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Cautiously Optimistic Part 1: Matt the Genius

The LaFLeur offense doesn’t need Aaron to run it, and we should expect more, sooner, from the rookies.

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I have several reasons I’m cautiously optimistic about the Packers, both for this season and in the future. The Matt LaFleur offensive scheme is the biggest reason, and the one that is most firmly rooted in reality, so let’s start there.

Before we get to the good stuff, I have some lingering doubts about LaFleur that I rarely see mentioned, but are worth keeping in mind. When Matt left LA, Sean McVay didn’t exactly put up a big fight to keep him. LaFleur’s offense in Tennessee was also quite poor, which doesn’t exactly bolster the idea that he can lead some form of a rebuilding team to glory. But the single biggest question mark for me is simply the Rodgers question. Aaron Rodgers is one of the greatest quarterbacks ever, and knows a thing or two about running a passing offense. It’s entirely plausible that the Packers’ offensive success since 2019 is more based in Rodgers than LaFleur, and we’re all about to have a rude awakening.

But I don’t think so.

I think the Shanahan system is what you want, and what you’ll get here, and that the Packers have made strides to get the personnel to run it properly. First and foremost, to get the most out of the system, you can’t have this.

If you’ve been listening to Jourdan Rodrigue’s Playcallers podcast (you should) which traces the line of the major current coaching trees up to and through Shanahan and McVay, one common theme you’ll pick out is how influential the Shanny tree has been even in non-Shanny offenses. There are, of course, concepts worth borrowing from any given offensive scheme, but in listening I couldn’t help thinking about how the individual tactics of a system can lose some effectiveness outside of the scheme of that system. You can borrow from Kyle Shanahan, but if you don’t have the 49ers’ personnel, or overall offensive scheme in place, you’re going to forfeit either some elements of surprise, or a physical mismatch.

Rodgers essentially “stealing” plays from LaFleur harmed the effectiveness of those plays he was willing to leave in, because the entire offensive philosophy is meant to function as a comprehensive whole. I’d highly recommend watching this short interview with George Kittle in which he goes over just how integrated every Kyle Shanahan play is with every other Kyle Shanahan play.

While Rodgers was undeniably brilliant in 2020 and 2021, he’s never been a good fit for the Shanahan system. Rodgers doesn’t like to target the middle of the field. Rodgers is skittish on his RPO reads. And Rodgers actually tends to struggle on some of his shorter throws due to some mechanical flaws. More than anything, Rodgers is a great tactician, but sometimes struggles at seeing the larger whole.

The most important factors to understand about the Shanahan system are as follows.

1. Shanny likes shorter throws, and uses the middle more. Since 2019, Jimmy Garoppolo has averaged 6.9 intended air yards per attempt. For Aaron that number is 8.1.

2. The shorter throws drive a higher completion percentage, but sacrifices some explosiveness. To compensate on the explosion-side of things, the 49ers rely on YAC. Last season, Deebo Samuel was first in YAC/R, and George Kittle was 9th. 49ers dominate the YAC list routinely, with Deebo leading the way. In 2021, Deebo was first, Brandon Aiyuk was 11th, and George Kittle was 12th.

3. Since 2019, Aaron Rodgers’ receivers have averaged 5.76 YAC/Completion, and they have never eclipsed 6.0 YAC/Completion in a season. Jimmy’s Receivers averaged 6.75 YAC/Completion over that time frame, peaking at 7.6 in 2020.

4. Shanny favors “physical pass catchers” at all positions, from Deebo and Aiyuk, to Kyle Juszczyk at fullback, to Kittle, to Christian McCaffrey, and previously, Raheem Mostert. Stout receivers, tight ends, and running backs who can catch make everything work.

5. His ideal personnel can power run or “power receive.” The scheme will generate good, short looks to YAC-capable players. The quarterback will have high-percentage, low risk throws.

LaFleur has used some of Shanahan’s concepts, but the Packers have not run a full-fledged copy. Allen Lazard, Aaron Jones, and AJ Dillon are “Shanny” types, but Davante Adams, despite his brilliance, nor was Randall Cobb, nor was Aaron Rodgers. So, how sure can we be that we’re moving in that direction?

Let’s go back a bit to LaFleur’s one season as the OC in Tennessee under Mike Vrabel in 2018. It was a bad team with poor offensive talent outside of Derrick Henry, who, despite being the absolute tank that he is, isn’t a great Shanny fit. (Henry can be an effective pass catcher, and has been several times, but his success is based more on simply being a tank than on any soft-skill pass receiving.) The quarterback for the 2018 Titans was (mostly) Marcus Mariota. Mariota was the primary starter for the Titans from his rookie season of 2015 through LaFleur’s 2018 season before tapering off and losing his job to Tannehill part way through 2019.

From 2015 to 2017, Mariota never completed more than 62.2% of his passes in a season, and never less than 61.2% in a season, but in 2018 under LaFleur, that jumped to 68.9%. That jump came in spite of the fact that Mariota lost his two primary receivers, Rishard Matthews, and tight end Delanie Walker from 2017 to 2018, replaced by the inefficient Corey Davis in an increased role, who led the Titans in targets in 2018 while catching just 58% of them. So what drove the higher completion percentage? Air Yards, or lack thereof.

In 2016, Mariota averaged 9.8 air yards per target, followed by a solid 9.0 in 2017. When Matt LaFleur entered the picture, that number crashed to 7.6, as running back Dion Lewis soaked up 59 short targets. Tight ends Jonnu Smith and Luke Stocker, and full back Anthony Firkser combined for 71 high-percentage targets as well, while even Corey Davis’ average depth of target fell from 11.4 to 10.3.

The problem, of course, was the Tennessee’s weapons were just poor outside of Henry. Dion Lewis was well-regarded as a receiving back during his time with the Patriots, but after a fantastic 2015 season he declined incredibly quickly, as injuries robbed him of his explosiveness. This is all too common for smaller backs, and the Tennessee front office did themselves a disservice by bringing him in to take Henry off the field. LaFleur did himself no favors in his self-scouting either.

The fact of the matter is that Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor are poor fits as primary receivers in a Shanahan-style offense as both are better suited in the vertical passing game, and the Titans lacked the sort of YAC-generators that allow for simple throws to be efficient. The Titans surely realized this in the move to Ryan Tannehill the following season, shifting their style to their personnel with an offense built around Henry, play action, and Tanny bombs.

I suspect LaFLeur learned an important lesson about understanding, and tailoring scheme to personnel in Tennessee, because the Packers’ offense with Rodgers and Davante Adams was definitely catered more towards what Rodgers likes to do than what LaFleur prefers to do, and it worked. That compromise was absolutely necessary as the Packers completely lacked any serious YAC generators. Even the tight end position, which is almost always an easy way to generate some simple YAC, was lacking, as Robert Tonyan is one of the leagues worst players after the catch.

Now, with Rodgers, Adams, Cobb, Tonyan, and Lazard all gone, the big question is whether the Packers have anyone to fill the traditional Shanahan Samuel/Kittle roles, and the answer is probably yes.

While no one else is Deebo Samuel, Christian Watson did a fair impression when healthy in his rookie season, finishing 8th in YAC/Reception. Being Deebo isn’t as much about being able to overpower DBs as it is being a threat to score on any touch, and in that regard, Watson was amazing. While he’s perfectly capable of smoking a corner on a go-route, his vision and agility on the shallower parts or the route tree, and on jet motion are what really distinguished him as a weapon.

I think it’s helpful to contrast Watson with Marquez Valdes-Scantling. MVS was a very useful receiver for the Packers, and earned a ring with the Chiefs, but fundamentally, if you could stop MVS from getting behind you, you could neutralize him fairly easily. However, if you play off Watson like you would MVS, he will simply catch an easy target, and smoke you across the field. He’s an absolute nightmare for a defense, and every defensive concept used against the Packers going forward will largely be based on attempting to control Watson.

The Packers still need their Kittle though, and took two cracks at it in the draft with Luke Musgrave out of Oregon State, and Tucker Kraft out of South Dakota State. Musgrave has received the bulk of early media coverage, but while he’s the higher pick and a phenomenal athlete, the key to the offense’s success is more likely to be Kraft. Kraft is an outstanding athlete in his own right, and while it’s hard to scout up from SDSU to the NFL, it was Kraft who excelled in creating YAC.

Finally, I want to go back to second round pick Jayden Reed one final time, because at this point I have basically pulled a 180 on my early assessment of the pick. (Please see this post, and this post for additional context.) The fact of the matter is that any assessment of Reed as an outside receiver (where he played 84% of the time at Michigan State) that does not project him as a slot receiver, is a bad assessment, and my assessment was just that.

Reed’s YAC numbers playing outside at Michigan State were pedestrian, but there is ample evidence that he will have a great deal of success from the slot at the next level. Playing in the slot comes with shorter routes, and no sideline to limit your lateral movement, benefitting those who excel with their agility in open spaces. One of the best proxies for such a thing is returning punts, where we find that since 2019, Reed was simply outstanding.

I would have preferred they take a larger, more physical receiver, but in truth, that player did not exist in this draft, and you cannot select what is not available. It was a small class, and getting the “best small player” is a smart approach to take. Given Reed’s solid play on the outside, and his demonstrated skill set as a punt returner, I suspect he’ll be a matchup nightmare in the slot.

It’s difficult to project any offense to take a step forward based on the idea that two rookies and a second year player will immediately contribute, but I suspect the youth movement will come along more quickly than people think. The scheme should be an immediate boon to Jordan Love, and should run well with the team’s young YAC creators, but aside from all of that, it’s also an easier scheme to learn.

Any sophisticated NFL offense is difficult to digest at an expert level, and still can take years to really master, but in this case, the Packers are moving in a direction that should help young players contribute faster. The system is built on simpler reads, and designed deception. While no offense completely excludes the occasional complex option route, there should be less of it. Most importantly, young receivers will not have to develop a telepathic relationship with Aaron Rodgers to get on the field.

Think about the what is likely to happen from the perspective of Aaron Rodgers hating young receivers. Rodgers is an expert in several offensive systems at this point, and he requires a similar level of performance from his receivers. There is nothing wrong with having high standards for your co-workers, but it can come at a cost. While a savvy veteran like Davante Adams is perfectly capable of getting on the same page, it took years for that chemistry to develop. Complexity can be extremely efficient, but it absolutely freezes out youth. (It’s also ironic that Rodgers required post-snap expertise from his receivers while refusing to make post-snap RPO reads.)

In the Shanny/LaFLeur system, for the most part, receivers know where they will be on any given play. The deception comes not from receivers making calls on the fly, but from the size and speed of the personnel on the field, and how the defense reacted on previous plays. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but it’s been true for the 49ers, where Deebo Samuel and George Kittle were both extremely impactful as rookies.

Matt LaFleur did an excellent job melding his system with Rodgers’ preferred offense, and if not for some leaky special teams play, the Packers may very well have made it to another Super Bowl. If LaFleur is capable of making the shift back to his preferred version of the offense, the reload may be quicker than anyone is predicting.