GREEN BAY — If there was one overarching theme in the days and weeks that followed the Green Bay Packers’ season-ending loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game four months ago, it was undeniably this: Head coach Matt LaFleur could not wait to get back into his Lambeau Field office/Xs and Os laboratory and start working on how Year 2 of his offensive scheme would look.
The rookie coach had created an amalgamation of his own scheme and some holdover concepts from the system of his predecessor, Mike McCarthy, and the results were mixed. The team went 13-3 and were one win away from a berth in Super Bowl LIV, but the offense had delivered some uneven performances and had done next to nothing in its two matchups with the 49ers vaunted defense in the most critical games of the season.
Statistically, the offense had been a middling operation, finishing 15th in scoring offense (23.5 points per game), 18th in total offense (345.5 yards per game), tied for 17th in yards per play (5.4), 15th in rushing offense (112.2 yards per game), 17th in passing offense (233.3 yards per game) and tied for 21st in third-down efficiency (a 36% conversion rate).
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, meanwhile, had a decidedly un-Rodgers-like season statistically, other than keeping his interceptions down. Rodgers finished his 12th season as the starter having thrown for 4,002 yards with 26 touchdowns and four interceptions for a passer rating of 95.4, the third-lowest of his career as a starter.
“I think (the offense) evolved over the course of the season, (and) the communication with our players got better,” LaFleur explained a few days after the season ended. “The expectations, getting them to understand why we’re trying to do certain things. Anytime you have a veteran quarterback — and I went through this in my time in Atlanta (with Matt Ryan) — you always want to make sure that guy feels comfortable with what you’re doing. I thought that evolved as the season went along. I thought it got much better, especially when you look back, in hindsight, at what we did in Week 1 to the end of the season.
“I think it’s going to continue to evolve. I think this offseason will give us a good chance to reflect and see what we did well and see where we want to go with it. I know there will be some changes that we’ll make and we’ll try to implement some different things to try to be more efficient and more effective.
“There were glimpses of some really good and then there were moments of really bad. We’ve got to try to eliminate those, and certainly there’s some pointed areas of emphasis that we’ll make sure we improve upon on – (such as) third down. That was not up to the standard and if you don’t convert on third down, it’s hard to stay on the grass and it’s hard to be a consistent offense.”
Thus, as LaFleur mapped out his offseason program and contemplated all the different things he could install or expand on in Year 2 — even before free agency and last month’s draft — there was an excitement and an anticipation not just for him, but for general manager Brian Gutekunst and for Rodgers.
“I do think Aaron played at a really high level this past year and I’m excited about Year 2 with Matt and where those guys can go together,” Gutekunst said before departing for the annual NFL scouting combine in February. “I know Matt talks a lot about Matt Ryan and what he did in Year 2, the comparatives there. Obviously Aaron has played at an elite level a long time. Seeing what (Rodgers) did in Year 1 with Matt, I’m just really excited where the offense and him can go.”
Since then, of course, the NFL season has been turned upside-down by the COVID-19 pandemic, which obviously has had far more serious real-world implications than inconveniencing NFL coaches and players. Nevertheless, while all 32 teams have been impacted by the coronavirus, which forced the closing of all team facilities league-wide and required teams to conduct virtual offseason programs via videoconferencing applications.
In conference calls with Wisconsin reporters last week, Rodgers and LaFleur acknowledged that one of their goals for the offseason — reducing the wordiness of the play-calling phraseology — had to be shelved. Meanwhile, Rodgers and LaFleur said the installation of the offense in those Zoom meetings has been deliberate than it would be under normal circumstances.
“What this offseason has done is slow everything down,” LaFleur said. “But when I was looking at our installs from when we first got here and before we ever had a practice with any of our players, it’s just drastically different. It is drastically different. I think when you go through a season with your guys, you kind of find out who’s good at doing what and you find out what you really are good at doing. And it’s our job as coaches to make sure that we’re putting our guys in a position to be successful and really showcase what it is that they do well.”
How effectively you can do that without a single on-field organized team activity practice remains to be seen, but in a Zoom video call Friday, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett tried to strike a hopeful chord that the coaches will be able to advance the offense in a meaningful way despite the circumstances.
“Obviously, we’re very excited going into Year 2,” Hackett said. “I think (the players) being more comfortable in a system is huge, and just being able to communicate and talk and adjust and maneuver and make it our system, not one system or the other. That has been really fun to do last year and even more this year because the conversations were so much different.
“Now, we know each other. Knowing each other and working together is a lot different than first time, ‘Hi, I’m Nathaniel. This is Aaron and Matt.’ And just thrown into a room and trying to get it to work. Going through a season together, you always can advance your system in general.
“This is such a unique situation with this COVID situation. It’s so hard to tell what we’re going to look like as we move into the season. Every year is so unique. This offseason, because we’ve been all in our houses (under the safer-at-home order), we’ve been able to look at a lot of different things and see if there’s things want to implement or things that we did that we probably shouldn’t do as much.
“Every single thing we’re doing now is to make it so we can be a more quality offense, a more explosive offense. That’s what we’re always hunting. When we’re going to be when we have the opportunity to get on the field, who knows. I’m just excited to teach the system to the guys and even more excited to hopefully get to meet them all soon and be in the same room with them one day.”
Asked what his expectations are for the offense given the offseason circumstances, Rodgers replied, “That’s a good question. (Last year), some of the stuff we got into (was) blending some of the things Matt loves to do with a few of the things I’ve done well over the years. This has been a great opportunity to go back and really fine-tune everything, go through everything last year that was good, what didn’t work, what we want to add to it, what we want to take out.
“I think Matt and Nathaniel have done a really good job of going through those and keeping me in the loop about conversations. We’ve had a number of conversations about these installs and I feel really good about where they’re at. Expectations-wise, I think it’s too early to make some prognostications about our squad, because there’s moving pieces.
“And when you don’t have that physical offseason, I think it’s too early to make any type of expectations or predictions about who’s going to be playing where, what type of roles, or exactly what we’re going to do until we see abilities of some of these guys that we brought in and see some of the jumps we have from guys in Years 2 and 3.”
And yet, to some degree, the Packers are among the lucky ones. Although they may not evolve as much offensively as they would have during a typical offseason, at least they’re not one of the five teams with new head coaches or one of the other seven teams whose head coaches remain in place but who have new offensive coordinators this season.
“I think that's critical,” LaFleur said. “Just having the guys understand what we're all about and we've got the majority of our team returning, they understand the expectation. What it takes, what they can expect from myself, from our other coaches, what they should expect from each other.
“There's just so many advantages to having that first year under our belt. Now, we understand that also, going into Year 2 that there's pressure with how we performed in Year 1 for the most part. There's going to be some heavy expectations and we've all got to be ready to embrace those and make sure, again, that we're doing everything in our power to get better each and every day so we can live up to those.”
Get ready for the 2020 season with a week-by-week breakdown of the Packers' schedule