Aaron Rodgers was giving Matt LaFleur some lip. There was less than a minute left in the second quarter of Green Bay’s Week 2 game against the Minnesota Vikings, and Rodgers came off the field hot after throwing the ball away on third-and-16. He directed his fire at LaFleur, and Fox directed their cameras at Rodgers. Millions of Americans saw Rodgers screaming at his coach. Reporters asked Rodgers about the exchange after the game.
“I can’t say we were yelling how much we love each other,” Rodgers said.
But halfway through the season, everything between the two is love. The Packers defeated the Oakland Raiders 42-24 on Sunday in a game where Rodgers created all six of Green Bay’s touchdowns. The win pushed the Packers’ record to 6-1 and kept them in first place in the NFC North. For the second consecutive week, Rodgers played like his 2014 self, when he was among the most in-command field generals in football history. Rodgers is not the only reason they are winning; the Packers have a stout defense and a surprisingly deep stable of pass-catchers, but the core of their team revolves around Rodgers’s relationship with LaFleur.
Green Bay entered this game hurt. Star receiver Davante Adams missed the game with a turf toe injury. Receivers Geronimo Allison and Marquez Valdes-Scantling played hurt after combining to practice once last week. Luckily, Rodgers at his best is a cure-all. He completed 25 of his 31 attempts for 429 passing yards, five touchdowns, and no turnovers with just one sack. He had a perfect passer rating and a career-high 13.8 yards per pass attempt, which is the second-highest single-game mark of the season. During the game, Rodgers also became the fastest player in NFL history to reach 350 passing touchdowns and just the ninth player to do it period (in case you’re wondering, the rest of the list is both Peyton and Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Brett Favre, Philip Rivers, Ben Roethlisberger, and Dan Marino). Rodgers also added a rushing touchdown to give him six total scores on the day, making him the first quarterback to have 400 passing yards, five passing touchdowns, and one rushing touchdown in the same game since Mark Rypien in 1991.
Rodgers’s ball distribution leaps off the page. Eight Packers caught a pass, none had more than four catches, and nobody had fewer than two. Six receivers had a catch longer than 20 yards, and the five touchdowns went to five different receivers. None of the individual receiving lines were particularly impressive, but Green Bay’s overall passing efficiency was staggering; the average pass led to a first down and change.
Some touchdowns came on big plays: On Green Bay’s first drive, Rodgers moved the offense from the 50-yard line to the end zone in two plays, starting with a third-and-7 throw to tight end Jimmy Graham for 29 yards. He followed it with a dime to running back Aaron Jones on a wheel route out of the backfield. The pass landed in Jones’s breadbasket to give the Packers the lead at 7-3.
BACK SHOULDER BEAUTY!— NFLonCBS (@NFLonCBS) October 20, 2019
Aaron Rodgers to Aaron Jones for the TD. pic.twitter.com/V9rbIw6a0Z
Just before halftime, Rodgers found receiver Jake Kumerow on a 37-yard touchdown pass with 12 seconds left to make the game 21-10 at halftime. Kumerow may have stepped out of bounds before reaching the end zone, but for the second consecutive week a questionable long Packers touchdown pass was upheld on replay.
To cap the game, Rodgers found Valdes-Scantling on a simple 6-yard out route where Valdes-Scantling shook a tackle and ran all the way to the end zone for a 74-yard touchdown thanks to an excellent downfield block from Jones.
Rodgers also dissected Oakland’s defense with dink-and-dunk drives. He led an 11-play, 82-yard drive that soaked up more than eight minutes of game time in the second quarter. He capped it with a 2-yard touchdown pass to running back Jamaal Williams that made the game 14-10 late in the second quarter and gave Green Bay the lead for good. In the third quarter, Rodgers conducted an eight-play, 85-yard scoring drive that took up almost five minutes and ended with a 3-yard toss to tight end Jimmy Graham.
It was the second week in a row Rodgers looked like he had regained his near-peak powers. Last week, against Detroit, controversial refereeing dominated post–Monday Night Football discussions, but Rodgers had a stellar night; he notched 24 completions on 39 attempts for 283 yards and two touchdowns, but could have had closer to 400 yards if not for multiple missed dropped passes, some in the end zone.
It’s quite the time for Rodgers’s renaissance. There’s mounting evidence that Rodgers began to decline statistically around the 2015 season. Ben Baldwin of The Athletic wrote that Rodgers’s expected points added (EPA) per play went to historic highs in his MVP 2011 season, stayed in the 90th percentile through 2014, but plummeted to around the league median in the four seasons since. Baldwin’s research also shows that the usual excuses—Green Bay’s poor running game, questionable receiver talent, bad play-calling, suspect defense, and Rodgers’s collarbone and shoulder injuries—did not hold water. But over the last two weeks, Rodgers has looked reborn. That’s likely because he is finally getting a feel for LaFleur’s new offense, which is particularly impressive considering he’s throwing to second-year receiver Valdes-Scantling, fourth-year receiver Geronimo Allison, and second-year receiver Jake Kumerow. As LaFleur told reporters in his postgame press conference, the team is “starting to learn our players a little bit better, what they do well.”
LaFleur is learning how to work with Rodgers, too. LaFleur became Green Bay’s head coach after one season as the Titans’ offensive coordinator (surely you remember the famously impressive 2018 Titans offense!) There were fundamental differences between LaFleur and his star quarterback who was (briefly) the highest paid player in NFL history last year. LaFleur had never worked with a quarterback whose coaches allowed him to change plays at the line. And Rodgers likely could not remember the last time he didn’t change plays at the line. LaFleur’s offense featured a number of changes that made Rodgers uncomfortable, including more motion that made audibling certain plays more complex, as well as more play-action that required Rodgers to turn his back to the defense on pass plays. In one practice over the summer, Rodgers used language from Mike McCarthy’s playbook to audible a run play that LaFleur had not yet installed.
Both men needed to compromise. Rodgers had to adjust to LaFleur’s new ideas, and LaFleur had to adjust to Rodgers’s desire to keep his hands on the wheel.
”That’s not like a humblebrag or anything; that’s just a fact,” Rodgers said. “There aren’t many people that can do at the line of scrimmage what I’ve done over the years. I mean, obviously, Tommy [Brady] can do it, no doubt. Peyton [Manning] could do it. Drew [Brees] can do it. [Patrick] Mahomes will be able to do it. Ben [Roethlisberger] has called the two-minute for years. There are a few of us who’ve just done it; it’s kind of second nature. And that’s just the icing on the cake for what I can do in this offense.”
That offense was delicious on Sunday, but the Packers have a tough stretch approaching. Four of their next five games are on the road, including matchups with the Chiefs and undefeated 49ers, which could have home-field advantage implications for the playoffs. If Rodgers feels comfortable in LaFleur’s offense, however, there might not be anything the rest of the league can do to stop him. Right now there is nothing to yell about.