The NFL is valuing youth and innovation more than ever before. A year after the Rams made Sean McVay the youngest head coach in league history, Patrick Mahomes became the youngest MVP winner since Dan Marino. This offseason, an avalanche followed: The Cardinals threw caution to the wind and paired Kliff Kingsbury with Kyler Murray, the Packers ended the Mike McCarthy era, and the Bengals poached the Rams’ quarterbacks coach to be their new head coach. When did the NFL begin to resemble Silicon Valley? Welcome to Wunderkind Week, when we’ll dive deep into how the NFL became a young man’s league.
There have been just 15 head coaches across the Green Bay Packers’ 100-year history. The first one’s name graces pro football’s most storied cathedral. The best one’s name adorns the NFL’s ultimate prize. Two others oversaw Super Bowl wins, and two more were Hall of Fame players who later became coaches. Now, that list also includes Matt LaFleur.
The 39-year-old took the job in January, following a single season as the Titans’ offensive coordinator, and his first few days in Green Bay were spent reveling in the history that can be found throughout Lambeau Field. Here was a Midwestern kid from Mount Pleasant, Michigan, sitting in the chair once held by Vince Lombardi. But the time for wide eyes disappeared quickly. “There’s so much tradition here. We will always respect that tradition,” LaFleur says, from a black leather chair in a Lambeau Field interview room. “But now it’s about how we make it about our guys that are here now. And not only that, but how do we help them make a new tradition, a new history?”
For LaFleur to do that—and ultimately succeed in Green Bay—he’ll have to make a very important piece of the Packers’ old history new again. Like the other four play-calling head coaches who were hired this offseason as teams try to emulate Sean McVay’s success with the Rams, he was brought on to invigorate his franchise’s quarterback. The difference is that LaFleur’s new charge isn’t a young passer hoping to unlock his potential: It’s one of the greatest players in NFL history.
The notion that Aaron Rodgers—who currently has the second best passer rating in league history at 103.1—would need reviving might seem ridiculous on its face. Early-period Rodgers was the most efficient passer the league had ever seen. During his first seven seasons under former head coach Mike McCarthy, he put up 8.2 yards per attempt, a 6.5 touchdown percentage, and a 106.6 QB rating—all of which, if extrapolated over an entire career, would be the best numbers since the 1970 merger for players with 20 or more starts. That stretch also included two MVP awards (2011 and 2014) and a Super Bowl victory (following the 2010 season). In the latter years of McCarthy’s tenure, though, the superhuman Rodgers transformed into a mere mortal. From 2015 to 2018, Rodgers averaged 7.1 yards per attempt. Among QBs with at least 500 attempts over that span, that number ranks 22nd—one spot ahead of Mitchell Trubisky and five spots lower than Ryan Tannehill.
Rodgers defenders will argue that McCarthy’s obsolete offense—which did little to create separation for his receivers and in turn left most of the heavy lifting to his quarterback—was to blame for that drop-off. His detractors will say that Rodgers is too committed to an improvisational style, and that hinders any system’s ability to function. LaFleur’s arrival will test those theories by introducing the first new scheme the 35-year-old QB has seen in 14 years.
At first glance, Rodgers’s game and LaFleur’s system seem to be at odds. Rodgers has traditionally been granted almost total autonomy at the line of scrimmage. LaFleur’s scheme—which is derived from the offenses made famous by Mike Shanahan and Gary Kubiak—is more restrictive for quarterbacks. The Packers also predominantly ran a shotgun offense during the past few seasons. LaFleur prefers to be under center more than most modern teams. In the eight months since LaFleur was hired, those disparities have led both fans and the media to parse every comment from him and Rodgers for hidden meaning and underlying intent. The interplay between the first-time head coach and the two-time All-Pro—and the onfield results it produces—will be one of the most obsessed-over stories of the NFL season.
LaFleur knows that the pair’s separate histories will have to be put aside in favor of a shared future. “It’s not about what I’ve done in my past,” LaFleur says. “It’s not about what the guys who’ve been here have done in the past. It’s about how we come together and make this the Green Bay Packers offense.” And the coach’s tenure will be defined by what he can squeeze out of Rodgers’s twilight.
During the interview process last winter, LaFleur got a phone call from an unfamiliar number. When he answered, Rodgers was on the other line, which LaFleur took as a good sign: “I was like, ‘Man, I think I’ve got a chance at this thing.’”
After LaFleur was hired, the two had a few early conversations in which LaFleur laid out the parameters of his offense, and Rodgers made it clear that there were aspects of the Packers’ old system that he couldn’t live without. “Obviously, you can watch the film and try to pair up concepts, but there’s some stuff that he really wanted to know that I had to keep from the previous offense and what stuff I could let go,” Rodgers says. “Being in the same system for, really, 14 years, you kind of get used to certain plays and feel more comfortable with certain plays based on things that have happened. It could be a rep in practice that really turns you on or turns you off to a play, to crunch-time plays that you’ve hit.” Two areas where Rodgers prefers to lean heavily on past experience and maintain more autonomy are in the red zone and during the two-minute drill—both of which require especially quick mental processing and streamlined execution. To this point, Rodgers says that LaFleur has been “great” at accommodating those requests.
One of the more scrutinized aspects of the pair’s relationship so far, though, has been the amount of freedom Rodgers will have at the line of scrimmage. Earlier this summer, Rodgers told NFL Media’s Mike Silver that the conversation about his control at the line was “in progress,” but that it’d be difficult to “turn off” 11 years of analyzing defenses. The comment created a stir, but nearly two months later, Rodgers attributes the commotion to a quiet time in the NFL calendar. “Some of the folks talking about it I don’t think know a whole lot about football if they’re making a big deal about it,” Rodgers says. “Because there are adjustments on every play. A lot don’t ever get called or initiated. I stand by everything I said. I wasn’t taking a shot at anybody. I wasn’t subliminally trying to say anything to Matt.”
When asked about those comments, LaFleur said the situation had been exaggerated “to the nth degree.” On the second day of training camp, he told the team that the quarterback is the most important position in all of sports—and that he doesn’t plan to rob a future Hall of Fame passer of the traits that will one day send him to Canton. “We’re fortunate that we’ve got a guy that’s played at the highest level,” LaFleur says. “The last thing we want to do is put him in a position where he’s not comfortable with something. Because if he’s not comfortable with it, he’s not going to be confident in it.” To LaFleur, that confidence is valuable beyond just the quarterback’s performance. The first-year coach can already sense that when Rodgers is steadfast in his support of a play or action, his conviction seeps into the rest of the Packers’ huddle. “Belief is so powerful,” LaFleur says. “If the 11 guys out on that field believe in what we’re doing, we’ve got a much better chance at success.”
The most significant adjustment Rodgers faces in this system is dealing with the amount of pre-snap motion. Last season, the Titans used some sort of motion on 56 percent of their offensive plays, which was one of the higher rates in the league, according to Sports Info Solutions. Green Bay was at the other end of the spectrum at just 27 percent. Without much movement before the snap, Rodgers was able to diagnose relatively static defenses. In LaFleur’s scheme, the Packers want the defense to change, which limits the time Rodgers has to make late adjustments. Rodgers admits that element of the scheme has taken some getting used to, but for his part, LaFleur embraces the uneven moments. The final goal may be ensuring that Rodgers believes in every aspect of the Packers’ playbook, but the new coach finds it necessary to feel a little discomfort along the way. “Anytime there’s change, in order to grow and learn something new, you’ve got to get comfortable with the uncomfortable,” LaFleur says. “And I appreciate the fact that I think he’s done that. Shoot, it’s been the same for me in this position. It’s not always the most comfortable, but that’s how you grow as a person.”
When the Rams and Vikings squared off in a Thursday-night game last September, the results sent shockwaves around the league. Billed as a matchup between the NFC’s most explosive offense and the Vikings’ famously ferocious defense, the game turned into a shootout, as Rams quarterback Jared Goff threw for 465 yards and five touchdowns in a 38-31 win. “What L.A. did that night, everybody was buzzing about,” Rodgers says. “Obviously, all the TV networks. But our locker room was buzzing. Especially on the offensive side. Like, ‘Man, that looked pretty fun.’”
Sean McVay dresses up his offense differently than LaFleur did in Tennessee, but the two come from the same Shanahan-Kubiak tree and even worked together in Washington and Los Angeles. And what Rodgers saw that night—and what he’s seen with LaFleur’s scheme so far—is a system tailored to exploiting modern defenses.
The NFL has shifted to more single-high safety alignments and man coverage in the secondary in the past few years, and more motion allows the offense to take advantage of those one-on-one matchups and makes defenders question their assignments. “What this offense does is that it really stresses you with crossing routes and release patterns,” Rodgers says. “Because you’re adding a motion and making a defense figure out, is he gonna be the no. 1, no. 2, no. 3 [receiver]? And what type of release pattern is gonna happen at that moment?”
Along with the unique route combinations and distributions, LaFleur has also adopted McVay’s preference for play-action. Among qualified QBs last season, Goff led the league by using play-action on 35.8 percent of his dropbacks (according to Pro Football Focus). Under LaFleur in Tennessee, Marcus Mariota finished third at 32.1 percent. Rodgers ranked 29th out of 37 QBs at just 20.1 percent. In McCarthy’s shotgun-heavy scheme—Green Bay used shotgun on 71 percent of its offensive plays last season, the eighth-highest rate in the league—the Packers didn’t have many runs tied to their play-action concepts, which hampered the amount of deception a play fake could create. LaFleur, on the other hand, pairs the run and pass actions in an effort to make every play initially appear the same. “This offense is all about multiple looks and multiple plays from the same look,” Rodgers says. “So you have an action, you have a run, you have a keep, and you have a shot play out of the same look.”
To achieve this, LaFleur and other Shanahan disciples run much of their offense under center. The Rams ran 63 percent of their plays under center last season, which led the NFL; Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers ranked second at 56 percent; and LaFleur’s Titans ranked fifth at 49 percent. Matt Ryan ran this offense with Kyle Shanahan in 2016—the year he won league MVP—and says that the transition to a high volume of under-center play-action throws was the most significant adjustment he had to make in this scheme. In shotgun, quarterbacks are able to survey the defense, even when faking a handoff. But when executing a play fake from under center, the QB spends a split second with his back to the defense, which initially made Ryan uneasy. “That was the most different thing I’d done in anything prior to that,” Ryan says. “You had to trust it was going to set up what it was supposed to set up. You’ve got to push through being uncomfortable because there’s a lot of good things that happen as a result of it.”
Rodgers faces a similar adjustment—and leap of faith—after spending so much time in the shotgun in recent years. There was some speculation this offseason that the Packers’ shotgun-heavy tendencies were a direct result of a Rodgers decree, but he says that isn’t the case. The Packers used shotgun 63 percent of the time in 2017 in part because Rodgers broke his collarbone and backup Brett Hundley was much more comfortable in the gun. And last season, Green Bay was forced into the shotgun because Rodgers broke his leg in a Week 1 win over the Bears and couldn’t physically pull out from under center. “I think that was a necessity instead of a philosophy,” Rodgers says. He points to his history of playing under center in junior college, during his college career at Cal—even in his early days with the Packers.
Rodgers is leaning on that past experience now, and, as a visual learner, he’s been poring over tape to try to nail down the footwork and movements that are necessary to run this offense. But that process has required a slightly disorienting educational method. Under McCarthy, Rodgers would study his own tape. He watched himself take reps, over and over, during installation periods and the early days of training camp. This spring, for the first time in over a decade, Rodgers is watching other quarterbacks run the concepts he’s learning to execute. He’s taken in film from two decades of Shanahan system QBs, and he stresses that LaFleur’s emphasis on “two-spotting”—a practice method that increases reps by allowing multiple sets of offenses to run at once—has accelerated the process. “When you see yourself doing the rep, it’s totally different than seeing any other quarterback doing it: Matt Ryan, Jimmy Garoppolo, C.J. Beathard, even going back to Rex Grossman, McNabb, RG3, Kirk Cousins,” Rodgers says. “It all helps, but it helps a little more when you can really critique yourself and your interpretation of the footwork on certain plays.”
Rodgers has been friends with Ryan for years, and at this February’s Pebble Beach Pro-Am, the Falcons QB gave Rodgers the lowdown on working with LaFleur, who was Ryan’s quarterbacks coach in Atlanta in 2015 and 2016. Ryan was in his eighth season when LaFleur came to the Falcons, and over nearly a decade in the league, Ryan had developed a refined set of likes and dislikes within an offense. He assured Rodgers that LaFleur would be receptive to his ideas. LaFleur was “open to the input on things I’d done before, things that I liked, things that I was comfortable with,” Ryan says. “That is what Matt wants. He wants his quarterback to feel really comfortable out there.”
The way that Rodgers sees it, Ryan is part of an elite fraternity of quarterbacks who’s been given a rare amount of freedom to change plays and take control within his offense. Rodgers also lists off Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger, and himself as members of that club. That group features some of the best quarterbacks of their generation. But the Packers legend is about to take on a challenge Brady, Brees, and Roethlisberger have never had to face.
Both Brady and Brees have spent more than a decade with their current play-callers. And even though Roethlisberger’s longtime offensive coordinator, Todd Haley, was let go after the 2017 season, Roethlisberger actually gained more authority to dial up his own plays after quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner was promoted. Rodgers is the only surefire Hall of Fame, Super Bowl–winning quarterback of this era that will be learning a new system for the final stretch of his illustrious career. One of the best to ever play is starting over, as part of an arranged marriage with a first-time head coach who’s asking him to change in order to grow. Whether he can will ultimately determine the legacies both men leave in Green Bay.