson, Brandon Aiyuk, and Chase Claypool, all of whom have had impressive rookie seasons.
That left the Packers running it back with only returning players for Rodgers to throw to as he had in 2019, when the Packers ranked 10th in passing DVOA and Rodgers ranked 13th among quarterbacks. That’s a crew of Davante Adams, Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Equanimeous St. Brown at wide receiver and Robert Tonyan, Marcedes Lewis, and Jace Sternberger at tight end.
And yet, the Packers’ offense has not only survived without additions at the primary receiving positions, it has thrived. This hearkens back to Rcon’s point above, as Rodgers’ buy-in to Matt LaFleur’s offensive scheme.
The internal improvements that the Packers’ front office and coaching staff expected happened. Lazard has remained an efficiency monster, and MVS has expanded his deep-ball ability while showing some flashes of promise in terms of becoming a complete receiver. Tonyan has developed into an excellent receiving tight end, both as a red zone weapon and as a chain-mover in the play-action passing game. And perhaps the biggest improvement came from Adams, who was already an elite receiver but now is dominating the conversation around who is the best wideout in football.
Perhaps the biggest reason for improvement, however, is addition by subtraction. The removal of Geronimo Allison and Jimmy Graham from the roster took out 115 low-efficiency from the equation; with those passes distributed around to the likes of Adams and Tonyan, the Packers aren’t wasting a fifth of their pass attempts.
Yes, this Packers offense could absolutely use a dynamic after-the-catch player like Aiyuk now and an infusion of receiver talent in the long term. But Brian Gutekunst’s comments after the draft now look prophetic: he said that after the team missed out on a few players early in April’s draft, they didn’t think any remaining receivers were better than what they had on the roster. It looks like they’re right, as LaFleur, Nathaniel Hackett, and company have designed an elite offense around this same group of players that returned from a year ago and Rodgers’ buy-in has elevated this team to truly elite status and the two-time MVP onto the cusp of his third.