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Matt LaFleur stays on message at combine: Run game can help Aaron Rodgers

Mike McCarthy preached balance, but rarely practiced it. Matt LaFleur sounds ready to enact action to go along with his words on the run game.

NFL: Atlanta Falcons at Green Bay Packers
Aaron Jones should be preparing for a feature role in the Packers offense under Matt LaFleur.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

After Brian Gutekunst dismissed the idea that scouting potential draft picks would change under Matt LaFleur, the Green Bay Packers' new head coach could have gone up the podium in Indianapolis and repeated how similar everything would be in 2019. He didn’t. And while he didn’t explicitly say, “We’re going to look different this year,” the implication of his words, about the importance of running the ball and stretching the field off that, run counter to the offense we’ve seen in Green Bay the last few years.

In 2018, the Packers were among the least balanced teams in the league, particularly on first down. Despite Aaron Jones’ remarkable efficiency and top-of-the-league average per carry, Green Bay obstinately refused to give him the ball. Exacerbating the problem, McCarthy’s design and the players' execution of the play action schemes were pathetic given the quality of talent involved (including and especially Aaron Rodgers).

That will change under LaFleur. To wit, the new head coach barely even mentioned his two-time MVP quarterback, but answered multiple questions about offensive line traits, running-back-by-committee, and run game philosophy.

“What we want to do is assemble or offense through the running game. It think it takes a lot of pressure off the quarterback,” the new Packers coach said Wednesday.

“We want to have plays that start off looking the same, that are different.”

Before LaFleur took the podium he told ESPN’s Rob Demovsky he won’t worry about why Rodgers no longer thrived under his predecessor, focusing instead on how the two of them can make it work in 2019 and beyond.

“I know he wants to win, and he’s starting to think about his legacy,” LaFleur said to ESPN, pointing out that better balance can make the Rodgers’ life easier on third down while also extending his career. Throwing to backs would also ease that burden. The top three teams last year in targeting running backs were quarterbacked by Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Philip Rivers. That’s not a coincidence. Get the ball to playmakers, reduce the hits on the quarterback, and give him outlets to create positive yardage when it’s not there down the field.

That said, the Packers aren’t going to force a square peg into a round hole. LaFleur says the roles of the players will be determined by their skillset.

“You look at, going back to Atlanta how we used with Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman is different than how we used Todd Gurley where he was more of your checkdowns and screens. Certainly I think if you got a guy you can release out of the backfield, it just adds another layer to you offense and gives defenses something else to think about.”

In particular, the Freeman and Coleman comparison could be apt given the Packers willingness the last two seasons to split carries between Jones and Jamaal Williams. LaFleur emphasized the need to take stress off individual players and spreading carries around, something he did in Tennessee last season with Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis as well. Whether or not that means he’s comfortable with the two backs Green Bay already has is a separate question.

As is following through on these promises. Mike McCarthy was famous, or perhaps infamous, for preaching the value of balance and the run game, then abandoning it at the first sign of trouble. LaFleur spoke glowingly about his friends Sean McVay and Matt Nagy, two virtuoso offensive coaches who thrived in Year 1. Each has been criticized for their lack of commitment to the run game despite the success of their backs.

We may get a better picture if the Packers use draft capital on a running back and/or a tight end who can really block. Not only would those players solidify the notion Green Bay truly will move to better balance, but they’ll likely fit the description of what LaFleur said he’s looking for: “Tough players that are really smart and really love to compete.”

In a stark departure from his previous press conferences, LaFleur wasn’t asked much about his plans for Aaron Rodgers, and he didn’t offer much in the way of new insight. When asked about the three receivers returning from the 2018 draft class, LaFleur pointed out their size and speed relative to the new offense which will prize the ability to create big plays down the field.

He also mentioned the ability to adapt, something he learned last year as a playcaller in Tennessee where he had to modify his offense from Week 1 one once Marcus Mariota got injured. It got to the point he had to call wildcat plays just to create something.

“Just being prepared for every situation in terms of you look at what happened with us in Week 1, dealing with injuries, and trying to plug in people to be productive on offense, just thinking outside the box,” LaFleur said.

That would likewise be a major change from McCarthy, who stubbornly refused to alter his approach to games year-to-year, week-to-week or quarter-to-quarter. Malleability should also benefit Rodgers, along with the run game, to make his life easier with an offense that is less predictable.

Getting Rodgers to buy in will be part of the philosophy they’re already working to install, one based on building relationships every day. LaFleur’s most eloquent response of the media session came to a question about McVay’s traits as a leader and communicator above his football acumen. Attempting to create an open and honest line of communication, one aimed at getting buy-in from players, will be a cornerstone of the program under LaFleur, much like the one McVay built in Los Angeles.

Rodgers still stirs the drink on offense in Green Bay. LaFleur’s job is to make sure he can stir it for years to come, starting with the run game. Considering that’s the tenant on which his entire offensive scheme is predicated, that’s a pretty good place to start. The moves the Packers make in free agency and the draft should hint at just how committed to that plan he is, and whether he can shake the stigma of McCarthy by actually following through with his ground game promises.