Dougherty: Matt LaFleur signals how Aaron Rodgers must change his ways

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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It passed as just an interesting anecdote from Matt LaFleur at the NFL owners meeting a few weeks ago but really it was more than that.

At the coaches breakfast media session, the Green Bay Packers’ rookie coach said he’d gone back and watched every snap Aaron Rodgers has taken since 2017, as well as clips from as far back as 2010, the year the Packers last won the Super Bowl.

Then LaFleur identified the play that stood out among them all. It was from that 2010 season when the New York Jets ran a cross blitz with their inside linebackers that sprung Bart Scott for a free run at the quarterback. Rodgers, though, stood tall and made the play by getting the ball out to Jordy Nelson just before taking the big hit by Scott.

It’s a play LaFleur said he intends to share with Rodgers and his teammates this spring.

“Some of the traits you look for in a QB,” LaFleur said, “it’s always stuck out in my mind … just how he stood in the pocket and delivered an accurate (throw) and took one, really he got folded in half like a suitcase. But that’s one of my all-time clips of him. … I think it’s an inspiring clip for any quarterback to watch, and for anybody on the team.”

Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur speaks during a press conference at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis on Feb. 27. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

The anecdote is worth revisiting in light of this past week’s saga in Bleacher Report that provided details and myriad opinions about the psychodrama involving Rodgers and former coach Mike McCarthy that blew up last season.

It’s also worth mentioning that as badly as the principals come off in the Bleacher Report story, it’s almost a given there’s dysfunction and discontent in every franchise in the league with the money, power and egos that are on the line. Only the details differ from team to team. The problem might be the owner, or the relationship between the coach and the GM. Assistant coaches might be feuding, or key players or factions could be at odds in the locker room. But there’s infighting in some form pretty much everywhere.

That’s not to minimize the Packers’ issues. Relationships and hierarchy matter. Team chemistry is critical in this league, and a rupture between a star quarterback and the coach is about as big a chemistry problem as you can have.

Yet, until last season the issues between Rodgers and McCarthy and in the locker room remained secondary because the coach always held the team together and the quarterback always played well enough to get to the playoffs, occasionally for a deep run.

Last year, though, it imploded. McCarthy didn’t hold the team together, and Rodgers played poorly. The Packers finished 6-9-1, and McCarthy is gone.

That gets us back to LaFleur’s video clip, which is a reminder that it still comes down to what happens on the field. While some of that is the product of trust and chemistry, a lot still is about how players perform in the heat of the moment. And that’s what the Rodgers clip was all about.

LaFleur likely had a sense of the Packers’ problems as he vetted them while they vetted him during the hiring process. He’s surely learned more in the three months he has been on the job.

Tyler Dunne, a former Packers beat writer, collected it in one long narrative for Bleacher Report and included new details and a wide range of opinions that illustrate how complex human relations can be. It really does depend on who you talk to.

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Yet, LaFleur’s charge remains the same as the day he was hired: to lead his team and get Rodgers back to MVP form and to be Rodgers’ boss yet gain his trust and respect at the same time.

The new coach is unassuming on the outside, but he’s going to need an inner steel to succeed at this job. And high emotional intelligence to boot.

Which, again, gets us back to that video clip. Of all the plays LaFleur watched, it’s no coincidence that’s the one that jumped out. It’s the kind of throw every NFL quarterback has to make to be successful. You might remember Tony Romo making exactly that point several times during the Super Bowl: To win, an NFL quarterback sometimes has to just stand in the pocket, deliver the ball and take the shot.

Tom Brady, who’s the best ever, and Drew Brees, a future Pro Football Hall of Famer, have made their livings playing almost exclusively that way. They stay in the pocket, get the ball out fast and occasionally take a hit for their trouble.

Rodgers has a talent for scrambling and throwing darts on the run that Brady and Brees can only dream of. That has to remain a part of his game, because it’s what has made him special. But that alone won’t do it, especially now that his athleticism is beginning to wane.

LaFleur’s choice of that throw is a sign of how he wants his quarterback to play. It suggests he wants Rodgers to stay in the pocket and get the ball out faster than he has in recent years. It suggests he doesn’t want him routinely holding the ball, then bolting and ending up throwing it away, as became so common last season. 

That won’t be easy with a quarterback who’s accustomed to escaping the pocket to try to make plays, and whose 35-year-old body has sustained three concussions (two in 2010 and one in the 2018 finale) in his NFL career, two broken collarbones in the last six years, and is coming off a season in which he played through a significant knee injury.

But Rodgers has shown he can play from the pocket when he has to. Last year his best half of football was the second half of the Packers’ opener against Chicago, when he led a comeback win while playing on one leg after injuring his knee.

LaFleur has said he’s committed to helping Rodgers by emphasizing the run — the coach’s offense is built around the outside zone. LaFleur badly needs another running back from this year’s draft to do it, but there’s no getting around that a good running game could be Rodgers’ best friend.

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LaFleur also will need his quarterback to stick with the run, though his version of the West Coast offense might have built-in protection because it doesn’t offer the latitude to change plays that McCarthy’s did. LaFleur told Green Bay TV station WBAY that most of his calls have two options for the quarterback at the line of scrimmage but don’t allow audibles to a new play.

“That has never been a part of the offensive system yet,” LaFleur said. “But I’m sure that when you are dealing with a guy that has the experience and the success that he’s had, I’m sure our offense is going to evolve and maybe that element will come into play.”

There’s no getting around that LaFleur has a daunting task on his hands, but then, that’s the nature of the job. Coaches don’t get fired when things are going well.

But that goes for quarterbacks, too. Rodgers became the highest-paid player in the league last August, and his irreconcilable differences with McCarthy got the coach fired four months ago.

Now it’s as much on him to make this work as it is LaFleur, and the coach’s video clip might just be a glimpse of his vision as to how.


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