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In a Turbulent NFL Season, the Packers Are Keeping Calm and Letting Aaron Rodgers Carry On

There was skepticism about Green Bay’s prospects in 2020, but we probably should have seen this undefeated Packers team coming

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Green Bay Packers have, at present, the best offense in history. No team is a particularly close second. Their 3.67 points scored per drive through their first four games not only leads football, but leads every offense that has ever played. The 2007 Patriots—long considered the gold standard for innovative, supercharged offenses—averaged about half a point less per drive. The 2020 Packers lead the NFL this season in points and yards per play. They are the first team in history to score 150 points and commit zero turnovers in their first four games. Aaron Rodgers has not even thrown a pass that could have been intercepted. Nothing is guaranteed to last—a quarter of a season is a small sample size—but the Packers being a great team is one of the few knowns so far in a season of unknowables.

Here’s a useful exercise: Find one word to describe the past 12 months of the Green Bay Packers. Good luck. It has, even by the standards of the NFL in 2020, been a journey. They went 13-3 last season, yet media doubts hung around the team so persistently that then-Packers cornerback Tramon Williams joked in January that they were the “worst 13-3 team in the world.” This joke was rooted in a handful of analytics pieces that said the team was lucky, fluky, or both despite being one of the final four teams in football last season. They were beaten soundly by the 49ers in the NFC title game, a game in which San Francisco took a 27-0 lead into halftime before winning 37-20. They had reached the title game, but they didn’t appear particularly capable of toppling a team like the 49ers. Three months later, they drafted a quarterback, Utah State’s Jordan Love, in the first round of the draft as a potential successor to Rodgers, one of the most talented passers in the modern era, and didn’t draft any wide receiver help for Rodgers. They were widely pegged by pundits as a regression candidate entering this season. Then the team began, of course, to unleash one of the statistically best early-season offenses in history. Like I said: a journey.

This week, I asked the team’s general manager, Brian Gutekunst, how he was able to put the NFC title game loss in perspective from a team-building standpoint. That game, at the time, seemed to create serious distance between the NFC champions and everyone else in the conference. He invoked his former boss, Ted Thompson, in his answer. He did this a handful of times in our chat. This is not shocking: Thompson was one of the best general managers in the sport until his 2017 retirement and made some of the more bold (and correct) decisions of the past 15 years of football.

“A lot of it is being around Ted and understanding that this is part of it. You can’t make too much of wins, can’t make too much of losses. You move on to the next one. For me, for the personnel side, and the 365 days of the way we look at team building, you wake up in the morning, see where you are and keep trying to move forward regardless of the outcomes. It goes back to the process,” Gutekunst said. “Certainly the outcomes matter—that’s what we’re here for—but if you believe in what you’re doing, you just keep moving forward. Whether you win a game or lose a game, the same problems you’d have to fix still exist. You can’t change the way you see things if you believe in the things you’re doing.”

The Packers have a process worth believing in. Even though Rodgers is an early MVP front-runner alongside Russell Wilson—and has been by far the team’s best player—this is a stacked veteran team. Pro Football Focus recently ranked the top 50 lineman—both offense and defense—and the Packers had four of them. Matt LaFleur is now 17-3 as a head coach. He has never lost to a team in the NFC North and has lost at home only once. Gutekunst says that LaFleur’s leadership has helped this year (“We’re in a lot of unique circumstances and there’s not a lot of blink there.”) The Packers are one half of one of the most interesting quarterback matchups of the year; Rodgers takes on Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady Sunday in an intriguing potential playoff preview.

Conventional wisdom for this, the weirdest of all NFL seasons, was mostly correct: Teams with cohesion, continuity, talent, and smarts have, thus far, some advantage over teams trying new things, new players, or new coaches. According to a Football Outsiders metric that weighs playing time when calculating a team’s age, the Packers had the second-oldest offense in football last year. I asked Gutekunst if the veteran makeup of the team and the carryover from the coaching staff contributed to its hot start. “I think that’s probably fair,” Gutekunst said. “I think, certainly, Matt being here in his second year is a huge advantage. Having veteran players and a coaching staff that’s been here has allowed for us to progress faster than, maybe, some.” It also helps that they have a lot of talent.

“I think we kind of expected some of this year-two comfort level between the people that are doing it and the understanding of the nuances of the system,” he said. “I just think, and not only [Aaron], but the offense and the coaching staff, they’ve grown this thing together and made it their own. I think he’s one of the best that has ever done this and he’s always played at such a high level and when not only himself but the team around him is so confident in what they’re doing, it allows for some of that success.”

The other bit of conventional wisdom that seems to be true is that defenses, without any offseason programs and a limited training camp, would start the season flat-footed. Rodgers is the master of taking advantage of sloppy play. No one has more success on free plays. According to the NFL, from 2010 to 2019 Rodgers averaged 25 air yards per throw when the defense jumped offside, an occurrence that happened about once every other game. Rodgers completed a 19-yard pass against the Falcons this month on a free play to convert a third-and-7. He can also draw teams offside—one recent Rodgers bit was so obvious that he had to deny he simply yelled “hard count” to get the Falcons to jump. It’s a tactic that’s much easier to execute in an empty stadium, which is where most NFL teams are playing this season. He can extend plays and make defenses cover the entire field. He can make any throw at any time. He can scramble if need be. If defenses are more mistake-prone, as appears to be the case this year, then Rodgers has just about every trait needed to take advantage. Then there is the fact that Rodgers is simply a smart, adaptable guy in a season when that’s more necessary than usual.

“He’s a very unique athlete and mentally, his ability—he’s got so much experience and he’s so bright that he’s hard to get off his game,” Gutekunst said. “Certainly, this year is different. It’s very eerie being in some of these stadiums, but his focus is as good as I’ve been around.” Gutekunst said.

All of this is a long way of saying: We all probably should have seen this Packers team coming. Because the Packers did.

There is, of course, the matter of the rookie quarterback, drafted 26th overall in April. I understood the pick in April. Every general manager says they’ll pick the best player on their board no matter the position, but when it actually happens, there’s usually an uproar. Rodgers told The Ringer’s 10 Questions With Kyle Brandt podcast in July that he thought the team would move on from him at some point because of “the facts” of trading up to draft Love. I asked Gutekunst if the past four weeks changed his timeline on a succession plan. “I don’t really look at it as a timeline. With Jordan, we’re really excited to get him in here. We liked him quite a bit in the draft process,” Gutekunst said. Developing a quarterback, he says, doesn’t happen overnight. “We just really liked the player and thought the situation was great. Nothing that was going to happen over the last four or five weeks was going to affect my thought process on how we go about evaluating the quarterback position and always looking at it as a very high priority for us. So to answer your question, it hasn’t changed it.”

Gutekunst once again mentioned Thompson when I asked him if he was surprised about the fan outrage to his 2020 draft. The team was criticized not just for selecting Love when quarterback wasn’t an immediate position of need, but also for drafting no wide receivers and adding a running back in the second round and a tight end in the third as the only potential offensive weapons. “I think with anything like that—the draft always brings some of that, and free agency does too—I’m always surprised by the intensity to those things that aren’t games,” Gutekunst said. “But I also had the luxury of being here when Ted drafted Aaron and when he traded Brett [Favre] and saw some of the fervor. This offseason didn’t compare to that. When Ted traded Brett and we were going through that training camp, and growing up in this business [you learned] that this was just part of it.

“I think it’s the world we live in, an instant gratification world. With fantasy football and things like that, people think that’s kind of how you build teams, and that’s not necessarily the way we’ve done things here. We’re pretty excited about our football team.” They have reason to be.

We talked a bit about how the pandemic changed the season. Gutekunst said he didn’t anticipate how much he’d miss preseason games or how much the lack of a full preseason would impact the ability to create “ready lists,” which teams keep if they need to sign a guy quickly. I brought up the unknown value of next year’s salary cap, which is the elephant in the room for nearly every NFL franchise. In Green Bay, that unknown is more significant: The team has talents like offensive tackle David Bakhtiari, center Corey Linsley, cornerback Kevin King, and running back Aaron Jones hitting the open market next year. I asked Gutekunst how his front office handles that unknown.

“It’s problematic,” he said with a chuckle. “Every team is dealing with it. For me, it’s certainly made it a lot tougher. We’ve always tried to have some flexibility, and maintaining that flexibility is much more difficult going into next year’s cap and really with the unpredictability of what 2022 will look like. It’s tough. It comes down to choices, and it will be an interesting spring because a lot of teams will have to make a lot of choices they don’t really want to. But it’s very much an equal playing field. We’re all going to have to deal with it. There’s going to be some unpleasantness. There’s no doubt about that.”

I asked him if he was more pessimistic about keeping players than he was nine months ago.

“I wouldn’t say I’m pessimistic. I still think there’s a way for us to keep our good players,” he said. “I think there is going to be, leaguewide, a recognition of the environment we’re in, and that may take a longer time for not just teams but players as well.”

For now, the one thing the Packers know is that their 2020 team is set and is one of the NFL’s best. I asked Gutekunst what else he learned from Thompson. “We believe in our process and then allow that process to lead us to the decisions and the answers. To let outside factors influence our process doesn’t make a lot of sense. Ted had that ability to, whenever things seemed to be crazy around him, to be really calm.”

In a season when calmness is key, the Packers have it. And other teams are jumping offside.