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What went wrong for the Packers?

The common theory with the Green Bay Packers, and one that I also fell for in the 2020 season, is that they didn’t address the need for weapons on offence, and therefore they fell short of the Super Bowl. But is this actually the case? Here’s my thoughts, and also what I think they should be focusing on to get themselves over that final hurdle before Aaron Rodgers hangs it up.

A horrible draft?

Well, no not strictly true. Yes we were all slightly surprised when the Packers traded up to grab Jordan Love in the first round. Picking a quarterback if one falls into your lap is one thing. You can discuss the QB prospects, decide who you like and who you don’t like, and if you have one on your board with a nice green ring around his name, and he just so happens to be available when you’re on the clock, then fine. However, trading UP for a quarterback, is a very different story. What that says, is that we’re simply not leaving the draft without him.

The Packers traded the 30th pick, and the 136th pick in the 4th round to the Miami Dolphins to move up to 26 in the first round and get Jordan Love. Yes it’s not a major haul, but it’s the intent. That’s what got me thinking about it a little more.

The post draft grading had the Packers dead last. Not supporting team needs, not addressing key positions, and of course using their first round and fourth round pick, to draft a quarterback? Why?

I agree, it’s odd. And at that point in the pre season, i’d have agreed that the first round pick should have been a receiver.

For example, receivers still available included Tee Higgins, who had 908 yards and 6 touchdowns for the Bengals, and Michael Pittman Jr, who added 503 yards and a touchdown for the Colts. I mention these two because they were picked 33 and 34 in the draft, and the Packers would have been sat at 30 had they not traded the pick. Pittman missed three games too. But we’re not done yet. Also passed on… Chase Claypool. KJ Hamler, and Laviska Shenault. Who all added some value for their respective teams this season, especially Claypool.

Adding running back depth at the back end of the second round was a tad strange too, but AJ Dillon does bring something different to that of Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, so this one i’m okay with. Plus I think the Packers knew after one 1000 yard season, that if Aaron Jones kept that up he’d demand a heavy contract, and that’s exactly what happened, so I guess AJ Dillon was an insurance claim against that issue. Third round selection Josiah Deguara only had one catch for 12 yards in 2020, so we don’t know much about him yet, however the tight end situation seemed to correct itself as the season unfolded, which we’ll get to.

Was it a horrible draft, or did the Packers simply believe in what they had around Aaron Rodgers while the rest of us didn’t? It ended up looking that way. What the Packers did, was force the hand of the offence to step up and perform. Yes, the first round pick was entirely redundant this season, unless you make the argument that it simply motivated Aaron Rodgers. Which I’m sure it did, but I won’t buy into the idea that it was intentionally done for that reason.

Jordan Love is there to be nurtured, moulded and shaped into the heir to Aaron Rodgers throne. They can sit him back for at least two seasons, which is very unconventional in a very impatient league, and only unleash him when they’re absolutely ready to do so. But what did it mean for the 2020 season?

The Packers didn’t miss a beat…

Don’t be fooled. The Packers did not fall short of a Super Bowl because of the lack of offensive weapons. I don’t believe you can blame it on that. And here’s why:

The Packers led the entire NFL with 31.5 points per game in the regular season, ahead of who else but Tom Brady and Tampa Bay in second place. I’ll be comparing the two a fair amount throughout this article, because the Bucs are the team that ended it for Green Bay.

Not only were Green Bay first in points per game. They were also first in 3rd down conversions, and second in yards per game. The offence stepped it up when they needed to this season, and they proved that it wasn’t a lack of weapons that was the issue. Plus, you can’t put it all solely on Aaron Rodgers, it was in fact a team effort. I’ll explain…

Aaron Rodgers of course led the charge, having statistically the second best season of his career. He was lights out all season long. Throwing 48 touchdowns, he beat his previous personal best of 45, which he accomplished back in 2011, which only just tops 2020 as the best year of his career. His QBR rating in that 2011 season, was a very strong 122.5. This season? 121. 5. To put that into perspective, Aaron Rodgers hasn’t clipped 100 since 2016. This seasons performance was amazing. Rodgers looked incredibly comfortable, enjoyed every minute of it, and seemed to just be balling for fun.

But in order for him to be so successful, you also need to commend the offensive line. Rodgers was sacked 20 times in the 2020 regular season, which will be a pivotal part of my theory a little later on. I’ll come back to that. The 20 sacks in the regular season is the least amount of times Rodgers has been sacked since he turned pro and became the starter in 2008, and 16 less than he took in 2019. So the offensive line should be given their dues, and as PFF rightly mentioned, especially Elgton Jenkins, who in the regular season contributed across the line, in multiple positions. PFF graded the Packers offensive line 2nd in the league, behind only Cleveland. You can read that analysis here, and you best believe having the second best line in the league is going to assist your offence in being successful. More on the line later…

Let’s also look at the receivers and running backs. Aaron Jones had his second 1000 yard season, and did so having missed two games this year too. Contributing over 1100 yards in 14 games, rushing yards alone, is all you can really ask for. He added a further 355 in receiving yards, all of which are yards on balls caught in the backfield, followed by making people miss. We know this because he had 367 yards after catch. That’s a key contribution. Not to mention a further 500 yards plus from RB2 Jamaal Williams, and a 200+ contribution from the rookie AJ Dillon on limited snaps.

As for the receivers. Davante Adams made a case for being crowned the best in the league at the position this year. The connection he and Aaron Rodgers have developed over the years peaked this season, and the two of them looked unstoppable. Rodgers knows exactly where the ball needs to be, and Adams knows exactly what he needs to do to be there, and bring it in. The tape below is just so enjoyable to watch. Adams totalled 1300 yards for the second time in his career, and in doing so mounted his second 1000 yard season, which is a stat very unkind to Adams, as he’s totalled 997 yards on two separate occasions. Ouch.

But this is where things changed. We know how good Aaron Rodgers is, how good Aaron Jones can be, and we saw maybe the best version of a very good Davante Adams in 2020. But it was outside of this nucleus that the media, fan base and all of us couch analysts thought they needed to get better, and to be fair they did. But they did it with what they already had…

Allen Lazard contributed a consistent 450 yards and 3 touchdowns for the second season running. He didn’t necessarily elevate in 2020. But everybody else on the depth chart did.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who i really like and think is developing very well for the Packers, saw a nice increase in his production too. The 26 year old jumped from 452 yards and 2 touchdowns in 2019, to 690 yards and 6 touchdowns in 2020, on only 7 more targets. One key thing to also note about MVS… he’s never missed a game. Three seasons in, he’s played in every single game. Bravo that young man. MVS is a nice slot guy, he can burn you deep if you’re not careful. His ability to beat a man off the line has some room for improvement but his increase in production this year is another contribution to the success of the Packers offence.

And then there’s Robert Tonyan. A guy i’d honestly never heard the name of before this season. At least I didn’t remember doing so. This man was an enormous difference maker for the Packers. Signed by the Lions as an undrafted free agent in 2017 before being cut, he landed with the Packers practice squad. Before the 2020 season, he had a career total of 14 catches for 177 yards total and 2 touchdowns. One in 2018, and one in 2019. So what in the blazes happened in 2020?! Tonyan became one of A Rods favourite targets, and especially in the redzone. Tonyan finished the regular season with 52 catches on 59 targets, 586 yards, and 11 touchdowns. That’s a bananas improvement, and a very welcome one with the Packers. Tonyan is now a restricted free agent, and I’d expect the Packers to do everything they can to try and keep him around.

To compare. If we take the top two running backs, and top 5 receivers from both Brady’s Bucs, and Aaron Rodgers Packers, these are the results in the regular season.

  • Packers running backs: Jones 1,104 yards & Williams 505 yards = total 1,609 yards rushing
  • Packers receivers: Adams 1,374 yards, MVS 690 yards, Tonyan 586 yards, Lazard 451 yards, Jones 355 yards = total 3,456 yards
  • Bucs running backs: Ronald Jones 978 yards, Fournette 367 yards = total 1,519
  • Bucs receivers: Evans 1,006 yards, Godwin 840 yards, Gronk 623 yards, Scotty Miller 501 yards, & Antonio Brown 483 yards = total 3,453 yards

So the Packers win both categories from a ‘weapons’ perspective when you crunch the numbers. But the Bucs have better playmakers right? Technically yes, from a talent perspective, but again, from the numbers, the Packers group above had nearly 600 more yards after catch than the Bucs top 5 did.

So if the offence is technically not the issue… is it the defence?

Defensive woes?

Well the long and short of it… no. There are no real defensive issues on this team either. At this point you must be thinking well, at some point the issue is going to surface here and you’re going to stop talking and tell us what it is and how to fix it. Yep I’ll get to that. But it’s worth noting that this Packers team has one of the best secondaries in the NFL. Between Adrian Amos, young talented safety Darnell Savage, and star corner Jaire Alexander… this is a very strong secondary. The Packers were the 7th best team in the NFL in passing yards allowed per game during the regular season.

Then their pass rush features some very good talent too. Za’Darius Smith fetched 12.5 sacks and 4 forced fumbles this year, and has been revolutionary for Green Bay since he made the switch from Baltimore two years ago. Kenny Clark is then one of the best young nose tackles in the league, and Rashan Gary was looking better in year two as well.

Make no mistake about it, this is a good defence that gets off the field. Want to know who was number 1 in time in possession this season? You guessed it, Green Bay. Nobody kept their opponents offence off the field better than they did.

And finally, before we move into the solutions, we need to pay a tribute to the coaching staff. What Matt Lafleur and his coaching staff have achieved is remarkable. 13-3 in both 2019 and 2020, and having made the championship game on both occasions. That isn’t necessarily easy to do. Not by any stretch. The problem Lafleur and his coaching staff and players now face, is how to get over that final hurdle and make it to a Super Bowl.

How did the Pack fall short?

Well let’s look at it. The Packers had the ball almost 10 minutes more than the Bucs, which is exactly the game plan they had all season. Keep Rodgers on the field, use long methodical drives, and when the defence comes in, they get off again in a hurry. The Packers also had three takeaways against Tom freaking Brady in the second half of the game. So they did that job too and were winning on forced turnovers. Again, same game plan executed as it had been the entire season. Here’s my summary:

The single most important issue, is that Green Bay had to play the post season without David Bakhtiari (pictured above). What’s the most important position besides your quarterback on the offence? Left tackle. What happens when you lose your left tackle during or just as you enter the post season? Well ask Aaron Rodgers or Patrick Mahomes. Remember that Rodgers was sacked 20 times in total in the regular season. He was sacked 5 times against the Bucs in the Championship game. 5!!! But what’s worse about this, is that 4 of those 20 regular season sacks, came against Tampa Bay, when they crushed Green Bay 38-10 on October 18th. It was the only time all season the Packers were held to less than 20 points, and in that game they had Bakhtiari on the field too. But now all of a sudden you find yourselves without him, heading into a game with one of the two teams that had already given you hell in the pocket that season. (The other was Carolina, who sacked Rodgers 5 times in week 15).

Once Bakhtiari was confirmed out, and having already had the experience of breaking through the Packers O line once, Rodgers didn’t stand a chance. The Bucs have one of the strongest defensive lines in football right now, and the Packers simply weren’t a match for it. Go back and watch the tape, you’ll see that the Bucs barely allowed Rodgers any time to develop long plays the whole game. Especially on 3rd downs.

Some of this comes down to coaching experience. Matt Lafleur is a great hire for the Packers, and they’re going to continue to be a very strong team in the next few years. The relationship between the young offensive minded coach and Aaron Rodgers will only improve next season. But I do feel Lafleur’s limited experience in these big games cost him against the vet wizard Bruce Arians. Time management could have been better. In fact, the 40 seconds that ended the first half was the turning point for me.

How you have the ball at 1st and 10 with 40 seconds left in the half, knowing that Tom Brady is on the sideline, and somehow give him enough time to get back in the game and score a touchdown, is beyond me. That’s how you lose playoff games. Yes the pick from Murphy-Bunting was tremendous, he’s one of my favourite up and coming corners. But you have to manage that time and the play calling better. But okay you turn the ball over, it happens. Brady takes over. Explain to me how he manages to then find Scotty Miller in the end zone having beaten one on one coverage against Kevin King? Without giving up that touchdown, it’s a different game.

In the second half the Bucs defence had all the momentum, and even though Brady threw 3 picks and gave the Packers the ball back 3 times, they couldn’t get themselves back in it. Drops in the end zone played a part, and the Bucs defence continued to bully that offensive line.

Plus, Brady is the best of all time, and he picked on their weakness. As previously mentioned, that secondary is strong, but the weak link was Kevin King. Brady went at him early, and completed a touchdown to Mike Evans over his head, and of course went back at him for the touchdown to Scotty Miller at the end of the first half. Kevin King is a free agent this off season, and I’m not sure the Packers fans are going to be so keen on him coming back after that game.

But that’s about it. This Packers team is very strong…

The fix?

Don’t get it twisted, the Packers are not far away. I think if you play that game against the Bucs another 10 times, the Packers might win 3 or 4 of them. They need to sure up the decision making, and somehow game plan against that Todd Bowles defence, which was unstoppable during the post season, and only got better as the season progressed.

So Allen Lazard is a free agent, as is Kevin King. These are two positions I would re roll the dice on. Lazard and King are not terrible players by any means, but at this point the Packers need more production out of their number two receiver, and less errors from their number two corner when it matters the most.

They also need a new running back, and this is another round 2 situation in my mind. If you can find yourself a Cam Akers, similarly to the Rams draft selection in 2020, then you’ve done very well. The Packers will need to recreate the production of Aaron Jones somehow, whether that be AJ Dillon, a hot rookie this off season, or a combo of multiple backs.

I’d go receiver in round 1, go and pick up Rondale Moore or Kadarius Toney towards the back end of the first round. Somebody who can offer you 7-800 yards and 6 or 7 touchdowns. Allen Lazard is not offering those numbers, he’s solid, but he’s not a big time play maker to me. Look at how Justin Jefferson excelled for the Vikings playing the two role all season with Adam Thielen. I’d then add a running back in the second round, as I think Aaron Jones is as good as gone. Jamaal Williams is also a free agent but would be a lot cheaper to resign.

Rondale Moore – Purdue

The Packers should also look to free agency for a couple of vets to come in and try and push them over the line for a ring. The trouble is they’re currently over the cap. According to Spotrac, and at the time of writing, they’re around 21 million over.

Green Bay made a good start in fixing this issue by restructuring David Bakhtiari’s contract, which will save them $8.3M this season. Further to this, they should look to do the same with the likes of Kenny Clark, Za’Darius Smith, and maybe even Rodgers. I’ve also heard rumours about trading Preston Smith to clear some more room. Ideally they need to trim it down so they have around $10-15M to work with, and then spend that on two players. JJ Watt, and a veteran corner.

MORE: JJ Watt released by Texans

Adding JJ Watt and having him head back to his home state to finish off his career by challenging for a ring would be perfect for all parties. JJ is still unblockable at times, however I think he’s unlikely to be an every down force now. But on a playoff team, somebody like JJ Watt being on the field for 70% of your snaps would be ideal, plus he’d be a fantastic compliment to Za’Darius Smith on the other side.

Then you need a vet corner, like a Richard Sherman or Janoris Jenkins. Somebody who isn’t going to cost you a fortune as they too are winding down their careers with one or two more seasons, but have the post season experience, even if not the legs, to help you win and make a better read when targeted.

I expect the Packers to make the NFC Championship game for the third time in. a row under Lafleur, and I believe they’re very capable of winning it too. It’s going to be a crucial off season for Green Bay, so let’s hope they get it right, progress and not regress, and be right there in the conversation come the 2021 playoffs.

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