We continue our sweep through the NFC North, as our 2019 NFL Preview brings us to the (not quite yet) frozen tundra of Lambeau Field where the Green Bay Packers look to avoid missing the Playoffs for the first time since 1992. For a franchise in that has long been one of the league’s most stable, Green Bay underwent a great deal of change this past Offseason, most notably parting ways with Mike McCarthy, wo had been with the club for the previous thirteen years. Replacing him will be Matt LaFleur, who is charged with revolutionizing an Offense that had grown very stale under his predecessor, while also maximizing the talents of Aaron Rodgers, as the former MVP begins to enter the latter stages of his stellar career. So what will 2019 have in store for the Packers? Is LaFleur indeed the man to get one of the NFL’s most successful franchise’s back on track? Will he and Rodgers remain on the same page? Will the young Defense continue to grow? Let’s find out, folks….
A New Sheriff in Town
Calling the ousting of Mike McCarthy in Green Bay anything other than ugly would be doing the situation a disservice, as the longtime Head Coach was finally axed after a listless 17-20 defeat at home to the lowly Arizona Cardinals. Initially, one would imagine that a man who went 125-77-2 (.618) in thirteen seasons in Titletown, including six NFC North Titles, and most notably the franchise’s last Super Bowl Championship (2010), would deserve a better fate. However, that wasn’t the case for McCarthy, who in recent years had seen his playbook become more and more predictable, while his relationship with his Franchise Quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, eroded before our very eyes. While the details of the feud between the two egos has become the stuff of legend, the outcome left Green Bay in a very difficult place: they had to hire someone who could crack the proverbial whip and demand his charges’ respect, while at the same time managing to pacify Rodgers. To many around the league, it was a mild surprise that CEO, Mark Murphy, and General Manager, Brian Gutekunst, settled upon Matt LaFleur. At 39-Years Old, the young Assistant was no doubt hired due to his connections with two of the game’s most prominent offensive minds: the Rams’ Sean McVay and the 49ers’ Kyle Shanahan. LaFleur worked under the latter in three different stops, coaching Quarterbacks in Washington and Atlanta, while joining the former’s Staff in Los Angeles as Offensive Coordinator. With that said, it wasn’t until last year’s brief stay with the Tennessee Titans that he actually called plays, which given the men he’s worked under, does bring his credentials in that regard into question. Particularly when it comes to modernizing the Packers’ Offense, which oftentimes degenerated into whatever their Quarterback could improv towards. With someone like Rodgers under Center, there is plenty to work with, but it also means that the pressure will be immense for LaFleur to get the most out of him, while maximizing the pieces around him. If he and Rodgers develop a quality chemistry together, then getting this train rolling again shouldn’t be difficult, but as we’ll detail shortly, that may be easier said than done…
Mending an Image
While the reports of the sensational feud between Aaron Rodgers and Mike McCarthy certainly didn’t paint the latter in a great light, it really didn’t do the former any favors either, with the media describing the two-time MVP as a disagreeable, spiteful coach-killer, who was consumed with his own legend, alienating other coaches and teammates in the process. Needless to say, this has not been a positive Offseason for the Rodgers (62.3%, 4,442 YDS, 6.33 NY/A, 25 TD, 2 INT, 56.8 QBR), who has been dissected at every turn. Furthermore, at 35-Years Old, it remains a fair question just how long he’ll continue to play at such a stellar level; after all, he’s coming off a campaign in which in posted the lowest QBR of his career (56.8), while taking a whopping Forty-Nine Sacks, the most he’s suffered since 2012. This, is where the aforementioned LaFleur is going to earn his money, folks. With the Offense (and Rodgers’ role in it) criticized repeatedly under McCarthy, it’s going to be up to the new Head Coach to build a system around his Quarterback that will make things easier. While it remains to be seen how this transpires, the Offenses that LaFleur has previously been associated with, particularly in Los Angeles and Atlanta, have routinely ranked among the league’s elite, proving to be both balanced and prolific, albeit with Quarterbacks less-talented than Rodgers. Speaking of balance, No. 12 would surely benefit from an attack in which he could properly utilize some Play-Action, which simply isn’t realistic when you’re averaging the fewest rushes in the league (20.8 C/G). The Receiving Corps should also benefit greatly as well, for in those other schemes, it feels like a plethora of pass-catchers are roaming downfield undeterred by Defensive Backs. This must be music to the ears of Davante Adams (111 REC, 1,386 YDS, 12.5 Y/R, 13 TD), who exploded in 2018, recording career-highs in Receptions (111), Receiving Yards (1,386), and Touchdowns (13). If Rodgers buys into what LaFleur is selling, then it could be downright frightening to think of what he can do this season, which would go a long way towards to returning his club back to the Playoffs.
One of the smartest things tat LaFleur did upon his arrival in Green Bay was retaining the services of Mike Pettine, who is coming off his first season with the club as their Defensive Coordinator. It certainly makes sense that given LaFleur’s lack of experience that he would love to keep someone who not only has Head Coaching experience under their belt, but laid some solid groundwork with a young Defense, in house, so he could further focus his time and energy in rerouting the Offense. Though the numbers don’t necessarily support it, Pettine did a fine job curating the Packers’ Defense in 2018; Green Bay allowed 25.0 Points (22nd Overall) on 354.4 Total Yards (18th Overall), including 234.5 Yards against the Pass (12th Overall) on 6.6 Net Yards per Attempt (21st Overall), along with 119.9 Yards versus the Run (22nd Overall) on 4.3 Yards per Carry (13th Overall). Furthermore, they forced Fifteen Turnovers (29th Overall), totaled Forty-Four Sacks (8th Overall), and allowed opponents to convert on Third Down on just 37.3% of opportunities (13th Overall). While the team said goodbye to Pro Bowl Defensive Lineman, Mike Daniels (18 TKL, 1 TFL, 5 QBH, 2.0 SK, 1 PD), Safety, Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix (27 TKL, 1 TFL, 2 QBH, 1.0 SK, 1 FF, 3 INT, 3 PD), and former Defensive Player of the Year, Clay Matthews (43 TKL, 7 TFL, 12 QBH, 3.5 SK, 1 FF), there is a new crop of emerging young players that offer promise as they continue to grow under Pettine’s watch. Outside Linebacker, Kyler Fackrell (42 TKL, 12 TFL, 12 QBH, 10.5 SK) led the roster with a career-high 10.5 Sacks, Twelve Tackles for Loss and Quarterback Hits, while Kenny Clark (55 TKL, 8 TFL, 9 QBH, 6.0 SK, 1 FF, 2 FR, 3 PD) flourished at Nose Tackle with career-highs in Sacks (6.0). Furthermore, Cornerbacks Josh Jackson (49 TKL, 1 TFL, 1 FR, 10 PD) and Jaire Alexander (66 TKL, 3 TFL, 1 QBH, 0.5 SK, 2 FR, 1 INT, 11 PD) improved with each passing week as Rookies, leaving us to wonder what Pettine will do with the likes of this year’s first two Draft Picks, versatile Defensive Lineman, Rashad Gary (No. 12 Overall), and freakish Safety, Darnell Savage (No. 21 Overall), out of Michigan and Maryland respectively. Gutekunst was also fairly busy in Free Agency, adding a pair of Edge-Rushers in the form of Za’Darius Smith (45 TKL, 10 TFL, 25 QBH, 8.5 SK, 1 FF, 2 PD) and Preston Smith (53 TKL, 5 TFL, 16 QBH, 4.0 SK, 1 FR, 1 TD, 1 INT, 3 PD), furthering a concrete plan of building a Defense with young, affordable talent, packing plenty of upside. Indeed, Packers fans should be excited about these guys…
2019 Forecast: 9-7
Say what you will about the Green Bay Packers, who have been one of the league’s most successful franchises over the past three decades, racking up a slew of Playoff Appearances and Division Titles, along with a pair of Super Bowl Championships. Aside from those accolades, they’ve always been relevant, but coming into 2019 having missed the Postseason in back-to-back years for the first time since 2005, the club has inexplicably become more infamous for their longstanding feud featuring Head Coach and Quarterback, Mike McCarthy and Aaron Rodgers. With the former out of the door, and the latter desperately looking to mend his damaged image, Green Bay has the makings of a team that looks set up for a rebound. Forget new Head Coach, Matt LaFleur’s, inexperience, for the former Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan disciple should bring plenty of fresh ideas to an Offense that was in dire need of it. We’re also giving him major credit for retaining the services of Defensive Coordinator, Mike Pettine, who laid down some serious groundwork for a young unit that only figures to get better. If they continue to modernize themselves on both sides of the football, then you can absolutely expect to see the Packers competing for the Playoffs in 2019, but the days of walking through the NFC North unfazed are long gone, for the rest of the Division figures to stand improved, with the Bears and Vikings looking like real contenders and the Lions improved upon. At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to Rodgers and his new Head Coach, and if he’s nearly as smart as he think he is, then he should know enough that it will be to the benefit of all parties involved that he buys into the system, for in that case success will likely be a result.