Silverstein: Aaron Rodgers has yet to put his stamp on Packers' new offense
GREEN BAY – Even after the entire playbook has been unpackaged, practiced and refined for the start of the regular season, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur’s offense won’t be close to a finished product.
It won’t because Aaron Rodgers will have the keys and there’s no way he won’t take it in a new direction.
At the team’s mandatory minicamp last week, LaFleur got a taste of what life will be like with the ball in Rodgers’ hands, but he really hasn’t seen anything yet. Rodgers has been doing his best to follow the rules of his new coach’s offense to help get everyone accustomed to the scheme.
It was evident in the competitive two-minute drills when Rodgers stayed in the pocket and either threw to the proper receiver or threw the ball away because everyone was covered. The chances of him choosing either option over bailing out of the pocket and scrambling in search of something better are at the lowest they’ll be this season.
Just minutes before he threw a pass away in two-minute, he had turned a red-zone session into a lesson for LaFleur on how things might go when the games matter. Either feeling pressure from the defense or just intent on buying himself more time, he bailed a couple of times and came away with points.
It’s not how LaFleur drew it up, but you can assume he’ll take it should it happen again this fall.
“He's played the game with a certain style for his whole career and he's done it at a pretty high level,” LaFleur said after the first minicamp practice. “I think just some of the things that he's been able to really enhance within our offense has been a lot of fun to watch.
“You saw that off-schedule play that he made down in the red zone. He made another one to Jake Kumerow where I didn't anticipate the ball going where it went, but that's where it went, and it was a touchdown. We never want to take that playmaker away from him."
No, that would be a mistake.
But how often is Rodgers going to default to a scramble if he can’t find someone open right away? He has been at his best when he has limited his scrambling to within the pocket and left the entire field open for his use rather than bailing to one side and eliminating half of it.
Seeking better outcomes
His previous coach, Mike McCarthy, gave him carte blanche to seek better outcomes whether it was in changes at the line of scrimmage or extending plays. He loved quarterbacks who could keep plays alive when they initially looked to be over and scrambles were practiced in training camp so that the receivers knew what to do when it happened.
Last year, after suffering a knee injury in Week 1, Rodgers often looked too eager to give up on a play and take off running. His completion percentage (62.3) was the second worst of his career and his 25 touchdowns were his lowest in a season in which he played at least 10 games. He too often found no one open and had to run or throw the ball away.
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His new coach would prefer he stay in the pocket and take advantage of the play-action, bunch formations and dizzying receiver motions that are employed to get receivers open. LaFleur’s offense is all about making the quarterback’s decision easy and from his comments during the offseason he thinks he can help Rodgers be better.
“We just want to make it even easier for him,” offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said last week. “It's one of those things he's already at a very high level and we've all seen that. We all know that. I think that our job as coaches with this offense is to just try to fit it with him and give him more ammo.
“And that's something that's going to be fluid, and I think that's what we're trying to work towards.”
The issue LaFleur and Hackett face is how far do they allow Rodgers to go in dictating the way the offense develops, practices are conducted, and calls are made at the line of scrimmage. As McCarthy found out, once you open the door to Rodgers, he will come in and make himself at home. Before long, the place is his.
McCarthy wanted to exploit Rodgers’ intelligence and unique athletic skills and had the luxury of developing him over a 13-year period. He gradually built in the no-huddle scheme and constructed a best-play-available choice system that gave Rodgers the ability to get out of plays the defense was well-prepared to stop.
LaFleur inherits the finished product and from what Rodgers said about the way he will play the game this year, it doesn’t seem like he wants to get away from what has made him a future Hall of Famer.
Take his scrambling, for instance.
“I think it comes down to instincts,” Rodgers said. “I think that’s the more important thing when you get out there and play. But I think you can retrain some of those instincts as well. And with a new offense, I’m really trying to trust the progressions and my eyes and learn timing on different things.
“In order to do that, you really have to give it a chance to develop. But, that being said, once you get into a live environment, I’m not just going to stand there in the face of a bearing-down defensive lineman and get rocked – especially in the preseason.”
Rodgers joked that his instincts are set to become fully operational, “Game one, play one,” which means once the season starts, he will play the game like he always has. There’s no reason to think he’ll play outside the scheme, but you can bet there will be a tug of war over how many play options Rodgers carries with him to the line of scrimmage.
LaFleur has said during the offseason the usual choices at the line in his offense are to run the play called from the sideline or switch to one alternative. It is a lot different than having the ability to pull four or five alternative plays out of the archives, which is what Rodgers is used to doing.
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LaFleur had a similar experience when he was quarterbacks coach with the Atlanta Falcons and had to teach veteran Matt Ryan a new system. Ryan was never exposed to the choice system Rodgers enjoyed under McCarthy and hadn’t won a Super Bowl and two MVP awards, so it was different.
LaFleur and Rodgers are going to have to find common ground for the offensive transition to work and don’t be surprised if there are some rough patches along the way. Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy hired LaFleur because he thought he could help Rodgers win another Super Bowl, but he took a chance hiring someone who has called about the same number of plays as Rodgers has during their careers.
LaFleur might be the coach, but Rodgers is a finished product and there’s no way he’s going to leave his intellect on the sideline when it comes to diagnosing defenses and raising the percentage of a play’s success. For him, it would be like playing with one cleat on.
For now, Rodgers is letting LaFleur do what he needs to get the offense installed. Eventually, it will be his turn to do whatever needs to be done to make it successful. It is at that intersection that he and LaFleur will need to be on the same page.