Several months after the Green Bay Packers stunned the NFL world and their own future Hall of Fame quarterback by selecting Jordan Love in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Los Angeles Rams traded Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford. Then the San Francisco 49ers raised with three first-round picks to move up for Trey Lance.
The Shanahan-tree offense can be run by button-pushers, but when Aaron Rodgers showed the league what’s possible when an elite talent takes the controls, the league followed. Love’s special traits, his ability to create outside structure, are what separate him from the low-ceiling guys running these offenses around the league as well as the guys under center last year for the aforementioned Rams and 49ers. Those teams still found success with those players because of how much easier this system makes life for quarterbacks, a foundation Love will need if and when he takes over for Aaron Rodgers.
It’s not just “the system” either; that’s reductive and undercuts the credit coaches like Sean McVay, Shanahan, Matt LaFleur and Kevin Stefanski deserve for how they’ve molded and altered the schemes to fit their teams. Each run a slightly different version of it, somewhat in contrast to the last West Coast Offense trend where teams across the league trotted out what felt like nearly identical offenses, all from the Bill Walsh/Mike Holmgren tree.
LaFleur’s leap mirrored the jump this offense took last season after an underwhelming Year 1, thanks in part to the quarterback buying into the idea of pre-snap motion, play-action, and RPO’s, the foundations of this offense. In return, LaFleur schemed open receivers for Rodgers in ways no coach had before, provided him opportunities to take shots down the field, while also offering easy reads and throws at times as well.
The Packers offense led the league in open percentage last year, meaning a defender within three yards of the receiver, plus No. 1 in wide-open percentage, which was a defender within five yards. This is how to set a quarterback up to succeed, define reads, and allow him to play point-and-shoot.
It also helps to have an elite receiver who creates so consistently. Davante Adams led the league in RPO receiving, with the Packers as a team finishing top-3 in RPO usage. Adams also put together the most efficient slot season in the league per route. He can be deployed anywhere and find success thanks to his preternatural ability to create space for himself, while also taking advantage of the opportunities the offense affords him.
The old adage about a running game helping a young quarterback could be a boon for Love, if for no other reason than it would help keep them out of second-and-long if the offense could be productive on the ground on early downs or convert consistently on 3rd-and-short. There’s no reason to believe this offense won’t be good on the ground either, with Aaron Jones, A.J. Dillon and intriguing rookie Kylin Hill in the backfield behind an offensive line that finished 1st in ESPN’s Run Block Win Rate last season.
Whether the run game succeeds or not, the Packers will continue use play-action heavily as a basic tenet of the offense. Play-action increases offensive efficiency because of the added illusion of complexity designed for and by LaFleur. Last season, the quarterbacks who used it the most often include Ryan Tannehill (36.4%), Jared Goff (34%), Baker Mayfield (30.1%), Nick Mullens (29.9%), Aaron Rodgers (29.8%), and Kirk Cousins (27.9%). All of them play in a variation of this Shanahan-tree wide zone system. Going back to 2019, Marcus Mariota (33.7%) and Jimmy Garoppolo (31.9%) also finished near the top of the league.
Under Mike McCarthy, the Packers and Rodgers got away from play-action, ostensibly because Rodgers preferred to play from the gun, see the defense at all times, and function from the pocket with more options.
By contrast, in Year 2 with LaFleur, Rodgers finished as the highest graded quarterback in the league off play-action with a mind-boggling 97.0 offensive grade, far and away the best in the league. He threw 21 touchdowns with no interceptions and completed 73% of his throws off play-action with nine drops per PFF, which would give him an incredible 85% adjusted completion percentage.
One might assume the high touchdown numbers came from pushing the ball down the field, but Rodgers finished 15th in average depth of target off play-action among quarterbacks with at least 200 dropbacks. This helps Rodgers keep the ball away from harm, something he’s better at than any quarterback in league history and a place where Love will have to improve from his 2019 college season.
Rodgers didn’t record a turnover-worthy play off play-action all season. Combine that with the aDOT and the efficiency of the offense, and we find an offense that not only creates easy plays for the quarterback, the scheme can help avoid negative ones as well.
The offense also gets the ball out of the quarterback’s hands in a blink on designed quick throws. On throws under 2.5 seconds, Rodgers led the league in passer rating, getting the ball out in 1.71 seconds. Usually these came on RPO’s, screens, or check-with-me’s. These weren’t all three and four yard gainers, the classic “passing game as extension of the run game.”
Love likely won’t be able to execute the entirety of the pre-snap read-and-react throws Rodgers could. Brett Favre revolutionized pre-snap run-pass options in the NFL and Rodgers took up the mantle. On the simple reads where Love can merely ID when the corner is playing 10 yards and they can steal an easy completion, those should be available. But reading coverages, identifying pre-snap and firing quickly into a vacated hole where a blitzer or rotating safety was, will take time.
Still, there are plenty of built-in throws coming in this offense, whether it’s the RPO screens or play-action in-breakers the Packers killed teams with last season. The Packers with Rodgers didn’t get the ball out quickly at a particularly high rate, ranking 21st in the league. Instead, teams with less experienced and gifted quarterbacks running similar offenses did. Justin Herbert finished 17th in percentage of drop-backs with throws in under 2.5 seconds, while Mullens finished 14th and Tannehill 12th. This offense caters to layups and threes: get the ball out quickly to playmakers or use play-action to create shots down the field.
Luckily for Love, he won’t have to get the ball out if he doesn’t want to thanks to the blocking in front of him. Last year, the Packers finished 1st in Pass Block Win Rate, 6th in Football Outsiders’ adjusted sack rate, and 2nd in Pro Football Focus’ pass blocking grades. Losing Corey Linsley hurts that calculation to be sure, but Jon Runyan Jr. provided stellar play in spot duty last year if Lucas Patrick wins that center job. And if Patrick doesn’t win it, it’ll likely mean rookie Josh Myers plays well enough to take it from him, which suggests he will do a quality job.
What’s more, this offense uses RPO’s and play-action often enough that pass-protection issues can be mitigated against most teams even when they do pop up. The bigger question comes when the defense can’t get stops. One of the reasons this offense fell apart a bit in big moments the last two years stemmed from trailing. It’s harder to credibly run play-action and RPO when down double digits. The defense has to help Love out.
This, unfortunately, was said over and over and Rodgers as well, even at his apex when the offense didn’t require as much run action. Too often, the defense didn’t hold up its end. Whether or not Love is under center this year and moving forward, those trends can’t continue for the Packers to hope to have success.
The good news is the offensive system and infrastructure, with the best receiver in the game, an elite offensive line, and terrific running backs to go with a scheme designed to make life easy on Love, creates an environment to succeed and score points. It’s easy to have some level of faith the offense will be able to score consistently against most teams. The question the Packers have been trying to answer for over a decade is can they get enough stops?