Scouting The Enemy Season Preview - Green Bay Packers
Spare a thought for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. No really, hear me out.
The NFL draft is Goodell’s centrepiece, his keynote moment. Yet when he triumphantly returned to the stage in Cleveland on April 29th, after being forced by Covid-19 to conduct 2020’s draft via videoconferencing from his basement, he would have been utterly crestfallen that he did not capture the full attention of the assembled nation’s sports media.
Instead, NFL owners, executives, management and observers from around the 32 franchises were glued to their phones or nearby TV screens as the fallout from Adam Schefter's report via ESPN that the league’s current MVP wanted out of Green Bay after 16 years received blanket coverage across all networks.
As Goodell did his best Taylor-Swift-at-the-Grammys impression, Schefter loomed large in the background like a malignant chattering Kanye, choosing to release a news bombshell that it was later revealed he had gleaned some days previously, thoroughly upstaging the forlorn Commissioner.
The seeds of discontent between Aaron Rodgers and the Packers have been widely documented; from the “four fingers of tequila” draft night when the Packers selected QB Jordan Love with their first pick in 2020, to January's NFC Championship game versus Buccaneers, when down 8 points at the 8-yard line of Tampa with 2:30 left to go, head coach Matt LaFleur brought on the field goal unit rather than trust his MVP to make the crucial play.
Famously the Packers never got their offense back on the field, and Rodgers spent the bulk of the offseason sulking; referring to his future as a “beautiful mystery”, guest-hosting the US gameshow ‘Jeopardy’, reportedly contemplating retirement, then skipping his team’s mandatory minicamp in June.
He pointedly remarked in an interview about how he had been “working on myself”, an ambiguous enterprise that seemed to consist of vacationing with his celebrity fiancé, ostentatiously attending the Kentucky Derby and being photographed playing golf with his celebrity pals. All very zen, I’m sure.
“I’ve focused on the offseason about how to take care of myself. The total package, not just my physical self, the workouts, but my spiritual self with my own mindful practices. My mental health as well.”
However despite his recent engagement to actress Shailene Woodley, the relationship that seems to be consuming Rodgers’ emotional energy has been his fractious rapport with Packers GM Brian Gutekunst.
Rodgers had specifically asked for ‘help’ to take the pressure off star receiver Davante Adams and elevate the Packers offense to Super Bowl winning-level, after falling at the final playoff hurdle four times in the last seven years.
Instead he suffered draft night disappointment once again as the Packers selected a defensive player with their first round pick; the 9th time in their last 10 first round selections that the Packers have chosen this path, the exception being when they picked Jordan Love. No wonder Rodgers’ chi is so off-kilter.
Cue a whole summer of psychodrama, as Packers fans began to contemplate what life would look like without AR12 under center, and the rest of the NFC North revelled in the possibility of seeing Rodgers suiting up in faraway places like Denver or San Francisco.
However Gutekunst always held all the aces and when he refused to countenance trading Rodgers, no matter the price, Rodgers found himself without any leverage due to the $37 million in salary cap space and multiple future first-round draft picks that would have been required by a potential trading partner to persuade Gutekunst to change his mind.
No player has ever been traded after winning MVP the previous season, and the only time a player has not returned to his team the following season was due to retirement, which became the only feasible option if Rodgers was that hell-bent on never playing in Green Bay again.
Despite Rodgers leaking a series of juicy titbits to the media, including how he’s taken to calling Gutekunst “Jerry Krause”, in honour of the former Chicago Bulls GM and villain of “The Last Dance” Netflix documentary, it came as no surprise when the inevitable compromise was reached off-camera, and a restructured deal that would allow Rodgers the ability to leave at the end of the season if he wished was agreed.
On his return to Green Bay for training camp, Rodgers was able to air his grievances against the Packers organisation during a packed press conference that required a king-size bucket of extra salty popcorn to do it full justice.
He outlined his general dissatisfaction with the organisation, his unhappiness at the manner in which several veterans had been released, how he wants to be a part of free-agent discussions, and the possibility he may finish his career somewhere other than Lambeau Field.
“Green Bay isn’t a huge vacation destination, people are coming here to play with me, to play with our team, and knowing that they can win a championship here. The fact that I haven’t been used in those discussions is one I wanted to change moving forward. I thought based on my years and the way I can still play that that should be a natural part of the conversation.”
He also insisted that he did not try to get Gutekunst fired and that their relationship was “professional” whilst reiterating that he wanted a bigger voice in the room when it comes to personnel.
Of course, the root cause of Rodgers’ angst is the knowledge that a certain Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr. has enjoyed exactly these privileges upon leaving the Patriots and joining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where Brady has been allowed huge influence in building a roster of offensive weapons that provided the springboard for the Buccaneers’ Super Bowl triumph in 2020, including their NFC Championship triumph over the Packers.
However it’s worth noting that the Packers did not lose that game due to a lack of talent on offense to support Rodgers, but the actual differential was the Packers’ then Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine calling for man-coverage on a critical play at the end of the second quarter, with the intention of preventing a short out-pattern for the receivers that would have allowed the Bucs to get out of bounds and kick a field goal.
But the man-coverage call also left cornerback Kevin King vulnerable for a deep shot, which Brady put on a dime for Scotty Miller and the rest is history.
In fact, the most significant change for the Packers heading into 2021 is the departure of Pettine, whose contract was not renewed at the end of the season, much to the delight of the Packers’ fanbase. His replacement will be Joe Barry, a coach with 25 years of college and NFL experience, who most recently served as the assistant head coach/linebackers coach of the Los Angeles Rams and worked alongside Matt LaFleur as part of Sean McVay’s staff in his first season with the Rams in 2017.
It’s likely that this will mean an entirely new scheme on defense, where Pettine resolutely stuck to the dime formation with six defensive backs, playing the least amount of nickel out of any team in the league at just 27 percent of snaps.
Barry desperately requires a corner to line up alongside Jaire Alexander, and with Kevin King a liability in zone coverage, the success of their first round pick, Georgia Bulldogs’ CB Eric Stokes will be pivotal.
Stokes, who was taken 29th overall by Green Bay, has worked almost exclusively with the first-team defense during pre-season training camp.
"He’s got rare speed. He can flat fly. He’s done a lot of good things, but has had some tough matchups going against Davante so much, but I am excited about him.”
The Packers believe Stokes will help bolster a secondary that is already a formidable unit. LaFleur has raved about the growth he has seen in fourth-year cornerback Jaire Alexander and third-year safety Darnell Savage, and praised the leadership of sixth-year safety Adrian Amos. With Alexander rivalling Jalen Ramsey as the league’s premier lockdown corner, LaFleur will be banking on Barry re-invigorating a front seven that suffered a downturn in production last season.
Za’Darius Smith once again provided the spearhead, but only managed 51 pressures, down from 93 in 2019, as with NT Kenny Clark’s season disrupted by a nagging groin injury, the Packers failed to get to their opponent’s QB, falling from 4th (34.8%) to 25th (22.8%) in defensive pressures.
The Packers spent further draft capital on adding a big body on defense, drafting Florida Gators’ defensive tackle Tedarrell Slaton in the fifth round, an athletic 330 pound run stuffer who hopefully take some of the reliance off Clark.
Meanwhile on offense, after securing the services of running back Aaron Jones, who agreed a four-year, $48 million extension in the off-season, one key element of the dynamic 2020 Packers offense that will be missing for Rodgers in 2021 is All-Pro centre Corey Linsley, who agreed a five-year deal with the Los Angeles Chargers in free agency.
Consequently the offensive line will face a re-structure, with Ohio rookie Josh Myers expected to take Linsley’s place at the heart of the Packers’ trenches.
Five-time All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari is recovering from a torn ACL, and played just 12 games last season, allowing career-lows in sacks (1.5) and pressures (11), with Pro Football Focus giving Bakhtiari a pass blocking grade of 91.6, which was first amongst offensive tackles.
Bakhtiari’s return to health will be critical for the Packers, and although he won’t be ready for week one, he should be back before mid-season. One intriguing new offensive weapon for Rodgers will be former Clemson wide receiver Amari Rodgers, a versatile chess piece as a slot target who can make serious YAC out of short catch-and-runs but also take the top off defenses with his speed.
Rodgers could also be utilised to boost a thoroughly terrible special teams unit, as a punt and kick returner, under new special teams coordinator Maurice Drayton. Despite veteran kicker Mason Crosby making every field goal he attempted, the Packers ranked 31st on special teams due to poor kick return attempts, bad snaps from long-snapper Hunter Bradley, punt returns allowed for touchdowns, and inconsistency from JK Scott on kick-off returns.
But the key question for the season ahead remains whether the front office and Rodgers are now really on the same page, and if any off-season unrest spills over to the locker room.
With Rodgers coming off an MVP season in 2020, there’s no question he will be ready to ball out again in 2021, sticking two fingers up to his enemies and doubters. In return, Gutekunst must make his franchise QB happy to keep the drama at a minimum, at least in public.
Apparently much of Rodgers’s dissatisfaction came from Gutekunst’s decision to cut Jake Kumerow, a now-29-year-old wide receiver on the Bills roster who has managed only one career reception since being released by the Packers in 2019, along with disrespecting other veterans on their way out of Green Bay, including Randall Cobb, Charles Woodson, Jordy Nelson and Julius Peppers to name a few.
"Great locker room guys, high-character guys who weren't offered a contract at all or were extremely low-balled or, maybe in my opinion, not given the respect on the way out that guys of their status and stature and high character deserved”
However an indication of Rodgers’ ego emerging from the yoga retreat where it’s been vacationing was revealed when it transpired that a sweetener in the deal to resolve his future for 2021/22 was a trade to bring veteran Randall Cobb, otherwise known as the fifth best receiver on the Texans roster, back to Green Bay.
Gutekunst made it crystal clear this move wouldn’t have happened if Rodgers had not insisted on it. The fact that Rodgers petitioned for his old pal Cobb’s return, after he’d spent two seasons away from Lambeau, one with the Cowboys and more lately at the Texans, demonstrates the narrative has always been about Rodgers’ personal predilections being pandered to, rather than any genuine frustration about the weapons at his disposal.
Rodgers’ gripes with Gutekunst seemed to stem from him making tough decisions on the roster and salary cap, which raises the question, isn’t that what a franchise employs a GM to do?
Of course the logical assumption is that Rodgers wants to call the shots in the front office as well as making throws on the field. And obviously calling the plays as well. Especially on 4th and goal from the 8 yard line.
If, as reported, the franchise had really promised to trade Rodgers but then reneged, and “it’s been a ****show between them ever since” then the Rodgers’ Revenge Tour Pt II could really be a thing.
Rodgers has made it clear that he is 100% committed to a final now-or-never tilt at another Super Bowl run with the Packers, and with most of the roster re-signed plus some potentially notable enhancements via the draft, a team that possesses a 26-6 record over the last two seasons certainly looks strong enough to continue their dominance of the NFC North.
The bookies certainly agree, pricing the Packers as 4/6 favourites to win the division for the third year in a row, although getting over the NFC Championship game hump will be the most significant obstacle in Rodger’s path. Brady and the Bucs will be intent on back-to-back titles and a rejuvenated NFC West provides plenty of dangerous opposition, including an old NFC North foe now under center at the Rams.
Whether Rodgers is still suiting up for the Packers next year remains to be seen, but it certainly feels like a cold wind of change will be blowing through Lambeau next winter, and if that means pastures new for Rodgers, we may see a very different looking NFC North in 2022.
I talked with the shy & retiring Stephen O'Brien aka @SteDiddyNFL, co-founder of the UK & Irish Packers, to look in-depth at the Green Bay Packers, discuss the melodrama of Aaron Rodgers, and consider if anyone in the NFC North can mount a challenge to the Packers ahead of the 2021 season.
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