Aaron Rodgers, Matt LaFleur navigating new Packers partnership
GREEN BAY, Wis. — Matt LaFleur leaned back in his chair and braced himself for the replay, reflexively massaging the black, plastic clicker he uses to watch film at his Lambeau Field office. On this Monday night in early June, however, there was no football being displayed on the large computer screen atop his desk. Rather, the Green Bay Packers’ rookie head coach was keeping tabs on Game 5 of the NBA Finals, and the sight that confronted him early in the second quarter was not a pleasant one: Kevin Durant’s right leg had buckled, and now the Golden State Warriors’ superstar forward was slumped onto the hardwood.
Twelve days earlier LaFleur, a 39-year-old former Division II quarterback, had become an involuntary authority on the mechanics of Achilles tendon tears while on a basketball court, and the replay review of Durant’s collapse triggered an expression of disgust on the coach’s face. "I don’t want to tell you what I think just happened," he said softly. "But I’m pretty sure I know what it is, and it’s not good."
As Durant hobbled toward the Warriors’ locker room, LaFleur propped his black-cast-covered left leg onto an adjacent scooter and began discussing the superstar who matters most in his universe: Aaron Rodgers, the 35-year-old quarterback who ranks as Titletown’s most precious regional treasure. And while LaFleur is undeniably excited about the prospect of working with the future first-ballot Hall of Famer, and Rodgers is similarly pumped about their partnership, there is one important stylistic gulf that must be confronted between now and the 2019 season opener between the Packers and the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on Sept. 5, and it is not a trivial one.
"Aaron and I have had some good talks, and we’re going to have to talk a lot more — and one thing we have to work through is the audible thing," LaFleur explained. "We’re running a system I first picked up while working with Kyle (Shanahan) in Houston a decade ago, and we’ve never really had a quarterback who’s had complete freedom to change plays at the line, because that’s not really the way the offense is set up. But, I mean, this is Aaron Rodgers. He’s had a lot of freedom to make those calls, and deservedly so. Now, how do we reconcile that, and get to a place where we put him in the best position to succeed?"
It’s a valid question, and one of the NFL’s most compelling ones heading into the 2019 campaign. When the Packers, in the midst of a second consecutive losing season, fired longtime head coach and offensive architect Mike McCarthy last December, it created one of the league’s more intriguing job openings in recent memory, given Rodgers’ sublime skill set. When the Packers settled on LaFleur, who had only one year of play-calling experience (as the Tennessee Titans’ offensive coordinator in 2018) but was highly regarded by a pair of former bosses and renowned offensive wizards — Shanahan, the San Francisco 49ers’ current head coach, and Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay — his endeavor to connect with and maximize the transcendental talents of his ultra-competitive quarterback became a massive storyline.
The LaFleur-Rodgers football marriage is still in its honeymoon phase, meaning there are some potentially hard conversations about how much leeway Rodgers will have at the line of scrimmage looming.
"It’s a conversation in progress," Rodgers said when we spoke at his locker last Tuesday, punctuating his words with a short chuckle. "I don’t think you want to ask me to turn off 11 years (of recognizing defenses). We have a number of check with mes and line-of-scrimmage stuff. It’s just the other stuff that really not many people in this league can do.
"That’s not like a humblebrag or anything; that’s just a fact. There aren’t many people that can do at the line of scrimmage what I’ve done over the years. I mean, obviously, Tommy (Brady) can do it, no doubt. Peyton (Manning) could do it. Drew (Brees) can do it. (Patrick) Mahomes will be able to do it. Ben (Roethlisberger) has called the two-minute for years. There are a few of us who’ve just done it; it’s kind of second nature. And that’s just the icing on the cake for what I can do in this offense."
So, to summarize: Rodgers wants to take advantage of his intelligence and experience to attack defenses, and LaFleur wants him to buy into a proven system that, because of its ambitious pre-snap activity and overall philosophy, restricts the quarterback’s ability (and, theoretically, his incentive) to do so. This is not a mean-spirited staredown that will necessitate a clear winner emerging as its sole means of resolution. The situation is, however, somewhat tricky, and the way LaFleur and Rodgers navigate the terrain will go a long way toward determining whether the Pack’s once-prolific attack gets back on track.
To make it work, both men will have to be adaptable, for there are some built-in challenges that won’t be easily navigated. For one thing, the scheme LaFleur is installing — which, for the strategy nerds, will have more in common with Shanahan’s multi-formational attack than McVay’s confuse-defenses-by-showing-the-same-look concepts — is designed to work without drastic deviation at the line of scrimmage.
"I guess from what you consider the true standard of ‘audibles,’ you’re right — we have not had that," LaFleur said last Tuesday during a second conversation in his office. "Because, you know, we pride ourselves on having concepts that have answers for whatever. Now, it might not always be the best answer, but you have an answer. But when there are plays that are called that have maybe not a very good answer, we typically call two plays and we run one or the other, based upon the look that the defense is giving us. The quarterback chooses, and there are criteria: We try to teach him the criteria for why we would want this play over the other play."
Rodgers, of course, has spent years conjuring potential adjustments that extend well beyond the binary model. Yet even if the quarterback feels as though he has the answers at the line, there are other forces working against him: specifically, mechanical limitations and time. Many of LaFleur’s play calls will require pre-snap activity, such as players going in motion, that complicate any potential departure from the script, and narrowly reduce the window on the play clock within which Rodgers must operate. Says one coach familiar with the system: "The time you actually have to change the play, on a 40-second clock, is so limited. There are so many nuances to it, that by the time you get through everything there are maybe 10 seconds at the line of scrimmage."
Additionally, some of the personnel and formations are so specific to certain play calls that it’s tough, if not futile, to change on the fly.
"I think that has a lot to do with it," LaFleur said. "We move a lot more. There’s a lot more motion. There are a lot more moving parts. And so if you just let the quarterback have that freedom to just get to whatever, I’m afraid it would slow our guys down. Now, he is a special talent and he’s got an incredible mind, so as we move forward throughout this process he’s getting more freedom. It’s just, where is that happy medium?"
LaFleur believes his system will greatly benefit his quarterback, both by relieving pressure in the pocket (through the implementation of a zone-read-based rushing attack, and the accompanying play-action throws) and pushing him to get rid of the ball quickly on most passing plays. In the past, Rodgers has shown a penchant for buying time, both inside and outside the pocket, and bailing the Packers out of tough situations by making exceptional throws.
If all goes according to plan, LaFleur hopes, those moments will become far less frequent. Rodgers? Well, he’s prepared to do those things as often as he needs to.
It should be noted that the quarterback, on a philosophical level, is excited about the new offense.
"This offense really stretches the defense formationally and with motions," Rodgers said. "A lot of what this offense is based in, with Mike and Kyle Shanahan and Sean (McVay), it’s stressing you with tempo and formation and motions. It’s really testing the eye discipline, especially with teams that want to play more man coverage.
"There’s so much motion and action and reverses and fake reverses and stuff that really stresses the discipline on that side of the ball — and then allowing you to get out on the edge and have some downfield opportunities. It really tests where (defenders’) eyes are going — just things happening that (they’re) not used to for a team that just lines up and plays."
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To be sure, Rodgers was highly comfortable in the McCarthy-era scheme, largely because of his ability to diagnose and solve problems at the line of scrimmage from a relatively static formation.
"That offense has worked for Peyton for years in Indy, and for me it worked for us for years here," Rodgers said. "But this offense is really gonna stretch you with pre-snap stuff. And the schemes are the schemes, and everywhere Kyle’s gone it’s been effective, so the schemes work. But what they’ve done on top of the schemes is window dressed it enough to really stress the defense’s eye control."
For now, Rodgers’ head is swimming. He’s busy learning what amounts to a new language. Often, in OTAs and minicamps, he has engaged in non-verbal conversations with himself, translating the McCarthy-era terms for one concept into the current terminology upon receiving the play call in the huddle.
"It is fun," Rodgers said. "It’s a challenge for sure. I ran the same system for so long. There’s a lot of stuff in my mind. Having to relearn certain terms, that’s been the hardest part. Learning new concepts that I don’t have any history with, it’s not that bad, because I had no point of reference. When you have the word that meant something in the new system for 13 years and now it means something else in the new system, that’s when it gets tougher. It’s still gonna take a while when I call the play; even when I’m breaking the huddle, I might say (to myself), ‘Oh, Shade equals Indy.’ My mind has a million things on it."
This is something to which LaFleur is mindful, and in some cases he has tried to ease the quarterback’s burden by altering the terminology.
"There’s certainly a learning curve," LaFleur said. "And at the same time, I feel like we’ve adapted, and changed some names of things (to words) that maybe he’s called it in the past. Like I always tell him, ‘Let’s make this our offense.’ And I think certainly I’ve got a philosophy of how we need to do things, but I’d be crazy not to listen to a guy that has got as much experience and has played at the level he’s played at.
"We did a lot of that, too, with (Falcons quarterback) Matt Ryan. It just took a year of working together to make it our offense in Atlanta. It did take some time figuring out not only the quarterback, but it’s everybody else too — it’s everybody else learning the details of the play. Because the beauty lies in the details, and those nuances can take you from just average to great."
So far, a pretty important member of the everybody else coalition has bought into LaFleur’s scheme.
"There’s a lot of big-play potential — a lot of things that are gonna scheme me to be open," said star wideout Davante Adams, who had a monster 2018 season with 111 receptions for 1,386 yards and 13 touchdowns. "The variance between the run and pass game is good; it’s gonna keep teams honest. They won’t be able to sit back and flood the passing lanes, and they won’t be able to load up in the box, because we’ll be able to do both.
"We’ve seen this system be effective, and people may think they know what to expect. But there’s a different level of quarterback here, and different personnel, so it’s gonna be a little bit different. There’ll be some surprises. We’ve got the potential to make some big splash plays and put defenses in a bind."
Mastering the intricacies of a new scheme is obviously a priority for Rodgers, but it’s not the only important element of this late-career sea change. It’s equally essential that he and his new head coach learn about one another from an interpersonal perspective — and this, too, is a work in progress.
Both men are well-intentioned and eager to connect; each has elements of his personality to which the other must adjust.
When Rodgers attended the Kentucky Derby in early May, he ended up encountering and spending time with LaFleur’s two most recent bosses: McVay and Titans coach Mike Vrabel. For a sample of the type of sentiment Rodgers might have heard from McVay, consider the Rams coach’s recent answer when I asked him for a quote about his friend: "The best way to describe Matt is, he’s an extremely detailed guy that thinks through all the potential problems that can arise and wants to work out an answer beforehand, the detail and the clarity. That’s why he’s such a great coach, and a reason why we are the closest of friends — and why I wanted to strangle him sometimes."
I asked Rodgers about LaFleur’s "healthy nervousness," and he smiled broadly.
"That’s not a far-off characterization of him," Rodgers said. "I think he’s just Type A, gung-ho and it just works him up a little bit. Everybody that knows Matt loves him. He’s a really good-hearted person and a super nice guy. It’s just getting him comfortable enough to start laughing a little bit, I think."
LaFleur, meanwhile, is slowly deciphering Rodgers’ dry and caustic sense of humor.
"It’s coming along," Rodgers said. "I don’t think he quite understands that sometimes I’ll make jokes that are kind of on the level where I don’t care if somebody gets them or not. I’ll kind of let things sit. And he’s sometimes, ‘What? Huh? What was that?’ We’re figuring each other out right now."
Shortly after LaFleur tore his Achilles and began running practices on a golf cart, Rodgers did a group interview at his locker at which he deadpanned that the coach’s superior athleticism, diet and work ethic should allow him to bounce back from the injury much more quickly than most people his age.
LaFleur got that joke.
"That was great," he said, laughing. "I showed that at a team meeting. He is funny."
Clearly, both parties are trying hard to make this work, and that’s a good thing. Any bonding that occurs between the two men over the next several months can only help make a potentially charged clash of approaches proceed more smoothly.
The push-and-pull has already begun. On a red-zone play toward the end of last Tuesday’s minicamp practice, for example, Rodgers dropped back, saw that his targets were covered and bought time by sliding to his left. He then uncorked one of those glorious balls that few other humans can, arcing a glorious pass to the left corner of the end zone that tight end Jimmy Graham leaped up and caught for a touchdown.
And no, that was not how LaFleur had drawn it up, but he still applauded from his perch atop a golf cart.
"That’s red zone football, right?" LaFleur said a few hours later in his office. "He made a hell of a throw, great anticipation, and Jimmy went up and got it. It was off-schedule ’cause the play was blanketed, and thankfully the pass protection was on point. It was two guys making a play, making you look good as a coach — because it sure wasn’t the play call that (was responsible).
"He’s made some unbelievable plays, maybe not going the most conventional route that I was thinking (he should). He’s got a calm about him that is amazing — I haven’t been around a guy as calm as that, and who can think as clearly and as fast. It’s been pretty impressive. And it just gives you more confidence that no matter what you call, he’s gonna make you look good."
In the end, as the coach and quarterback sort through their stylistic differences and figure out how much freedom will be possible and tolerable at the line of scrimmage, that may be Rodgers’ best argument: If the thought process behind an audible is sound, and the end result is positive, how mad can LaFleur be?
"(I won’t call) checks just to call checks," the quarterback said. "Look, you know the offense is great. And you scheme people up and you have formations and motions, and it should be fantastic. But if we need a little something, it’s ’cause we need it.
"Any check I’ve ever made is about getting us in a best-play scenario. So when it comes to that, if we need that, I’m sure he’ll be happy when it looks the right way."
We shall see — and come September, we’ll all be watching.
Follow Michael Silver on Twitter @mikesilver.
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