Matt LaFleur wants to follow the San Francisco 49ers model, just not in the way most think. In two games against the Green Bay Packers last season, Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers offense ran the ball 22 times and 42 times. The NFC Championship Game tormenting of LaFleur’s team required a meager eight passing attempts and 77 yards. In the regular season, a pair of chunk passing plays salted the game away. They followed the model that worked that week to get a win. That’s a model worth following, and LaFleur sees his offense doing just that, despite the concerns over an alleged switch to a run-based offense.
“I think it’s week-to-week. You’re always trying to find the best way to move the football,” LaFleur said in an interview on Wilde and Tausch.
“I personally think it’s more of having plays that play off each other, just so you keep the defense off balance, whether it’s running the ball 10 times in a game or running the ball 50 times in a game, it really doesn’t matter to me.”
Drafting A.J. Dillon and Josiah Deguara signaled to many fans and analysts that this Packers team is in copycat mode, attempting to recreate a run-first 49ers offense run by LaFleur’s old boss in the Bay. But to LaFleur, nothing changed from his ideals. In his first press conference as a head coach, LaFleur emphasized the outside zone run serving as the foundation for the offense and creating the illusion of complexity, plays that look the same but aren’t.
Finding players who can be an asset in the run game as well as through the air provide specific challenges most defenses can’t match. No team presents more of those matchup nightmares than the 49ers with receivers who can play running back, running backs and fullbacks who can catch, and dominant move tight ends who double as offensive tackles.
“The more you can be unpredictable in those normal situations, meaning first and second down situations, then I think it just presents more challenges to a defense,” LaFleur says, a concise summary of the advantages San Francisco used in each matchup to defeat his team.
Most analytics suggest teams ought to pass more on first down than they typically do. LaFleur went the other way this season, looking for more balance and leaning on play-action when he did throw. An elite rush offense kept the Packers in second-and-manageable, where they were one of the most aggressive teams in recent memory creating chunk plays on second-and-short.
In fact, rather than turning into some anachronistic 1980’s John Riggins-led offense, LaFleur wants to be more aggressive taking chances downfield. He says his biggest point of emphasis this season is to find more ways to create explosive plays.
“I think it does start with the playcalling, maybe just taking a few more chances to try to generate—help generate those plays down the field. Typically, if you’re getting those explosives, you have a much better chance of scoring points.”
LaFleur said the team finished 4th in efficiency but 23rd in explosive plays. According to Football Outsiders, adjusting for schedule, Green Bay finished 11th in offense, but the point about chunk plays stands out.
Aaron Rodgers was second in deep pass attempts last year and tied for second in touchdowns, but he ranked just 31st in adjusted comp % (aimed passes minus drops) among QBs who attempted at least 10 deep balls. Among preferred starters, only Russell Wilson and Matthew Stafford attempted a greater percentage of their throws deep than Rodgers and he finished fifth among preferred starters in passer rating on deep throws.
In other words, the Packers were already one of the most aggressive teams slinging it deep last year, but not nearly as efficient as other teams. In our recent play-action study, Rodgers bears responsibility for the biggest portion of those struggles, particularly with off-target throws. That said, according to Sports Info and Solutions, no quarterback lost more value last season to drops than Rodgers.
LaFleur managed plenty of creative opportunities to hit shots, but his team couldn’t quite make them work. He mentioned Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling first when asked which players he believed could step into a bigger role as explosive players in 2020, adding his excitement about free agent Devin Funchess. Eventually he named just about every offensive player, which suggests he expects the offense to be chunk play by committee, an intuitive approach given the talent (or lack thereof) they have at the receiver position.
Unfortunately, this offseason hasn’t afforded the team any time to get the usual spring reps, though the NFL reportedly hopes to create a minicamp in June to backfill time.
Last offseason, the Packers waded through flying storylines about potential pitfalls and power struggles between quarterback and coach, questions raised without basis in fact. This offseason, it’s these specious claims about running the ball more when the reality, according to the head coach, is precisely the opposite. The Packers actually want to rely more on the passing game to score points.
And why? Because they’re more likely to score when they do that. And that makes them more likely to win. The coach and quarterback made it abundantly clear last year the “how” is egoless. Rodgers said explicitly he doesn’t care about stats, just winning. LaFleur doesn’t want to build some run-heavy team in the image of Shanahan Sr., but he damn sure wants to win like that. He could have worse role models.