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How the Packers’ Extreme Makeover Turned Green Bay Into the Class of the NFC

The franchise experienced its worst season in a decade in 2018. But after an offseason that saw a new coach, new players, and new philosophies enter the fold, the Packers are 6-1 and seem to be hitting their stride.

Michael Weinstein

As Preston and Za’Darius Smith warmed up for their first Packers practice this spring, they noticed a troubling sound hanging over the field—or rather, a troubling lack of sound. The pass-rushing duo had signed with Green Bay in free agency a couple of months prior, and during their early NFL stops they’d gotten used to music thumping throughout every practice. Bothered by the church-like silence, the pair approached first-year head coach Matt LaFleur and suggested that some tunes would be nice.

Later that week, as Jaire Alexander stood in the warm-up line, he couldn’t believe when Kodak Black’s “Zeze” started pouring from the speakers. “We was not playing rap music like that last year,” the second-year cornerback says. “We was playing, like, the Madden soundtrack. I was like, ‘This ain’t gonna get nobody hyped. What are they doing?’” This fall, when Alexander heard the Smiths commenting on a song coming over the speakers, he told them that they had no idea how lucky they were to be hearing it. “I was like, ‘Bro, if you was here last year, you would be very grateful for the shit they play now.’”

After spending 13 seasons under head coach Mike McCarthy, the Packers have welcomed LaFleur and a few influential free agents into the mix, and together they’ve transformed an organization that had fallen into a rut. In years past, Green Bay had maintained a buttoned-up culture—one perpetuated by an insular locker room composed of players who had come up through this system. But this season, many veterans have noticed that showing up to work doesn’t have to feel like work. “You know when you watch those TV shows, and there’s a scene, and it’s kind of gray?” Preston Smith says. “And then something happens, and the scene goes to color? It’s kind of like that.”

Much was made this offseason of the offensive system that LaFleur brought to Green Bay and how quarterback Aaron Rodgers would adapt to it, but so far the 39-year-old head coach’s most significant contribution has been the dialogue he’s created with players. He’s handed them the keys in ways both large and small. Rather than pawning off music duties onto an overworked, low-level assistant, for example, the Packers use the team’s messaging app to solicit requests. A system that had been reserved for obligatory announcements now doubles as a digital jukebox. “Coaches can tell you how they want you to practice, but it’s the environment you want to create for yourself that makes you want to practice,” Preston Smith says. “It’s long days. We all want to be happy. We all love football, but what’s better than coming to work and hearing a song that you like?”

Heading into Sunday night’s showdown against the Chiefs, happiness is abundant in Green Bay. The Packers lead the NFC North with a 6-1 record, and their defense ranks among the top 10 in nearly every major statistical category. Newcomers like the Smiths and safety Adrian Amos have made a massive on-field impact, and beyond that, they’ve changed the way even longtime Packers feel about the atmosphere in the locker room. “We’ve brought in people from the outside with different perspectives of how culture should be—instead of growing culture inside out,” says left tackle David Bakhtiari, who’s played in Green Bay for his entire seven-year career. “Guys have been other places and experienced different cultures, where usually, guys have come in and experienced only this same environment.”

Rodgers has noticed the difference as well, and hasn’t been shy about mentioning what the Smiths in particular have brought to the group. “I don’t mean to be broad or vague,” Rodgers says, “but the energy of those two especially is contagious. To be specific, it’s a charisma. And not everybody has that. When you’re around those people, there’s a magnetic quality where they attract you into a conversation. There’s a smile, there’s a positivity. You just kind of want to be around it more.”

After years of relying on homegrown ideals, the Packers have shed their old skin and injected new life into one of the NFL’s most storied franchises. In the process, they’ve remade themselves into a contender unlike any Green Bay has seen in recent memory. “It’s a new era,” Bakhtiari says. “A new age. Obviously, hindsight is 20/20. But these guys have made impact plays and changed the culture of this football team.”

NFL: SEP 05 Packers at Bears
Za’Darius Smith (55)
Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In January, a few days after the Packers closed out their worst season in a decade, defensive coordinator Mike Pettine met with general manager Brian Gutekunst to discuss the team’s roster. Pettine had just finished his first season in Green Bay—one in which the Packers had gone 6-9-1 and failed to make the postseason for just the third time in 12 seasons—and though McCarthy had been fired in early December, the franchise’s decision about Pettine’s future remained up in the air. As Pettine sat in the draft room and listened to Gutekunst lay out what he saw as the team’s needs, he was taken aback. “It’s rare that a GM thinks there are more holes to fill on a defense than a defensive coordinator does,” Pettine says. “Usually, the ones I’ve been around, it’s ‘This is a playoff roster,’ and you don’t feel that way. He did not need much from me. He was very well aware of our issues.”

More than maybe any other franchise in football, the Packers have historically been reluctant when it comes to free agency. When Rodgers mentioned the team’s past forays into the market, two of the first names he brought up were Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett. Both players were signed 13 years ago. Under Gutekunst’s mentor (and current senior adviser) Ted Thompson, the Packers preferred to use most of the salary cap on extensions for their own draft picks. Between 2005 and 2015, Thompson signed just 12 unrestricted free agents and was known for often having the highest percentage of homegrown talent in the league.

Gutekunst, who took over the GM role in January 2018, insists that the organization’s overarching philosophy hasn’t changed under his watch, but he concedes that a growing leaguewide willingness to take risks, coupled with the right opportunities this spring, pushed the Packers to spend big. “We just felt—specifically on defense—we had to spend some resources to acquire the kind of talent to be the team we wanted to be,” Gutekunst says.

For front offices, the most daunting part of handing out huge free-agent deals is the fear of the unknown. Gutekunst says that even with all the homework teams do, there’s no way to know how a player will react to a huge raise and a change of scenery. After getting paid, some players shut down. Others keep to themselves, content to collect a check and head home without trying to endear themselves to the rest of the locker room. “That’s what we’ve been worried about over the years is bringing in guys who [are] those type of people,” Rodgers says. “And we’ve missed in some of those situations where we’ve brought in guys from the outside and they haven’t quite fit.” When it came to the Smiths, though, Green Bay was more confident than usual. Milt Hendrickson, who joined the franchise as the director of football operations earlier this year, came from Baltimore and had known Za’Darius for years. And first-year inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti had occupied that role in Washington for Preston’s entire career. Gutekunst felt that the Packers were on solid ground to be aggressive—and they wasted no time.

Amos says that the Packers’ first contract offer came just a few minutes after the league’s legal tampering period opened; that four-year, $37 million deal blew away other offers that rolled in afterward. Preston Smith learned about the four-year, $52 million deal (with a $16 million signing bonus) that Green Bay had offered him just after arriving at the airport near his home in Atlanta. “I called my financial adviser and told him I landed,” Smith says, “And he said, ‘Yeah … in a big pot of cash.’” Za’Darius Smith was prepared to sign a huge deal with the Jets before the Packers upped the ante, offering him four years and $66 million with $20 million at signing. “After [my agent] told me the price, I was like, ‘Fuck yeah, let’s go!’” Smith says. “I’m gonna be cold as shit, but let’s go.”

A frigid, quiet town may not seem like the most desirable destination for top-flight NFL free agents, but Amos and the Smiths are willing to admit that considerations like location, scheme, and franchise pedigree were less important than securing the most lucrative deal on the table. “Of course the money factor is the biggest thing,” Amos says. “I’m a fifth-rounder.” The Packers’ biggest free-agent signings didn’t choose Green Bay because of history or mystique. They chose it because the Packers—for the first time in recent memory—were willing to throw around cash other teams weren’t.

By the second day of the legal tampering period, all three players had agreed to contracts near the top of the market at their positions. When Preston finally got home, his young daughter was there waiting for him. “I walked in slow, and she was like, ‘What’s goin’ on, Daddy?’” Smith says. “I just had to sit down because it was too much to take standing up. And I just said, ‘Baby, we’re rich.’”

Detroit Lions v Green Bay Packers
Preston Smith (91)
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

When Bakhtiari arrived in Green Bay in May for organized team activities, he noticed that the roster wasn’t the only area to undergo renovations. One of LaFleur’s early priorities after being hired in January was to update parts of the Packers’ facility. Walls that had been painted a dull tan or green were now a stark white. Green-and-yellow decals had been replaced by metallic logos. In the offensive line room, photos of Packers legends Forrest Gregg and Jerry Kramer had once hung prominently; in their place sat framed action shots of all five current starting linemen. “When I first got here, this looked more like look a museum,” Bakhtiari says. “Beautiful, appreciating all the history. Kind of like ‘Don’t touch,’ with things roped off. Now, it’s more like we’re gonna honor our history, but we are about the guys in this room right now, and we’re gonna show that.”

Along with the aesthetic changes, LaFleur installed a miniature basketball hoop in a common area of the facility. While Bakhtiari and others know that a few coats of paint and some Nerf shots aren’t responsible for Green Bay’s 6-1 start, the effort to modernize Lambeau Field has served its purpose: It made clear that LaFleur is attuned to his players’ tastes and ideas. Just as he did with the practice music, LaFleur has consistently shown that he coaches with an open ear.

When prominent team figures would approach him during training camp and communicate that some players were feeling worn down, the Packers might go through a session without pads. When the Smiths told him that the third-down montages and blaring music that are standard in most NFL stadiums were noticeably absent from Lambeau, LaFleur made those videos a game day staple. “If it’s something we need, or something we really want, whether it’s Aaron Rodgers, [Preston], myself, we’ll go to the coach and talk about it,” Za’Darius says. “That’s something good to have.” Preston knows that not every player on the roster has the standing to air his grievances directly, so the team leaders have made a point of showing their line of communication with the head coach extends to the rest of the locker room. “This is a democracy,” Preston says. “This isn’t a dictatorship. How are we going to get better if nobody speaks up?”

Some players cite LaFleur’s age when explaining his ability and willingness to connect with players, but Gutekunst insists that finding a young coach was never an organizational mandate. It was always more important to get someone who could relate to his players, and LaFleur continuously showed throughout the interview process that he is that type of coach. “I think it’s a different generation,” Gutekunst says, “and you’ve got to work at it to reach them. Matt, his communication skills really jumped out. He’s really gifted there, and I think the team has reacted well to those.”

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears
Matt LaFleur
Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

From the moment the Packers announced LaFleur’s hiring in January, fans and media members alike began to speculate about how his new offensive system would mesh with Rodgers’s entrenched preferences for freedom at the line of scrimmage and a shotgun-based passing attack. But changes in offensive philosophy have played a relatively small part in the team’s fast start. Green Bay is running the ball more often and out of a variety of formations, which has helped accentuate the complexities of the play-action passing game. And running back Aaron Jones has seen his role grow considerably as a receiver; he’s tallied 34 targets in seven games, one fewer than he saw in 12 contests last season. But the schematic tweaks to the Packers’ defense have proved more crucial than any shifts on offense.

That notion may seem strange, considering that Pettine also served as the unit’s coordinator in 2018. Yet the Packers’ offseason injection of talent has allowed Pettine to significantly expand his defensive menu. After learning that he’d be retained—and knowing the roster areas Gutekunst wanted to improve—Pettine started the process of digging into the pool of available free-agent edge rushers. The front office gave him a list of 15 or so names being considered, and as Pettine and outside linebackers coach Matt Smith went through, two stood out above the rest: Preston and Za’Darius Smith. “We made our recommendations, and it was funny,” Pettine says, “as a coach you just figure, we’re just gonna sign one.” When LaFleur later told Pettine that it might be possible to land both, the veteran coach channeled 15 years’ worth of free-agent overpromises to temper his expectations. Then the signings actually happened. “We knew right away that that was going to change things for us,” Pettine says.

Adding the Smiths—and to some degree, Amos—provided Pettine’s defense with a cloaking mechanism that it lacked in 2018. At 6-foot-4 and 272 pounds, Za’Darius is equally comfortable lining up at defensive tackle and on the edge; Preston, meanwhile, is a dominant pass rusher who is more than capable of dropping into coverage. And Amos has the requisite physicality to play dime linebacker in certain situations. All that flexibility has made it difficult for offenses to identify which Packers defender is playing which position on any given snap. Factor in how Pettine has cross-trained players to occupy different spots within the same third-down blitz packages, and it can be nearly impossible for opponents to decipher who’s coming. “You honestly never know who’s coming and who’s not in our defense,” says defensive tackle Kenny Clark. “You can be studying something from four weeks beforehand, and I promise you’re not going to get the same look.”

The multipositional knowledge that players like the Smiths possess is also valuable for another reason. It allows Pettine to grant them the autonomy to line up wherever they please in certain packages. Before the snap, almost on a whim, Preston can tell Za’Darius that he feels better about the right side or the left. “That’s rare,” Za’Darius says.

Preston raves about the leeway he’s afforded within Pettine’s scheme, and how Green Bay has used it to consistently wreak havoc. “We love it and [the coaches] love it,” he says. “It benefits us, it benefits this defense, and it benefits the [coaching staff].” At this point, Za’Darius can’t help but interject: “See, having that right there, it makes us come to work every day with a smile on our face.”

Green Bay Packers v Chicago Bears
Adrian Amos (31)
Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

On the day after the Packers’ 34-24 win over the Cowboys in Week 5, most members of the defense gathered to watch the Browns-49ers Monday Night Football game at Amos’s house, which the Smiths insist is beautiful. “He got that money, man,” Za’Darius says, with a knowing respect. The defense has a standing meeting at a local restaurant to watch each Thursday night game, but after throttling Dallas—on the road, no less—everyone wanted to keep riding the high. About 25 players, including a few from every defensive position group, passed through over the course of the night. Jones also stopped by, which the Smiths found fitting after he tied a franchise record with four touchdowns the night before.

For players like Alexander and linebacker Blake Martinez, who were with the franchise before this year, this kind of meetup represents a titanic shift. During Martinez’s second NFL season in 2017, a team dinner at a Longhorn Steakhouse drew six players. In Alexander’s rookie season in 2018, the defense ate a single meal together away from the team facility. About 10 guys came. Martinez says the difference in the unit’s desire to spend time together has been night and day. “This is probably the most fun I’ve ever had coming to work, and coming to play football, ever,” Martinez says. “Even when I was a kid. You’re just so excited to get in here.”

Despite their shared last name, the Smiths aren’t family. But even before they came to Green Bay they were familiar. They met nearly a decade ago, when Za’Darius stayed with Preston during an official visit to Mississippi State. Alphabetical order put them next to one another at the 2015 NFL combine, where they kept each other company in the interminable lines players face in Indianapolis. And over the past several seasons, when the two lived less than an hour apart in the DMV area, they ran into one another at about a dozen social occasions. Their friendship made the transition to both Green Bay and a new locker room easy, and helped them muster up the confidence to host a joint bowling event for teammates within a few weeks of arriving. The Smiths estimate that more than half of the roster showed up, including the future Hall of Fame quarterback they’d met only days earlier. “Their biggest asset that they’ve added to the team—more than the sacks and their personalities—is that they are a representation of people who know themselves and are comfortable being themselves,” Rodgers says. “I think that’s the beauty in what they’ve done. And I don’t think you ever plan for that. But I think it allows other guys to step into their own confidence and be their own person as well.”

It may sound like the Packers are one campfire away from joining hands and singing “Kumbaya,” but they all insist that the relationships they’ve built have practical on-field applications. “It makes it so easy to come to each other and present ideas,” Preston says. “Because we can come to each other and say, ‘I think on this play, you should do this.’ It’s total openness.” Amos says these outings have made it easier to hold people accountable. “If me and Preston cool, he don’t mind me gettin’ in his face a couple times because he knows it’s out of love. It’s just us trying to pick each other up. The more and more we know each other and the more and more we hang out, the better we’ll be in pressure situations.”

According to Martinez, every member of the defensive starting lineup has spoken up at one point or another during practice. The Packers used to be defined by a few scattered voices; now, they have an 11-man chorus that works together in unison. “It’s never been like that,” Martinez says. “It’s always kind of been one guy saying something, and after Week 8, it’s like, ‘Oh my God, this dude keeps saying the same stuff over and over again. Whatever.’ Now every person wants the same thing.”

Oakland Raiders v Green Bay Packers
Aaron Rodgers
Quinn Harris/Getty Images

A few hours before the Week 5 gathering at Amos’s house, the Packers sat down to watch film of the win over Dallas. As a clip of the defensive players sprinting to the end zone to celebrate a second-half interception popped onto the screen, LaFleur noted that the offense will join the party soon enough. “They’re working on it,” Preston said “They’re not used to celebrating together.” Before this season, the defense wasn’t either.

In Chicago, Amos served a key role on an unofficial committee that conceived of some of the most creative group celebrations the league has seen since its rules on the subject were relaxed in 2017. After a crucial pick-six against the Lions last fall, the Bears performed a choreographed tribute to Motown that Amos insists he concocted. But when Amos arrived in Green Bay, he found that the young roster hadn’t been taught how to properly let loose. “There was a lot of constraints I feel like,” Amos says. “Young guys don’t really know when to do this, when to do that.”

Green Bay’s trio of free-agent signings, with the blessing of their head coach, has shown players like Alexander, Clark, and Martinez that football can be fun. “We opened up guys up to be themselves,” Preston says. “You can be yourself and play. You don’t want to be uptight. You don’t have to walk around like that. When you’re yourself—in a good way—good things happen on the field.”

As the individual players in Green Bay’s locker room have gotten up the nerve to express their personalities, a stagnant franchise has found one of its own. The Packers were in desperate need of a reboot, and with that fresh start, the entire organization seems rejuvenated. It’s a new day in Titletown, and everyone is welcome.

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