“Really excited to see what he can do in Year 2. I know Matt [LaFleur] 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 he did in Year 1 with Matt, I’m just really excited where the offense and him can go.” -- Packers GM Brian Gutekunst, Jan. 24, 2020.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Aaron Rodgers is about to begin his 16th NFL season. He’s about to start his 175th pro game, his 193rd if you count playoffs. He’s on his third head coach, sixth offensive coordinator and sixth quarterbacks coach.
There’s little he hasn't seen on a football field or in a film room.
Except he has never had a second-year head coach since he’s been the Green Bay Packers’ starting quarterback. Mike Sherman was fired after Rodgers’ rookie season of 2005. Mike McCarthy’s second-year jump came with Brett Favre as the starter and Rodgers as the backup for a third straight season.
“It will be a big deal,” former NFL quarterback and current ESPN analyst Dan Orlovsky said. “The analogy that I like to use is like when somebody gets LASIK surgery. All of a sudden you go from glasses to LASIK surgery, you see things more clearly now and understand them at such a higher level."
It’s one of the reasons that general manager Brian Gutekunst spoke so optimistically, just days after the Packers’ blowout loss to the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game, about where Rodgers could go in his second season under Matt LaFleur. It was LaFleur’s work with quarterbacks -- notably Matt Ryan in Atlanta, where LaFleur was his position coach in 2015 and in his MVP season of 2016 -- along with his experience in the Kyle Shanahan-Sean McVay offense that helped him land the job in Green Bay.
That LaFleur went 13-3 and came within a game of the Super Bowl despite a statistically down season from Rodgers only added to the optimism for Year 2.
"I think last year did a lot for Matt and I, just understanding each other," Rodgers said. "It was going to be a work in progress when you have guys from different types of backgrounds and systems, but I really felt like the communication with us was so strong, and it was really nonstop. We would have conversations early in the morning and a lot of conversations late at night about things we were thinking about, him asking my opinion about things, me kind of bouncing things off of him and trying to see where he was coming from. Those moments, and really like I said, the desert rose of all it being the Zoom meetings this offseason, I think really helped our relationship to progress to where we’re hashtag #FriendGoals."
Even with a pandemic-altered offseason (with no in-person work until August) and a truncated training camp, the feeling that there’s more to come from the Rodgers-LaFleur pairing remains.
“I would say I think there’s just a confidence level there in what they’re doing and in how this thing has grown,” Gutekunst said recently of the Rodgers-LaFleur dynamic. “That’s probably the biggest thing that I’ve seen. There’s not as much hesitation, I think, as they go through things. Again, without the preseason games, we’ll kind of see how it goes here at the beginning of the season, but I’m kind of excited at how they’ve grown.”
Rodgers’ first season under LaFleur was a paradox. He posted the lowest Total QBR of his career. Ten of his 16 starts ended with a Total QBR under 50, second most in the league behind Chicago’s struggling starter Mitchell Trubisky.
Yet together, they found ways to win.
“You would expect to see a natural progression within the system,” former NFL safety and current ESPN analyst Matt Bowen said. “Make more rhythm throws from the pocket, deliver the ball to open coverage voids and excel as a play-action passer.”
From a leadership standpoint last season, Rodgers was all-in. Most of the questions about whether he would mesh with LaFleur, respect LaFleur and allow himself to be coached by LaFleur disappeared early in the season.
From a scheme perspective, LaFleur seemed to have a personal tug-of-war with what he wanted to implement from his playbook to what he knows Rodgers can do best outside of the design.
“Given his high-level traits, Rodgers doesn’t need play design to produce,” Bowen said. “That’s why he tends to go outside the structure of the offense. Along with Patrick Mahomes and Russell Wilson, Rodgers is one of the few scheme-transcendent players at the position.”
No, Rodgers didn’t get to spend hours this spring in face-to-face meetings with LaFleur, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator Luke Getsy. The stay-at-home nature of the offseason program prevented that. Nevertheless, Getsy said at the end of the virtual offseason program that Rodgers’ “input through this offseason has maybe been the best I’ve been around” in Getsy’s six seasons with the team in a various capacities.
"I think it’s really changed the way we’ve kinda installed plays," Rodgers said. "I think Matt’s definitely more comfortable in his second year. That’s natural -- any leadership position you’re always going to learn and probably be most critical of yourself between Years 1 and 2. I think he’s very comfortable and explaining things really, really well. He’s been super creative this offseason, this training camp. I think his ability to delegate has allowed other coaches to step up and show what they can add to the offense, to the install, to the teaching part of what we’re trying to do. So I give Matt a lot of credit for kinda the way he’s grown the last year. It really gives confidence to other coaches, and they in turn can pass that on to the players."
If the Packers are to make a significant jump on offense from 18th overall and 17th in passing yards, chances are it will come from the Year 2 growth given that Gutekunst didn’t feel the need to add a receiver in the draft, instead taking Rodgers’ heir apparent, Jordan Love, in the first round, followed by running back AJ Dillon in the second and tight end/H-back Josiah Deguara in the third.
One area that Rodgers mentioned immediately after the loss to the 49ers was the fast-paced portion of the offense -- where they would break the huddle and quickly get to the line of scrimmage and snap the ball -- saying, "We really haven’t gotten into the tempo stuff at all."
“Last year, they were close,” Orlovsky said. “There were like three or four plays almost every game where you’re like, ‘They are a foot off from another 120 yards of offense.’ So I think that the understanding and the comfort level of what they want to do is a lot [better].
“I remember, I grew up playing against Aaron -- not necessarily playing against him but just watching him by myself all the time -- and I remember those deep-ball play-action shots being what he did better than anybody and that’s obviously kind of the backbone of this offense. There were some highlights of that last year -- not enough.”
Orlovsky cited last year’s two games against Minnesota, the Packers’ opponent in Sunday’s season opener, as Exhibits A and B.
“I rewatched the Minnesota games last year, and honestly the note that I kept writing down was: ‘Every throw is hard. Every throw is hard. Every throw is hard,’" Orlovsky said. “Just a lot of very difficult throws. Guys aren’t open outside of Davante [Adams], and that’s the thing that I want to see for their offense: One, are those guys getting themselves open? Two, are they getting open [off scripted plays]? There’s definitely going to more of a comfortable level but a greater expectation.”
Even with his possible eventual replacement looking over his shoulder, Rodgers seems as content as ever heading into a season. In some ways, it continued the feeling he gave off after the loss to the 49ers. Yes, it was crushing to come up one game short of his second Super Bowl appearance, but Rodgers and LaFleur were just getting started.
“I would anticipate that everything’s going to be a little bit easier for him, just like it basically is for us in the second year of the system,” Vikings coach Mike Zimmer said. “So, I would anticipate big jumps. I mean, [Rodgers] is so good, I don't know that he makes huge, huge jumps. I just know that offensively that they probably would.”