GREEN BAY, Wis. — It wasn’t a warning so much as a word of caution: Don’t try to get Matt LaFleur to say that the Green Bay Packers will finally run his offense.
The Packers’ coach, for months, refuted and scoffed at the idea that for the past four years he compromised or conceded to quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
At first, he tried to joke about it.
“I’ve been hearing that a lot,” LaFleur said on March 28 at the NFL owners meetings in Phoenix.
Rodgers hadn’t even been traded to the New York Jets yet.
Four months later, he was still hearing it.
From inside Lambeau Field, no less.
On the eve of training camp in late July, Packers president Mark Murphy, in his address to 7,825 of the team’s shareholders gathered at the stadium, said these 13 words: “You’re going to see probably a little bit more of Matt’s true offense.”
Murphy would later expand on that.
“We’re a much different team than we were last year,” Murphy told reporters after the shareholders meeting. “We’ll be younger, but I’m optimistic. I obviously have a lot of confidence in Matt.”
Five weeks later, with LaFleur in good spirits now that training camp was complete, the subject was broached again during an interview with ESPN — despite those close to him warning that he doesn’t like the notion that the Packers weren’t running his offense all along.
“I don’t even know what that means,” LaFleur said, sinking back into his chair in the green room next to the Lambeau Field media auditorium. “Every year, you better be willing to evolve to whatever you are working with, but I don’t know what that means.”
LAFLEUR AND HIS assistant coaches spent the offseason creating a plan to revamp the offense to suit new starting quarterback Jordan Love, the No. 26 overall draft pick in 2020.
Part of that included a study of how one of LaFleur’s coaching influences, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, so successfully adapted his offense to quarterback Brock Purdy, the final pick of the 2022 draft, after both Trey Lance and Jimmy Garoppolo were lost to injuries last season.
Shanahan & Co. did it on the fly, winning five straight games to end the regular season and two more in the playoffs to reach the NFC title game. The Packers had an entire offseason to dive deeper.
“You watch pretty much all the other teams in the NFL that are similar to you in that sense,” said offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich, who, like LaFleur, worked under Shanahan. “Brock came in and had a lot of success last year.
“Anytime you have a young quarterback come in, you’re looking at, ‘OK, what are the schemes? What are the different route concepts? What are the different things that you can do to kinda simplify things, make reads a little easier, whatever it may be, to just put him in an advantage or put him in a comfortable place?’”
Still, there is only so much a coaching staff can do without knowing a quarterback’s exact strengths and weaknesses. Three years as a backup and one full training camp as the No. 1 quarterback might not be enough to pinpoint that with Love — admittedly, the Packers still don’t know what he does best without regular in-game experience.
“We’re going to find out when we start playing,” LaFleur said.
LaFleur, Stenavich & Co. might know what has worked — and perhaps more importantly what hasn’t worked — against the Packers’ defense based on intra-squad practices. But that doesn’t mean the same plays and concepts will work against the Chicago Bears in Sunday’s season opener (4:25 p.m. ET, Fox) and beyond.
“I think that usually happens about halfway through the season, where you have ideas,” Stenavich said.
Which is why the offense Love leads might look significantly different from the one Rodgers ran in Green Bay under LaFleur since 2019. LaFleur, like any good coach, played to Rodgers’ strengths.
It worked to the tune of 47 wins in 66 regular-season games with LaFleur in charge (all but one started by Rodgers).
“I think as Matt and Jordan grow together, they’ll start to tailor it to what he does really, really well,” Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst said in a preseason interview with ESPN. “Certainly, we were at a different level just because of where Aaron was in his career and what he was able to see and do pre-snap and things like that. But yeah, that will be interesting where that goes and how we grow.”
The beginning of the Rodgers-LaFleur partnership wasn’t without bumps. They danced around the issue of audibles for much of that first offseason. Early on, LaFleur said they “traditionally haven’t had a whole lot of audibles” in this offense.
By their first summer together, that seemed to soften. Rodgers indicated they had built a mutual trust when it came to changing plays.
Before their first game together, LaFleur said Rodgers had the “green light to do whatever he needs” at the line of scrimmage.
No one will ever know how often Rodgers went to what LaFleur calls a “can” plan — meaning the quarterback is allowed to “can” the play for something different — or how often he made the right decision, but two MVPs and three straight seasons with 13 wins before last season’s decline to 8-9 would indicate it worked for him and LaFleur.
But it also lent credence to the theory Rodgers wasn’t running the full version of LaFleur’s offense.
ESPN NFL analyst Robert Griffin III, a former NFL quarterback, said earlier this offseason that one of LaFleur’s strengths as a coach — LaFleur was RG3’s first position coach with Washington — was that if the quarterback ran the offense as it was designed, LaFleur would say, “We’re not going to come back in film room and circle or highlight this guy that’s wide open who’s not one of your reads.”
Or as Love said during training camp: “Most plays in our offense, they’re pretty straightforward. You might run the play, [and] it has a ‘can’ on it. For a certain look, you’ll ‘can’ it. If you’re getting looks like all-out blitz, stuff like that, you know you’ve got to check out of to get to certain routes — the playbook’s open for that. But for the most part, it’s staying within the scheme that we’re calling, especially during training camp.”
THE LAFLEUR OFFENSE, at its core, revolves around this: “Philosophically speaking, I’m a big believer that a lot of the explosives come off your run game, whether it’s keepers or play action,” he said.
That should not be confused with wanting a game manager as a quarterback. In some ways, that’s what Rodgers was in 2019 when he threw for 26 touchdowns, his second-lowest total while playing a full season.
The next two seasons, both MVP years, Rodgers combined for 85 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
When it comes to explosive plays during the LaFleur era, only two teams had more pass completions of 40 yards or more than the Packers (44) — the Chiefs (50) and Titans (46). Not all of those would be considered deep balls, but when it came to throws that traveled 30 or more yards in the air, the Packers also ranked third (with 27) behind only the Chargers (31) and Lions (28).
“What I learned from [Rodgers] was I’d never been around somebody who could throw go balls [deep throws] so well, and you could generate explosives by throwing go balls, which I’ve always viewed as maybe a lower-percentage throw,” LaFleur said. “With him, they weren’t so low percentage.”
It also meant Rodgers shied away from the middle of the field, between the painted numbers.
When asked whether Rodgers did that by design, LaFleur said: “No, because I feel like a lot of our offense is predicated on going numbers to numbers.”
Yet, in four years of the Rodgers-LaFleur pairing, Rodgers threw to the middle of the field less frequently (41.4%) than all but one of the 46 quarterbacks with at least 500 pass attempts from 2019 to 2022, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Only Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts (38.7%) threw between the numbers less often.
Part of that could be that longtime Packers quarterbacks coach Tom Clements considers throwing late over the middle to be a cardinal sin. It too often led to interceptions, and Rodgers has the lowest interception percentage (1.4%) and best TD-to-INT ratio in NFL history (4.52).
When asked whether he has any reluctance to throw between the numbers, Love said: “Over the middle? No.”
Love seemed puzzled and asked why.
When told that Rodgers “preferred to throw …” Love finished the sentence: “Outside?”
“It all comes down to coverage and the concept you have and just reading it out,” Love said. “You want to take advantage of what the defense is doing and attack the weak spots they have — whether that’s the middle of the field, the sideline, whatever it might be. But I feel confident throwing anywhere on the field.”
On the flip side, it would appear Love might not be as effective as Rodgers was outside the numbers, at least not yet. Rodgers’ arm strength and accuracy were a perfect combination for going deep, and go routes are typically run outside the numbers. It didn’t hurt to have a deep threat like receiver Davante Adams for LaFleur’s first three seasons.
“I can’t tell you how many times where I was like, ‘Well, it’s two-man [coverage], the ball’s not going there,’ and sure enough the ball went to Davante on a go,” LaFleur said. “And I’m like, ‘Holy s—, how did that ball get in there?’”
However, there were some Shanahan-LaFleur staples that held true with Rodgers.
The Packers had the second-highest rate of receiving yards after the catch (52.4%), behind only the 49ers, according to ESPN Stats & Info. They had the ninth-highest rate of plays with motion before or at the snap (50.4%) and the 14th-highest rate of snaps under center (37.8%).
In practice, Love has shown a willingness to take the checkdown pass if his early progressions aren’t open. In those instances, Rodgers sometimes preferred to hold the ball and go off schedule or throw it away.
“Jordan’s done a really good job with the rhythm throws, the plant throws he’s been on point with,” LaFleur said. “A lot of it just, to me, it’s like how does he respond when the pocket’s not perfect? How does he respond when they’ve got a concept gloved? And can he make the off-schedules? If you’ve got a guy that can do those types of things, that automatically puts your offense at a different level.”
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EVERY QUARTERBACK HAS his favorite throws. Rodgers loved, among others, the back-shoulder fade. He practically mastered it.
It might take more time for Love to find his go-to throws within LaFleur’s offense.
“I think, come game time, we’ll start to see the ones that start clicking,” Packers running back AJ Dillon said. “Maybe he finds Christian [Watson] down the sideline and every time it’s just there. I remember Davante and Aaron, they always had that little end zone play that was almost automatic. I don’t even know what exactly the play was, but Davante would just win the one-on-one, and it was like you know they’re going to score. I feel like it’s too soon to say [Love has] a signature [throw].”
The Packers also expect Love to run more than Rodgers did. Although an effective runner when he did, that wasn’t often Rodgers’ first or second choice.
“Jordan has a lot of ability to scramble, man,” Packers outside linebacker Preston Smith said. “I always joke with him that I’ll run him down, but he has a lot of ability to get out of the pocket and use his legs. I feel like he’s a dual-threat quarterback who can have a lot of ability to hurt you in multiple ways.”
Whatever the Packers look like with Love at quarterback, don’t ask LaFleur if they’re finally running his offense now.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen him frustrated by that at all, but I don’t know that I’ve talked to him about it,” Gutekunst said. “I can see where that’d frustrate you. We’ve had that offense the whole time.”