GREEN BAY — The introductions are over and the work has begun.
Finally, the Green Bay Packers can get started on next season.
After an offseason of change and controversy that included the hiring of 39-year-old Matt LaFleur as coach and last week’s bombshell story from Bleacher Report that painted the Packers, long a role model for NFL franchises, as a dysfunctional organization that missed the playoffs the last two years in part due to a fractured relationship between quarterback Aaron Rodgers and former coach Mike McCarthy, the time to start working toward next season arrived this week.
When the Packers players reported for offseason work Monday, the first order of business was a meet-and-greet with LaFleur, who apparently made a good first impression.
“He brings a lot of energy and he’s a cool guy,” nose tackle Kenny Clark said Wednesday. “I think we’re going to be a really good team.”
That’s easy to say in April, when the team has yet to hit the practice field. Indeed, despite adding four prospective starters in free agency, the Packers still have many holes to fill on a roster that has been in decline for years.
LaFleur’s favorable first impression was a good starting point, but it’s what happens from now on that will determine the fate of everyone from team president Mark Murphy on down. Rodgers is 35 and his NFL clock is ticking, so there is a sense of urgency to get the franchise back in the playoff mix after it went 13-18-1 the past two seasons.
“There isn’t a grace period,” Rodgers said. “This isn’t like other transitions where you maybe give a pass for the first year or two as you get acclimated to the system. We have a veteran quarterback, veteran offensive linemen, we signed some big free agents for us, especially three on defense. There’s an expectation living and playing here that you’re going to compete for championships and I think we all expect to do that.”
That makes the relationship-building that began this week all the more important. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was retained, so the transition on that side of the ball will be minimal. But LaFleur, one of the young, cutting-edge offensive minds that are taking over the NFL, will have to install a new offense and define new roles for the players he inherited, all the while building a new culture in the locker room.
The franchise’s sense of urgency makes it imperative that LaFleur and Rodgers click right from the start. Rodgers was portrayed by Bleacher Report as a quarterback who had lost respect for McCarthy’s football acumen and, whether the story overstated his feelings or not, there is no question he is strong-willed and has his own ideas about how offense should be played.
Indeed, of all the working relationships that are revving up this week on Lombardi Avenue, the one that matters most is the one between LaFleur and Rodgers.
“It’s been great conversations,” Rodgers said. “He’s been in front of the room, getting himself comfortable to being the guy and it’s fun to watch him and support him and just kind of hear his mind. As we talk through the quarterback-room expectations and the offense’s initial installs, it’s been a lot of fun.”
With LaFleur, new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and new quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy (in his second stint with the Packers), Rodgers is hearing a lot of new voices in the quarterback room. He said he’s enjoying the process of learning another offensive system and that change “can be really good if you embrace it.”
But will Rodgers accept the challenge and embrace the change given that he’s had phenomenal success in his first 11 years as the starter? Wide receiver Davante Adams, who met the new coach shortly after LaFleur was hired, said the Rodgers is off to a great start with the new coach.
“He met with LaFleur in the offseason as well and he called me right after with great news, saying he had a great meeting with him,” Adams said. “Matt’s whole idea is he’s really open and receptive to how Aaron and I want to attack this season and how we feel moving forward, bringing certain things from the past that we liked and just having an open mind, which is a great thing when you’re coming in trying to get a team to buy in.”
One thing that should appeal to Rodgers is moving from McCarthy’s outdated system to a more deceptive, spread offense similar to the ones that are having success across the league. Also, Rodgers is highly intelligent, which means he fully understands that he and LaFleur are joined at the hip, quite possibly for the rest of his career.
Rodgers said he got an early scouting report on LaFleur from Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, who had worked with LaFleur in the past, and that the LaFleur he’s getting to know is the same person Ryan described.
“He’s an energetic guy, he’s really intelligent, he’s a good communicator, he’s creative,” Rodgers said. “It’s exciting right now because it’s different. I’ve been in the same system for 14 years and knew that inside and out, and now I have a new challenge learning this system and becoming an expert in it and trying to find ways to make it work with the guys we’ve got.”
Rodgers said Wednesday the Packers are “in a good spot.” He and LaFleur are the two guys most responsible for keeping them there.