If somehow, you’ve forgotten how last season ended for the Green Bay Packers I’d like to start this piece by reminding you. At halftime of the NFC Championship, the Pack found themselves down 27-0 after seeing the offense go through the following sequence of drives: punt, punt, punt, fumble (inside their own 30-yard line), interception, punt. None of those drives had gone longer than five plays. They converted zero third downs. ESPN win estimates gave the 49ers a win probability of 99.6 percent before the halftime show event started. Aaron Rodgers had 66 yards passing, two turnovers, and no points.
If you check out the box score, the offense looks like it had a pretty good game. Rodgers had 300 yards and a few scores. Davante Adams had 140 yards and nine catches. Aaron Jones averaged almost five yards a carry. But all of this happened, essentially, in garbage time. Like the 2016 NFC Championship game against the Falcons, this one was over earlier than Packer fans would have liked to see.
This is, typically, the problem with the Green Bay Packers in the playoffs. When they score a lot of points, they win. When they don’t score a lot of points, they lose. There are some counterexamples. In 2009 they scored over 40 points and lost and beat the Bears with a total of 14 offensive points in the 2010 NFC Title Game. But, by and large, that’s the trend. No points, no wins.
Of course, much like every time the Packers lose in the playoffs, Aaron Rodgers skirted a lot of the blame. And rightfully so. He’s the star of the franchise. He’s one of the greatest to ever play the game. He’s the best QB in the NFL. Tt least he used to be. The stats don’t seem to support that it’s happening anymore. Last season Rodgers was eleventh in yards, seventeenth in yards per attempt, and twelfth in rating. He did throw 26 touchdowns (which puts him in the top ten) and his interception number was among the lowest in the league. But all of these numbers are (if you exclude his broken collarbone season) at a four year low and they seem to be trending downward. This makes sense: Aaron Rodgers turns 37 this season and the track record for NFL quarterbacks at that age is pretty grim. More on that later though.
The Packer’s overall offensive numbers didn’t fare much better, which makes sense given the entirety of the offense runs through Rodgers. The numbers: 15th in overall offense, 17th in net passing per attempt, thirteenth in rushing yards per attempt and 18th in yards per play. They did have the second-lowest rate of drives ending in a turnover though, which is something to hang their hat on. They’re very good at not turning the ball over. At least not conventionally.
They might not turn it over before fourth down, but they get to that down way too frequently. Their dirty secret is how bad they’ve been on third down. This year? 22nd in the league and second-worst among playoff teams (.1 percent ahead of the Buffalo Bills). 2018 was the same (22nd). 2017 was the last time the Packers finished in the top half of the league (13th). And that was with Brett Hundley starting for a majority of the season. They did do a good job when they got in the red zone though (eighth in conversions), but a big chunk of that was buoyed by Aaron Jones’ league-leading 19 touchdowns.
If you haven’t already closed out of the browser because I dared to say anything negative about Aaron Rodgers, you’ve probably surmised that the offense has issues. Don’t get me wrong, the defense, like the offense, has issues too (14th in yards per play, 23rd in rushing defense, 21st in yards per pass, 26th in yards per rush), but it did finish in the top ten for points, third-down conversions against, and red zone conversions against. Ultimately, they did their job: they didn’t let the other team score a lot of points.
We judge the season on a micro level while it’s happening. We complain about how the Packers almost lost to Detroit twice, or how they got embarrassed by San Francisco in prime time or the fact that X player is playing great and Y player sucks. But once the season is over, we judge it on a weird macro level. The Packers were great this year! They won 13 games! They were a game against the Super Bowl! All the season-long narratives about winning ugly are gone and only the things towards which we hold positive feelings remain.
This is one of the things that will color how you feel about a team’s draft, and, I suppose, their off-season as a whole. How do you perceive the team? There seem to be two camps of people here. One, who looks at the 13-3 record and the NFC championship game appearance and thinks this is a dominant team that can push through to the Super Bowl next year. If we could get the right player at wide receiver in the draft or sign the right guy in the offseason maybe they could play at a Pro Bowl level and push us over the top. The offense runs through Aaron Rodgers, and he needs weapons. If he’s not loaded with wide receivers it’s not going to work. Because we didn’t follow that plan this offseason, it was a failure. Even worse, we insulted our Pro Bowl quarterback by taking his backup.
That’s, at least, my understanding of their concerns. I’m basing this off of social media and off of my own opinion after the 2007 draft (I hated it at the time) so I could be wrong. It’s not my opinion currently though. I’m in the other camp. Instead of the 13-3 record, I look at our 8-2 record in games decided by a score of less and understand there’s probably going to be some regression to the mean there. I see the continued issue of our team not being able to convert key third downs. I saw San Fran throw less than two hands worth of passes and still dominate the game. And I see year after year of us losing in big games, all operating in seemingly the same script: the offense sputters, the other team gets ahead early, the Packers play from behind and more often than not they can’t come all the way back. Again, there are exceptions.
If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you’ll understand I’m not a “think my own ideas guy”. I’m more the type to see someone else doing something successfully, try to understand how and why they’re doing it, and then put my twist on it. I take my creative advice from Picasso: good artists borrow, great artists steal. And while I’m not great or probably even good, I certainly aspire to be. And if I were looking to borrow or outright steal, it seems that it would be prudent to copy the league’s best teams. Outside of the Packers, who are we looking at? The obvious choices are the team that won the Super Bowl, the Chiefs, the Ravens, and the team that beat us to get there. Let’s start with the champs.
For Kansas City, the formula is pretty simple: develop a blazing offense lead by the best player in the league and ride his prolific skills all the way to the top. It’s elegant in its simplicity, but it’s remarkably difficult to do. Drafting a Pro Bowler is hard enough. Finding an MVP is typically nothing short of a miracle. But the upshot is that if you can pull it off, you’re probably going to find yourself in at least one Super Bowl game. Bonus points if you can do it all on a rookie contract.
In the 2020 NFL Draft the Packers found themselves looking at a quarterback who drew comparisons to, among others, the reigning MVP. Of course, these weren’t unanimous. Enough googling will pepper in some Blake Bortles or Colin Kaepernick, but the comparisons typically hinge on his high-end athleticism and big-time numbers in a small conference. There’s potential for this to go sideways.
If you watch the top on Love, it’s clear both sides have their points. One play, he’ll make a throw where he effortlessly flicks the ball downfield into a tiny window and another where he throws a boneheaded interception right into the hands of the defenders. Luckily, much like Rodgers before him and like his contemporary in Kansas City, he won’t be asked to jump on to the field right away.
There’s a negative side to using a pick on a quarterback when you don’t necessarily need one. No, you don’t get to use that pick on a player to help your existing quarterback. However, you do get to make sure that whatever quarterback you do choose doesn’t have to rush onto the field right away. A player like Love, one dripping with talent but one who will need time to grow into the NFL, seems like he’s going to be given the best chance to succeed if he can learn a bit before he needs to deliver for real. I’m not saying letting a rookie develop into a starter is the only way to do it, but having some time to sit before they needed to play certainly helped the Packers last two hall of fame quarterbacks.
All things considered, it’s pretty hard to fault the Packers for being proactive here. Ultimately, the entire exercise will come down to whether or not Love is a good player or not. If he’s great, no one will remember what the headlines were on draft day, and even if they do, no one will care. I think having the extra time to learn under the greats helps increase those odds and it’s clear the brass at 1265 Lombardi feels the same way.
Of course, the criticism of the selection of a passer wasn’t the only questionable call of the draft. Drafting a quarterback, sure, maybe that made some sense. But the narrative coming into the draft would be whether or not Rodgers would get the help he needed at wide receiver. Even if they didn’t take one in the first round, there should be more to pick from later. It was a draft where it was every fans expectation that the Packers would go wide receiver early and often. But by the time it was over, they were shown a much different outcome: rarely and never. The rest of the draft saw a running back, a tight end, a linebacker, three offensive linemen, a safety, and another linebacker. We know what happens when people’s expectations aren’t met. They don’t like it.
Each pick, on its own, can be a bit of a head-scratcher. At least at first. The selection of AJ Dillon in the second round seems confusing because our running back lead the league in touchdowns last season. But when you consider that both Aaron Jones and his backup Jamaal Williams are free agents after this season. It also makes sense when you watch this play:
Go ahead and tell me that it didn’t make your pants tighten up a little bit. That’s current Packer Jaire Alexander he’s running over en route to his fourth touchdown of the day, leading his team to an upset of Heisman Trophy winner and future NFL MVP Lamar Jackson and Louisville. I know this isn’t called “defending” the Packers draft, but if I were I would just show this clip on repeat because honestly it’s pretty fucking sweet.
I could break the rest down individually, but we’re here to understand the draft. The only way to defend is on the field. I could sit here and say why X player will work or why Y player won’t, but we’re just going to have to wait and see.
As far as understanding it goes, I’ve laid a lot of the groundwork for that already in this article. In games where we’ve come up short we: had a lot of trouble controlling the clock, couldn’t sustain drives, and got down early and couldn’t come back. We’ve also had trouble defensively, but I think that’s to be expected when you’re on the field for basically an entire half.
So if we want to solve that problem, again, my solution is to steal. Maybe steal is too harsh a word. Let’s call it ripping off instead. The question now becomes, who were we ripping off? We don’t have to go much further than the team that sent us packing (no pun intended) in the playoffs this year.
When we’re trying to figure out any coach’s plan, it’s often important to look at their coaching tree to see the influences that they’d had on their career. Head coach Matt LaFleur, for example, is part of the Mike Shanahan coaching tree (along with his son, Kyle, that’s going to be important obviously because, duh, they’re father and son). Shanahan, as Packer fans will surely remember, famously beat them in Super Bowl XXII that kickstarted a dynasty that saw the Broncos go 46-10 over a three-year span. Lead by a trio of Hall of Famer players, Shanahan ran a classic west coast offense, complete with a scripted first 15 plays and a heavy reliance on short, high percentage passes to complement a dominant running game.
This, by and large, is the way that you win a Super Bowl with a passer over the age of 35. If you remember earlier the article I called the odds of such a thing “grim”. That’s because the only four teams to win one with a QB that old since the advent of the modern passing games were the aforementioned 1998/1999 Broncos, the 2002 Buccaneers, the 2015 Denver Broncos, and the 2016/2018 Patriots. Strong defenses, strong running games, and efficient passing games. Three hall of famers couldn’t hurt either.
His son, now, was a game away from matching his father with a Super Bowl victory using the same strategy. He may not have had any Hall of Famers on offense, but he had a potential one at tight end and a deep stable of running backs. They could win track meets if they needed (including a 48-46 win over the Saints in New Orleans), but they preferred to dominate their opponents early and squeeze the life out of them with Nick Bosa and a dominant secondary until the game was over. It almost worked in the Super Bowl, if not for the heroics of Pat Mahomes.
This formula also matches what the Rams were doing very well when they made their run to a Super Bowl loss. Stingy defense, Todd Gurley, could win in a track meet but would rather choke you out with Aaron Donald and a dominant secondary, a shaky QB getting outplayed by a legend in the biggest game. The parallels are there. head coach Sean McVay, as you might have guessed, is part of the Shanahan coaching tree.
It turns out we didn’t have to steal anything. We just had to let our apple fall close to the tree.
This isn’t Kliff Kingsbury and the Air Raid. We’re not going to see anyone in this tree going out and throwing it deep forty times a game. If we were to veer off the Shanny tree and looking for something new, we might just be trying to emulate the two best teams in the AFC. Both of them, Baltimore and Kansas City are in the Andy Reid coaching tree. And, of course, if you want to play like the Chiefs and Ravens, you’re going to need a Mahomes. EDITORS NOTE: Andy Reid himself is part of the Mike Holmgren coaching tree. If you were looking for another connection to Green Bay.
If that’s the approach they wanted to take, and it seems like based on LaFleur’s experience they do, this draft solidified that position. All of the players I listed earlier would flesh this offense out to look a lot like what we saw coming out of San Francisco last season and St. Louis the year before. We now have enough tight ends and running backs to make it work and hopefully we should have the offensive line depth to start grinding teams down in the snow late in the year.
This is the offense that made a lot of fans, myself included, fall in love with Green Bay. Maybe it’s nostalgia talking; it is all the rage right now with The Last Dance having just finished. But, nostalgia or not, it’s good football. It’s worked before. And with a player like Rodgers being supported by a true, precision passing game that’s the cornerstone of a west coast offense, he should thrive. This is the role he was built for. He should be able to limit his throwaways by getting the ball out on shorter passers. He should take fewer hits.
Wide receivers in this offense too, tend to cycle in and out pretty quickly. Think of how many guys Brett Favre turned into stars in his run with Holmgren. Look at how Emmanuel Sanders and Deebo Samuel were both able to step in and immediately contribute for the 49ers. But the West Coast offense always needs a star. With a dominant receiver like Davante Adams, that box is checked. Hopefully someone else can step up. It’s the design of the offense that someone will. And when Rodgers is ready to stop playing, and possibly sooner, we’ll have his younger replacement ready.
Ope. I just used the Packer-fan we there; maybe I am defending the draft after all. Pobodies nerfect. But, as I said earlier, none of that matters. It’ll all shake out on the field. Besides, the players don’t need me anyway. They can defend themselves, they’re professionals now.