The Green Bay Packers no longer need Aaron Rodgers to be Aaron Rodgers, and that has made them more dangerous than at any point since their last Super Bowl run in 2010.
The arrival of head coach Matt LeFleur has reconfigured the entire offense and the organization with it. Things still run through Rodgers, because he’s Rodgers. But the system is less reliant on his individual brilliance.
The late-period Mike McCarthy-Rodgers era Packers were running on fumes. Too often they were reliant on the quarterback to be perfect on each and every down, and on receivers to consistently create separation one-on-one. Every year seemed to follow the same pattern: Green Bay roasted opponents in the regular season then disappointed in the playoffs. Rodgers could not overcome the mediocrity surrounding him or the crippling demands placed upon his shoulders.
Now the Packers are more balanced. Rodgers no longer has to sprinkle pixie dust just to move the ball 30 yards downfield. The run game outperforms the passing game these days. Aaron Jones, a one-time afterthought, has morphed into a genuine star at running back. Green Bay’s offensive line, an ever-present at the top of “best-of” lists, continues to maul defensive fronts, fueling a ground attack that finished the regular season fourth in rush offense DVOA.
The system is different, too. Some of Rodgers’ old standbys are still there, but LeFleur has modernized and updated everything else. There are motions and shifts and run-pass options and all the things that are now the norm across the league. Most importantly, LeFleur has balanced an uptick in run carries with a diverse play-action game.
One of the biggest criticisms of McCarthy was his lack of a play-action attack. Play-action, which relies on deceiving the opposing defense, is the most efficient way to move the ball, no matter the down-or-distance or game situation. And it’s the most reliable way to pop explosive plays. Now shut your eyes and picture a great Rodgers play from the last five years or so. There it is, crystal clear: Rodgers tapdancing in the backfield, avoiding the rush and launching an inch-perfect throw downfield to a receiver who has a defender draped all over him. There was little help from the coaches’ playbooks. All his biggest plays felt hard.
LeFleur has made things easier for his quarterback. In 2018, the Packers ran play-action just 20% of the time, the fifth-lowest mark in the league. That’s up to 26% in LeFleur’s debut season (13th in the NFL), and it’s only increased as the season has progressed. The Packers torched the Seahawks with play-action in the divisional round, with Rodgers finishing 8/10 for 118 yards and a touchdown. The offense finished a season-high 9/14 on third-down conversions, blending that power run-game with quick-strike play-action throws. The contrast to previous playoff flops couldn’t have been more striking.
Still, coming into the playoffs, Green Bay’s passing game looked out of sync. The battle between the rhythm and precision of LeFleur’s West Coast timing system and Rodgers’ off-beat stylings was just as strong as in the final McCarthy years. Moments of Rodgers-to-Davante Adams brilliance were intercut with the traditional sulking and headshaking that has been ever-present on the Lambeau sidelines since 2015.
It all finally came together against the Seahawks last weekend. The best parts of LeFleur and Rodgers worked in concert, not conflict. LeFleur has earned a reputation during his young career for being one of the best “sequencers” in the NFL. Meaning he calls plays early in a game to set-up “pay-off” plays later on. Play-calling doesn’t get any better than this:
LeFleur used the defense’s bias towards Rodgers (and the throws he likes to make) to fake them out and score a touchdown. The Packers bluffed a slant-flat concept, one of the staples of the McCartney-era teams, and a throw Rodgers has made hundreds of times in crucial spots. In a slant-flat, an outside receiver runs inside, while an inside receiver runs to the outside, hopefully confusing defenders. Seattle took the bait at the snap. He’s running his old favorite again! But it was a bluff. Adams pulled off his route and sprung towards the back of the end zone. Easy throw, easy score.
Rodgers is now consistently throwing to receivers who are wide-open through play design. And he has the added bonus of throwing to Adams, who has blossomed into one of the best receivers in the league.
It’s not just the offense, either. Green Bay’s defense sits somewhere along the good to very good spectrum. They’re slimmed down, quicker, younger, more modern than the past few years. Run defense is an issue, but they make up for that by pressuring opponents on 34.4% of plays, the fourth-highest figure of any team in the league this season and comfortably the best of any unit in the playoffs – a final-four that includes San Francisco’s fearsome front.
When all of that is added together, it means Rodgers no longer has to carry the team to the promised land alone. If anything, it was Jones and the pass-rush that deserved the lion’s share of the credit for the team’s 13-3 regular-season record. Rodgers (kind of) delighted in the team winning ugly.
Now he is asked to make just three or four magical plays a game; the plays that make the difference between winning or losing a playoff game. When they were needed on Sunday, he delivered. By asking him to do a little less, the Packers have unlocked a lot.