Sure, the 2019 Green Bay Packers benefited from unusually good health and a somewhat fortuitous schedule en route to the NFC Championship game, but 13-3 is still 13-3. That’s why anything less than another deep run in the playoffs would have to be considered a disappointment, especially for a team that returns all but two key starters. So what should we expect from the defending North champs over the course of the next four-plus months? Here’s the way I see it:
We’ll learn an awful lot about head coach and play-caller Matt LaFleur this season. Unlike Mike McCarthy, who relied on talent at the skill positions to overcome pedestrian schemes, LaFleur will need to rely on schemes to overcome pedestrian talent. The days of quarterback Aaron Rodgers dropping back and watching Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb, James Jones, Donald Driver, and Jermichael Finley separate from defensive backs have been replaced by Rodgers scrambling around the pocket while waiting – sometimes for what seems like an eternity – for anybody not named Davante Adams to create even the smallest of windows to deliver the ball. Just for fun, try to think of another team in the league with less proven talent at wide receiver and tight end than the Packers. I’ll wait. The reality is this – LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett are going to have to creatively figure out ways to effectively move the ball against quality defenses. That’s something they struggled to do a year ago. The hope is that a second season in the system will make a huge difference. Of course, that hope would be buoyed had general manager Brian Gutekunst used the spring to improve the talent, but he did not. The only new faces at wide receiver and tight end belong to Equanimeous St. Brown (injured reserve in 2019), Malik Taylor (practice squad), and rookie Josiah Deguara, and all three will open the season as deep reserves.
None of this is to suggest the cupboard is bare. Along with Rodgers, who’s still among the top handful of quarterbacks in the league at age 36, the offense boasts Pro Bowl-caliber players at running back (Aaron Jones), left tackle (David Bakhtiari), left guard (Elgton Jenkins), center (Corey Linsley), and wide receiver (Davante Adams). That should be enough talent to ensure the Packers will score in the mid-20s most weeks. But will that be enough against an out-of-division schedule that includes games against Drew Brees and the Saints, Matt Ryan and the Falcons, Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, Deshaun Watson and the Texans, Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers, Philip Rivers and the Colts, Carson Wentz and the Eagles, and Derrick Henry and the Titans? That remains to be seen. It’s also a perfect segue to the other side of the ball.
Unlike the offense, Gutekunst has invested all kinds of capital on the defense since taking over as general manager two and a half years ago. He’s spent over $170 million on free agents Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos, and Christian Kirksey and first-round draft picks on Jaire Alexander, Rashan Gary, and Darnell Savage. He also gave Dean Lowry and Kenny Clark extensions totaling $90 million. Simply put, few if any teams have devoted as much money and high draft picks on defense in the past three offseasons. And now it’s time for the big payoff. Finishing in the middle of the pack yet again is simply not acceptable, and with an offense that doesn’t have nearly as much talent, it almost certainly won’t be good enough if the Packers intend on competing for a trip to the Super Bowl in a conference loaded with quality teams.
Coordinator Mike Pettine will begin his third season in Green Bay, and nobody will be under more scrutiny. That’s just the way it goes when your defense gives up 285 yards rushing in the NFC Championship. It was the type of humiliating performance that often gets a person fired, but LaFleur – in a clear nod to continuity – chose to maintain the status quo. It’ll be interesting to see if this decision backfires on him the way keeping Dom Capers around after his defense was similarly embarrassed by the 49ers in the 2012 playoffs backfired on McCarthy. The difference between the two coordinators is that Pettine has a lot more talent to work with. Even with questions at end and inside linebacker, there’s no reason a defense with quality veterans and ascending young players at every level shouldn’t be a top-10 unit. Again, it all comes back to Pettine. While he was usually able to figure out ways to create pressure, that often left the run defense vulnerable. Sometimes, way too vulnerable. And he was slow to adjust at times – especially against the few multi-dimensional offenses the Packers faced last season (Philadelphia, Kansas City, Los Angeles Chargers, and San Francisco). If things don’t improve markedly on this side of the ball, it’s hard to see LaFleur’s patience extending for another year. It’s also hard to see the Packers being a viable threat in the NFC.
The name “special” teams has been a misnomer for years. “Not special” teams would be more accurate. And the Packers have no one to blame but themselves. From 2000 to 2018, the coordinators were Frank Novak, John Bonamego, Mike Stock, Shawn Slocum, and Ron Zook. Of this motley group, only Bonamego found another job in the NFL after getting fired by Green Bay. LaFleur had a chance to fix the problem soon after he was hired, but team president Mark Murphy balked at the contract demands of highly-respected Darren Rizzi. So the job went instead to Shawn Mennenga, a longtime assistant who was coming off a nondescript season in college. Well, you know the old saying, “you get what you paid for.” The Packers finished last season ranked 26th, and it took some improved play in December just to get that high. The punt return unit had a total of minus-9 yards through 11 games. Things started to improve once Tyler Ervin was claimed off waivers, and that provides hope for this season. Another positive sign was the consistent work done by the coverage units led by Will Redmond. The concern here is that some of the other key performers, including Jake Kumerow and Danny Vitale, are no longer around. They’ll need to be replaced by younger players. Oh, by the way, the Saints were ranked No. 1. Their coordinator? Darren Rizzi.
The Packers should be just fine when it comes to the specialists. Kicker Mason Crosby, punter JK Scott and long snapper Hunter Bradley return for a third season together. They’re also the only trio in the league to all be drafted – and all by the same team. Crosby is coming off one of his best seasons (22 of 24 in field goals) at age 35. Scott needs to be more consistent in the cold weather, but he has a huge leg. And Bradley has gone pretty much unnoticed since arriving, and that’s all you can ask of a player at his unique position. If there’s one thing fans shouldn’t have to worry too much about going into the season, it’s the kicking game.
LaFleur enjoyed one of the finest first seasons of any head coach in league history, but that guarantees nothing. Plenty of unsuccessful coaches started out with a bang only to get fired a few years later. That said, there was certainly a lot to like about the new leader of the Pack. For one thing, the 40-year-old brought much-needed energy to a team that had grown increasingly stale under McCarthy. Thanks to LaFleur’s boundless energy – even while wearing a walking boot on his injured foot – practices moved at a faster pace, and veterans seemed a lot more engaged. He also allowed players to express themselves both on and off the field – something the previous regime did its best to stifle. This, at least from afar, seemed to create an extremely close-knit team. And finally, LaFleur did a surprisingly good job when it came to game management. It was a surprise because he had only been a coordinator for one season prior to coming to Green Bay. Plus, managing a game was still an issue for McCarthy a decade into his tenure.
On the negative side, LaFleur allowed himself to be badly outcoached in the NFC Championship game. What made that performance even more troubling was that the Packers had just played the 49ers six weeks earlier. There was no shame in losing; the problem was not being competitive. Kyle Shanahan, who mentored LaFleur for years in Houston, Washington, and Atlanta, seemed to know what to expect every step of the way. Conversely, LaFleur and his staff seemed woefully unprepared – even though the 49ers didn’t do a whole lot different from the first meeting. Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh simply schemed the heck out of things while LaFleur and Pettine left the stadium looking like they each just went 10 rounds with Mike Tyson. And while two bad losses in one season against a very good team is no reason to panic, it is a concern – especially when you figure the Packers will more than likely have to get past the 49ers if they want to play in the Super Bowl. Fortunately, this concern can be alleviated to a great extent when the two teams meet again in early November. Or, of course, the concern can also be exacerbated.
As far as Xs and Os are concerned, it was kind of tough to judge LaFleur. That’s because he ran more of McCarthy’s schemes than his own, which wasn’t surprising since his quarterback spent 13 years in that offense. Truth be told, we probably won’t get the see LaFleur’s full vision until Rodgers is gone, but if this past offseason is any indication, we’ll see a bit more of it starting in a few days. The drafting of 250-pound running back AJ Dillon and fullback/tight end Josiah Deguara suggests LaFleur will at least attempt to pound the ball more in 2020 and thus incorporate more play-action passes than he did a year ago. On the other side of the ball, Pettine still has a lot to prove. His defense did some very positive things last season, but it was way too reliant on sacks and turnovers to get off the field. When sacks and turnovers didn’t happen, his unit was extremely vulnerable. And, of course, there were those two awful games against the 49ers. If you look up the word domination in the dictionary, you’d see a picture of Shanahan standing over Pettine.
As for the assistants, this season will be a big test for a number of young position coaches on offense. Jason Vrable will be expected to turn late-round picks and undrafted free agents into productive wide receivers. Justin Outten will need to coax a productive season out of at least one of his three young tight ends, and Adam Stenavich will have to figure out a way to make the offensive line function at a high level despite questions at right guard and right tackle. But perhaps no young assistant will be under more scrutiny than quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy, although unlike the others, his judgment day is still at least a year away. On the other side of the ball, perhaps the best addition the Packers made in the offseason was the highly-respected Jerry Gray, who should be a perfect fit for a secondary loaded with talented young players.
A 13-3 season has Gutekunst riding high these days, but that could change in a hurry if the Packers falter this season. He did himself no favors in the offseason. He replaced Bryan Bulaga and Blake Martinez with Rick Wagner and Christian Kirksey in free agency. The swap saved the Packers a lot of money, but it won’t make them a better team. Neither will the still hard to comprehend draft that saw Gutekunst select a third-string quarterback, a third-string running back, and a third-string tight end with the first three picks. He’s obviously relying on some of his past high picks (i.e., Josh Jackson, Oren Burks, Rashan Gary, Darnell Savage, and Jace Sternberger) to make significant jumps in 2020 while expecting Jordan Love, AJ Dillon, and Josiah Deguara to lay the foundation for the future. It’s a risky strategy for a team that was playing for a trip to the Super Bowl less than eight months ago. You have to give Gutekunst credit for having the courage of his convictions. It’s either going to leave him a legend in Green Bay or looking for a new job by 2025.
After 32 months on the job, Gutekunst’s been pretty conventional when it comes to roster building. Other than the day in March 2019 when he signed four free agents for $190 million, he hasn’t been particularly aggressive when it comes to acquiring players. He sure hasn’t shown Ron Wolf’s willingness to take chances. Trading Damarious Randall for DeShon Kizer pales in comparison to trading a first-round pick for Brett Favre or a second-round pick for Keith Jackson. At this point, Gutekunst is much more similar to Thompson – just with more personality and less drafting acumen. To be fair, Thompson was surrounded by some of the best young talent evaluators in the business when he was hired. Wolf handed him future GMs John Schneider, Reggie McKenzie, and John Dorsey. Conversely, Thompson handed Gutekunst a bunch of guys who are more likely to be car salesmen than GMs five years from now. Jon Eric-Sullivan, Milt Hendrickson, John Wojciechowski, and Matt Malaspina might be close with Gutekunst, but none of their resumes are particularly impressive. It would behoove Gutekunst to go outside the building and find some talented young scouts. It’s what Wolf did three decades ago and what Thompson never had to do in 12 years.
I once opined that as long as Aaron Rodgers stayed healthy, the Packers could win 10 games with Mr. Magoo as head coach and about 25 players from the local YMCA. That was obviously hyperbole, but my point was clear. A team with a generational talent at the game’s most important position should always be a contender, and that’s proven to be true in Green Bay for the past 28 seasons. With Brett Favre and Rodgers under center since 1992, the Packers have been to the playoffs 20 times. As for those eight non-playoff seasons, one was in Favre’s first year as a starter, one was in Rodgers’ first year as a starter, one was in Ray Rhodes’ first and only year as coach, one was in Mike Sherman’s first year as coach, one was in Mike McCarthy’s first year as coach, one was in Sherman’s last year as coach, one was in McCarthy’s last year as coach, and one was in a year that saw Rodgers miss seven games. Notice a pattern? It’s safe to say the Packers are a pretty good bet to be playing in January 2021 as long as No. 12 stays on the field.
But the goal for a team with a great quarterback should always be to win the Super Bowl, and that’s where the problem lies. Rodgers has been let down time after time in January by suspect coaching and/or an inadequate supporting cast. In 2009, Dom Capers was helpless to stop Kurt Warner and the Cardinals. In 2011, a porous secondary was picked apart by Eli Manning and the Giants. In 2012, the defense allowed the 49ers’ Colin Kaepernick to run and pass for 445 yards. In 2013, the defense couldn’t stop the 49ers from kicking a last-second field goal after Rodgers rallied the Packers to a tie a few minutes earlier. In 2014, McCarthy got conservative, and both the defense and special teams collapsed in Seattle. In 2015, Rodgers threw two Hail Marys to force overtime and then watched as the defense allowed the Cardinals to march down the field. In 2016, the Falcons scored 44 points and probably could’ve scored 60 against an overmatched defense. And, of course, last year, when Shanahan and Saleh made LaFleur and Pettine look like checkers players at the World Chess Championship. And while Rodgers wasn’t great in every one of those eight games, he was never the reason the Packers lost. In fact, he was never close to being the reason.
The guess here is that Rodgers again won’t be the problem should the Packers get to the postseason. The odds are far more likely that a superb offensive mind like Shanahan, Sean Payton (Saints), Sean McVay (Rams), or even Bruce Arians (Bucs) will befuddle Pettine. Or perhaps a team with a strong defense will clamp down on a Packers’ offense that figures to struggle to create big plays. What history has taught us is that teams with great quarterbacks almost always win in September, October, November, and December, but often struggle in January without help from a strong supporting cast. Just ask Dan Marino, Peyton Manning, and Dan Fouts. And while the Packers have their share of impact players, they don’t have enough. Lane Taylor and Billy Turner on the right side of the offensive line? Allen Lazard and Marquez Valdes-Scantling as the Nos. 2 and 3 wide receivers? Marcedes Lewis, Jace Sternberger, Robert Tonyan, and Josiah Deguara as the tight ends? Dean Lowry and Tyler Lancaster at defensive end? Oren Burks at inside linebacker? Chandon Sullivan as the nickel cornerback? Even if LaFleur is truly a quality coach and Pettine shows even the slightest ability to adjust on the fly, the Packers just don’t appear to be talented enough to win multiple postseason games in a conference with potentially seven or eight really good teams.