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Yahoo Sports is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, complete with our initial 2019 power rankings.
By now we know that Aaron Rodgers is competitive. Or driven. “Petty” might be the right world. Perhaps “vindictive” fits.
However you want to classify Rodgers’ Jordan-esque ability to turn anything into a personal slight, it’s there. The instantly infamous Bleacher Report story laid bare how Rodgers’ relationship with former Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy either got incredibly sour or never was any good. Rodgers was rumored to hold it against McCarthy that the 49ers passed on him in the draft for Alex Smith. In 2005. McCarthy was San Francisco’s offensive coordinator at the time. Rodgers seemingly never forgets anything.
There’s no need to rehash the bombastic details in that story (though it’s still funny to think about McCarthy getting massages during team meetings). Rodgers has denied it all, but that’s hard to believe. It fits with what we have heard about him. While that story by Tyler Dunne brought some great new details to light, it’s not like anyone was too shocked that Rodgers could be that ruthless.
The story itself doesn’t have much carryover to this season. McCarthy was fired and replaced by Matt LaFleur. That eliminated much of the problem ... perhaps. But if we believe what we’ve heard about Rodgers’ psyche, McCarthy checking out and still buy Rodgers’ ability to play at an MVP level, then the rest of the league might want to watch out.
Let’s go ahead and assume Rodgers, who people think held a grudge for more than a decade about McCarthy’s employers passing him in the draft, wants to prove to the world that the fault for the Packers’ underachievement (relatively speaking) was all McCarthy. Rodgers presumably understands how the saga plays out if he has some great seasons with LaFleur. If he can succeed at the highest level with LaFleur, we’ll look back at any shortcomings in the Rodgers era as entirely McCarthy’s fault. Fair or not, that’s how the story will go. You know that, I know that, and Rodgers probably knows that too.
And, it’s also fair to wonder if McCarthy really was the problem. His offense had stagnated. The Packers weren’t keeping up with the rest of the league. They asked the otherworldly Rodgers to make something out of nothing, and he did more often than not. It seemed for a while that McCarthy was holding Rodgers back, and then a couple injury-filled seasons happened. You don’t hear as much talk about Rodgers being the greatest quarterback on the planet anymore, even though he’s just 35 years old and should have prime years left.
The table is set. We can chalk up two un-Rodgers-like years to injury. A coach who got a lot of blame has been replaced by LaFleur, a supposed offensive guru from the famed Sean McVay coaching tree. Then we have a highly motivated quarterback, who has spent his career in a never-ending quest to find people to prove wrong, with what amounts to a clear slate. If Rodgers wins an MVP and Super Bowl with LaFleur, that changes his legacy in a big way. Let’s not kid ourselves: Rodgers understands what’s at stake the rest of his career.
And the revenge tour begins. Rodgers does so with the best roster the Packers have had in a few years. Green Bay invested in an improved pass rush, signing Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith and drafting Rashan Gary in the first round. They also signed safety Adrian Amos. The Packers have also spent a ton of draft capital in the secondary, and that might pay off this season. The defense could do a 180 this season.
The Packers will be better. And unless you think injuries and age have sapped Rodgers of his superpowers, he should bounce back too. The last time he was healthy over a full season was 2016, and he threw for more than 4,400 yards and 40 touchdowns. Last year’s Week 1 heroics against the Bears, coming back off a knee injury to lead an unbelievable second-half comeback, was a defining game in Rodgers’ career, but he wasn’t the same the rest of the year. He said he played through a tibial plateau fracture and an MCL sprain. He wasn’t bad but he wasn’t vintage Rodgers, and he had a good excuse.
Assuming he’s healed — Rodgers has said he feels good and there have been no offseason reports to the contrary — there is no ceiling on Rodgers’ 2019 season. Nobody would be surprised if he repeated his near-perfect 2011 season. He’s still Aaron Rodgers, and this season he has a lot to prove. You want to bet against that?
There are two ways to help a great quarterback out. You can get a lot of receivers and linemen and practically make his supporting cast bulletproof. Or you can make sure the quarterback doesn’t feel he needs to score 35 points to win each game. The Packers did the latter. Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith got four-year deals worth $66 million and $54 million respectively, and they immediately upgrade the pass rush. So will first-round pick Rashan Gary, who didn’t produce much at Michigan but has top-end talent. Gary’s shoulder could be a concern this season, but it’s unclear if he’ll be affected. Fellow first-round pick Darnell Savage should be a starter right away at safety. Safety Adrian Amos was signed, and he’ll help the Packers and weaken the defending division champion Bears. The defense got a ton of help. Guard Billy Turner got a four-year, $28 million deal and while that was expensive, he helps the offensive line. The Packers lost some longtime vets like Clay Matthews, Randall Cobb and Nick Perry, but this was a successful offseason.
The Packers’ secondary could come on strong this season. The Packers’ top six defensive backs could be big-money free-agent addition Adrian Amos and a bunch of recent first-round (2018 cornerback Jaire Alexander, 2019 safety Darnell Savage) or second-round picks (2017 cornerback Kevin King, 2017 safety Josh Jones, 2018 cornerback Josh Jackson). Jones is reportedly not happy and wants a trade, but 2018 undrafted safety Raven Greene has been turning heads this offseason. There’s a lot of talent and youth in this group, and if health cooperates perhaps a secondary that wasn’t great in 2018 could take a big jump this season.
It’s possible the Packers didn’t build enough talent around Aaron Rodgers. Davante Adams is one of the 10, maybe five, best receivers in the NFL. Who do you trust after that? Jimmy Graham had a lot of warning signs when the Packers signed him last year, and he looks like he’s on a severe decline. Marquez Valdes-Scantling looks like the best bet to be a high-end No. 2 next to Adams, but he was up and down last season. The Packers invested valuable 2018 picks in Equanimeous St. Brown, who didn’t do much last season, and J’Mon Moore, who was mostly invisible. Others like Geronimo Allison and Jake Kumerow have had moments and maybe one of them has a big season. One or more players could emerge but there’s not a lot of proven talent around Adams, and it’s a bit scary to think what happens if Adams gets hurt.
Given what we have heard about the Aaron Rodgers-Mike McCarthy relationship, it’s not too early to take a microscope and check how Rodgers and Matt LaFleur are getting along. So when there is even the slightest of friction over Rodgers’ freedom to change plays at the line — especially after that Bleacher Report story said a teammate estimated Rodgers changed about a third of McCarthy’s plays at the line — it’s notable.
"Aaron and I have had some good talks, and we're going to have to talk a lot more — and one thing we have to work through is the audible thing," LaFleur told NFL.com in June. "We're running a system I first picked up while working with Kyle (Shanahan) in Houston a decade ago, and we've never really had a quarterback who's had complete freedom to change plays at the line, because that's not really the way the offense is set up. But, I mean, this is Aaron Rodgers. He's had a lot of freedom to make those calls, and deservedly so. Now, how do we reconcile that, and get to a place where we put him in the best position to succeed?"
Keep in mind that when push comes to shove, LaFleur is a first-time NFL head coach and Rodgers is arguably the most talented quarterback ever, someone who will probably get a street in Green Bay named after him.
"It's a conversation in progress," Rodgers told NFL.com. "I don't think you want to ask me to turn off 11 years (of recognizing defenses). We have a number of check with mes and line-of-scrimmage stuff. It's just the other stuff that really not many people in this league can do.
"That's not like a humblebrag or anything; that's just a fact. There aren't many people that can do at the line of scrimmage what I've done over the years.”
Read those quotes and you have an understanding of the very difficult challenge LaFleur faces navigating this situation.
If you watched Davante Adams struggle through his second NFL season, you’d have never guessed that by 2019 he’d have an argument as the best receiver in football. Adams’ 2018 season was magnificent, the final step in an impressive breakout. He had 111 catches, 1,386 yards and 13 touchdowns. He did so with full attention from opponents because the Packers had no other receiving threat to worry about, and that might be the case again this season. No other No. 1 receiver will be asked to shoulder a bigger share of the load in his offense than Adams, and he’s up to the challenge.
From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Davante Adams has graduated to the first round of fantasy drafts this year. You’ll get him around 10th or 11th in Yahoo rooms, and the cost is slightly higher in the NFFC.
“And I’m completely on board.
“Yes, Adams is coming off a career year, and often times that’s the worst moment to buy on someone. And occasionally you might hear some squawking about Adams’s ordinary YPC (12.1 career), or his so-so yards per target (7.4 career, 8.2 last year).
“Pay those arguments no mind. Adams is a maestro in beating man-to-man coverage, and perhaps the new Green Bay coaching staff will actually use some route combinations to get Adams a few easy catches this year. And when you need someone to win in a tight, contested space — say, the red zone — that’s where Adams really shines. He’s scored 35 touchdowns in three seasons — never getting fewer than 10 — and while there is some noise in touchdown rates, Adams's floor in that area is significantly high, given his skill set, his rapport with Aaron Rodgers, and the ordinary receiver depth the Packers have after Adams.
“Yes, you’re buying at the high end of the range. But this is one player I’m completely sold on.”
Through 24 games over two NFL seasons, Packers running back Aaron Jones has averaged 5.5 yards per carry. To put that in perspective, Marion Motley has the career record among all running backs at 5.7 yards per carry. Jamaal Charles is second at 5.4, and Jim Brown is third at 5.2. Jones isn’t exactly Brown, but he has a lot of potential and it seems the Packers are ready to feature him. Jones will need to stay healthy and show he can be efficient with a bigger workload, but all signs point to him having a big year. That would open things up even more for Aaron Rodgers in the passing game.
WAS MATT LAFLEUR THE RIGHT CHOICE?
A lot of coaches are going to owe Sean McVay dinner. Would LaFleur have gotten this shot to coach the Packers if not for his one season as McVay’s offensive coordinator with the Rams? Probably not. LaFleur didn’t even call plays with the Rams, but everyone wants to find the next McVay and it doesn’t matter if you have a poor resume or not. LaFleur got a chance to call plays last year with the Titans and they finished 25th in the NFL in yards and 27th in points scored. There are many reasons the Titans offense wasn’t very good, but again, does someone without a nebulous association with McVay parlay that season into a head coaching job? That doesn’t mean LaFleur won’t be amazing — some of the McVay clones are going to hit big — but he’s not a sure thing. Still, he probably was the best choice at the time, a home-run swing in a thin group of candidates as the Packers try to get the most out of Rodgers while he’s in his prime.
If Aaron Rodgers is healthy for 16 games, he can be the best player in the league again. If the relationship with Matt LaFleur clicks, we could see Rodgers have a vintage season, and if he does we’re talking about a Packers team that is front and center as a Super Bowl contender. The overhauled defense could be a big surprise, too. We should be a bit fatigued by the Packers being a popular preseason Super Bowl pick and coming up far short, but this is a different era. There are a lot of reasons to believe the Packers can be elite again this season.
Remember everything in the opening of this preview about Aaron Rodgers presumably wanting to show the world that the Packers’ issues were all due to Mike McCarthy? We can also imagine McCarthy sitting at home, wondering if the same ego-driven strife shows up for the 2019 Packers. It seems clear that Rodgers is tough to play with and coach, which isn’t unique among all-time great quarterbacks. But it does create a combustible mix. It’s easier to blame McCarthy but Rodgers isn’t without his own faults. If Rodgers doesn’t buy into what LaFleur, a rookie head coach, is selling right away then what do the Packers do?
I’m high on the Packers’ potential, probably even more than these rankings reflect. I like all their defensive moves and the potential of their young players on that side of the ball. I see no reason why Aaron Rodgers can’t go right back to being the best player in football, the one who singularly affects a game more than any other. I have some doubts about Matt LaFleur, but he has to be an upgrade over a Mike McCarthy staff that wasn’t bringing much to the table the past few years. If you’re giving me a healthy Rodgers who has as much motivation as he has ever had, I’m investing. It won’t take long this season before the Packers are getting buzz as one of the teams that can win a Super Bowl.
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