GREEN BAY, Wis. — Outside the walls and the locker room of Lambeau Field, the Green Bay Packers cynics sit back and ask not if, but rather when the relationship between first-year coach Matt LaFleur and star quarterback Aaron Rodgers will implode.
After all, Rodgers is a star passer who is just three years younger than his head coach, and there have been previous reports of tension between Rodgers and former coach Mike McCarthy. If McCarthy won a Super Bowl ring with Rodgers and still had issues, the feeling is a first-time head coach with no cache will have even more problems, getting constant pushback from his quarterback.
Don’t believe the hype.
When I asked LaFleur about his relationship with Rodgers, he used the word “fun” several times. When I asked Rodgers about it, he agreed.
For now, these are good times.
Earlier this year, when it was reported Rodgersat the line of scrimmage like he has in the past, it was considered the first sign of tension. He is one of the all-time great quarterbacks, a player who has made a career out of improvisation and being able to change plays at the line of scrimmage.
In LaFleur’s scheme, that hasn’t been a big part of it in the past. So, naturally, the vultures expected it to be a major issue. So was it overblown?
“Way too much,” LaFleur said. “If you watched the other day, he’s got a lot of freedom. He’s earned it. I think what we’re trying to do was to make sure he understood why we are calling certain things. And now he has a great grasp of it. He’s made some checks out there, some really smart checks. He’s a great player. He’s really smart. It’s like having a coach on the field.
“He’s got a lot of freedom out there. I think we’ve never in our past had a guy do a whole bunch of that. But at the same time we haven’t had a guy like that either. It’s been a good healthy mix of things he’s done in his past and the quarterback position in general.”
That doesn’t mean learning a new offense has been easy. It’s been challenging. Rodgers even said he’s felt like a rookie at times.
“I have, I have,” Rodgers said during post-practice chat at his locker Tuesday. “When you break the huddle, and you’re not quite sure what everybody is doing on a play — there’s been a couple of moments like that. In that case, I throw it to 17 (Davante Adams) or 80 (Jimmy Graham). I am just going to stare down Davante and see what happens.
“I enjoy this challenge. It’s definitely taking time to get used to because it’s so different than what I’ve run philosophically for so long. In a lot of ways, it’s going to be a study for me — the foreign language part of it. There are so many carryover words that don’t mean the same thing. So you train your mind to think about words in a different way.”
Rodgers has always had freedom at the line, and craves that. It’s what’s helped him become who he is as a quarterback. That’s why it’s important for him to have that in this offense.
“I like having the stuff at my disposal to get to when the play looks doomed,” he said. “There is stuff built in based on run-pass or run-run checks. There is stuff that is easy kind of Band-Aids when we have a bad play we need to get out of.”
So far, the offense has looked uneven. But that’s to be expected. In two days of practice against the Houston Texans, it was far from smooth. But that’s what camp is all about, figuring out what works and what doesn’t work.
What has worked is the quarterback room so far. Rodgers said it’s the best one he’s had in a long time. With young quarterback DeShone Kizer, Tim Boyle and Manny Wilkins, plus young coaches in quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy, offensive coordinator Nate Hackett and LaFleur, it’s a loose group to help maintain levity in the building process.
“Hackett is one of the goofiest, funniest guys we’ve had it in the room,” Rodgers said. “He helps keep it light. Matt’s a little more serious. There’s a good yin and yang there. We have fun, but hold each other accountable. It’s fun seeing Matt open up and joke around.”
The fun times are back in Green Bay for Rodgers. That’s not a good thing for opposing defenses. He’s healthy, which he certainly wasn’t last season, and he’s excited about the new offense.
Here’s an early prediction: Rodgers will be MVP, and LaFleur will be the Coach of the Year.
Fun times indeed.
Expect anything on defense
Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine is going to have a lot of fun playing with all the styles of players he has on his front seven. It was evident from the three days I watched practice that the Packers will throw a ton of looks at opposing offenses.
There are looks where just one or two players have their hands in the ground, with several others standing up, two in the A-gaps ready to blitz.
“He’s done a great job of having complex looks, but keeping it simple for our guys,” LaFleur said. “It’s what we call on offense, the illusion of complexity.”
The idea is to make it look sophisticated to the offense, while making it simple to run for the defense.
“That’s what’s so good about coach Mike’s defense is he can switch it up,” pass rusher Za’Darius Smith said. “An offensive coordinator will probably never know where we are coming from because each guy can player every position.”
In Smith, who was signed as a free agent from the Baltimore Ravens, the Packers have the ultimate chess piece. He can rush from the edge standing up, can put his hand down on the end and he is a good enough inside rusher at 269 pounds to push the pocket.
Which does he prefer?
“I think inside,” he admitted after spending a minute thing about it. “It’s a smaller space to get to the quarterback.”
In Preston Smith, the team’s other marquee free-agent signing, and first-round pick Rashan Gary, the Packers have really fortified their unit up front. There were several looks I saw where Gary, a power end at Michigan, was standing up in the A-gap as a blitzing player. He dropped out of that spot and actually made a nice deflection of a pass in one practice.
The receiver who’s stepping up
In Davante Adams, the Packers have a star receiver. He was outstanding last season and should be even better in the new offense. His yards per catch average should go up from 12.5 last season to 14.0 this season.
The guy who can help those numbers go up Marquez Valdes-Scantling. He has made big strides in his second camp, clearly a more polished player than he was a year ago as a rookie. He caught a 70-yard bomb from Rodgers on Sunday that looked sure to be an incomplete pass. Rodgers even said he thought it got away from him, but Valdes-Scantling tracked it down.
“He’s confident. He can run. He’s has really good hands. He’s tough. He’s extremely intelligent,” LaFleur said. “I am really excited about what he’s going to bring to the table.”
The other Packers players I talked with echoed those same sentiments.
Figuring out the backfield
For now, the running back situation is a problem. Both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, the team’s projected top two backs, are sitting on the sidelines nursing injuries. That has forced some younger players to get experience, but both Jones and Williams should be back soon and are expected to be ready for the opener.
“I feel confident in both Aaron and Jamaal,” LaFleur said. “We are trying to get the younger guys developed behind them.”
One guy who will be on the field more in this offense is fullback Dan Vitale. He has impressed in camp in LaFleur’s offense, which will feature a fullback.
“I just think we’re one of the few offenses that will utilize the fullback outside of this short-yardage, goal-line situations,” LaFleur said “I think it gives you some flexibility from an offensive perspective. It gives you more options.”
More from Packers camp
- This is the season second-year corner Jaire Alexander emerges as a star player. He is an outstanding cover player — watch his game against the Rams last season — and should improve dramatically. If you are looking for the breakout Packers defender, Alexander is that guy.
- It will be interesting to see what the Packers can get out of tight end Jimmy Graham, who turns 33 in November. Graham was bothered by knee and thumb injuries last season, but he hasn’t missed a practice this camp. Graham caught 55 passes in his first season with the team in 2018. The Packers also have like what they’ve been getting from backup Robert Tonyan, who had a nice catch against the Texans in Monday’s practice. They also have veteran Marcedes Lewis, who is more of a blocker, and third-round pick Jace Sternberger.
- I like one of LaFleur’s rules about practice: No fighting. His rule has some conditions too. If a veteran player gets tossed from practice, he will play more in the preseason. If a younger player gets tossed, he will play less. The idea is veterans prefer to play fewer plays while younger players want to play more. I like it.