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The Heroes of 2020
Other than temperatures being above freezing in mid January, and Lambeau Field being mostly empty, last Saturday’s was a typical Green Bay Packers game in the Matt LaFleur era.
Because the Packers won.
And it was a typical Packers victory this season because quarterback Aaron Rodgers positively sparkled in LaFleur’s offence.
In his second season as head coach, LaFleur’s overall record in Green Bay is 28-7 (.800) and his home record is 16-2 (.889) heading into Sunday’s NFC championship game, at Lambeau, against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3:05 p.m. EST, CTV via FOX).
No Packers head coach has rocketed out to a better start, either overall or at home. Not even legendary Vince Lombardi.
LaFleur just isn’t getting his due for it.
His only losses at Lambeau Field were both early-season upsets, one in 2019, one in 2020. In other words, he has yet to lose at home what the average fan would call a big game. Keep on winning at this rate, and residents of Green Bay will name more than just a side street near Lambeau after him — a minimum honour for previous NFL championship-winning Packers head coaches.
It was only two off-seasons ago when practically everyone who follows the NFL seemed skeptical the LaFleur/Rodgers pairing could work.
Here was Rodgers, then age 35, purportedly past his prime, surlier than ever, distracted by personal-life relationships, and difficult to deal with after the club had just fired its head coach since 2006, Mike McCarthy, with whom Rodgers increasingly clashed. Rodgers had been a winner in only 10 of his last 23 starts.
And here was the baby-faced LaFleur, only four years older than Rodgers, in his first head-coaching job anywhere — after mentoring for most of the decade under Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay.
The Packers’ dominant off-season narrative in 2019 was how in the hell this LaFleur/Rodgers pairing wouldn’t end in disaster.
How could the always polite, seemingly small-ego LaFleur control and, when required, stand up to the set-in-his-ways, highly opinionated, rebellious Rodgers?
How would Rodgers do what he was told, after routinely ignoring plays sent in by McCarthy, reportedly for years?
On the first day of training camp in 2019, LaFleur vs. Rodgers was all everyone talked about. Yet already, as each man tried to express to the press afterward, the two already were getting along rather fabulously.
“Him and I are friends,” Rodgers said. “That’s the first part of a relationship. Our on-the-field relationship is one that grows over time. He hasn’t called a play for me in a game situation yet, so there’s a process, of feeling comfortable when the play comes in, of him trusting me and me trusting him … He really appreciates open conversation, ideas and creativity. It’s been a great relationship, a great start to it.”
Said LaFleur of Rodgers: “There are so many things that I like about him. Not only from just a physical ability but he is one of the most competitive players that I’ve ever been around. I mean, you can see it on a daily basis … It’s about how do we make the Packers offence, and us coming together, functioning at the highest possible level?”
LaFleur’s offensive philosophy is not unlike Shanahan’s or McVay’s, in that as LaFleur explained at the outset, “You need to marry the run with the pass. You want plays that play off one another, essentially to try to keep the defence off-balance.”
Could Rodgers flourish in an offence that didn’t mostly revolve around his otherworldly passing talents? Would he even want to flourish in such an attack?
Well, well. The undeniable answers, two years later: yes and yes.
As it has happened, LaFleur and Rodgers have been the best thing for one another. The right partnership at the right time.
We didn’t see it soaked into Rodgers’ passing stats in Year 1, when LaFleur turned a 6-9-1 team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2016 into a 13-3 power. Only a late-season loss to the 49ers at San Francisco prevented Green Bay from earning the No. 1 NFC playoff seed. The No. 2 seeded Packers got blown out by the host 49ers in the NFC championship game.
This season, the Packers again finished 13-3, but this time earning that No. 1 seed.
And this season Rodgers arguably has never looked better. He’s a consensus choice as NFL MVP, which in two weeks surely becomes official. It’ll be his third MVP honour, and first since 2014.
A truly potent Packers rushing attack this season — led by Aaron Jones — has given Green Bay’s offence two formidable punching hands, not just one. And that not only has taken pass-rush pressure off Rodgers, but created more space for his pass catchers.
Rodgers being Rodgers, he has made even great defences — such as the Rams’ top-rated unit last week — pay when cheating to stop the run.
ProFootballFocus.com is the most respected NFL analytics website, and this week it offered ample statistical proof as to why 2020 was Rodgers’ greatest season in 13 as Green Bay’s starter. For instance, Rodgers this season became only the sixth passer since 2010 with a 99.9 PFF grade on throws 20-plus yards downfield. And he threw more play-action touchdowns (21) and had a higher play-action rating (138.1) than any QB in the league.
And that LaFleur/Rodgers relationship? A couple weeks ago Rodgers provided this unsurprising update:
“I’m happy here’s here. We’ve had a great time together. We’ve been laughing all the way to the NFC championship last year, and back in the playoffs this year, about any question about our working relationship. It’s been a lot of fun working together.”
Rodgers leads the way in 2020
Passing categories in which Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers led the NFL this past regular season, some stats per USA Today :
- 70.7% completions
- 48 touchdown passes
- 9.1 touchdown percentage
- 0.95 interception percentage
- 121.5 passer rating (second best in history)
- 51 pass-and-run TDs
- 9.6 adjusted yards per throw
- 8.9 adjusted net yards per throw
- 129.7 passer rating when not pressured
- 127.7 rating when passing in under 2.5 seconds
- 114.0 rating when passing after 2.5 seconds
- 21 TD passes after run fakes
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