After a tumultuous 2018 season brought to an end the era of Mike McCarthy, there is renewed hope that the Packers can once again re-establish themselves as the kings of the NFC North under the leadership of head coaching rookie Matt LaFleur.
The appointment of LaFleur surprised many in the NFL world, as the previously untested former Titan OC got the gig to replace McCarthy. The time to replace McCarthy had definitely come, but it must be remembered that he led the Packers to nine playoff berths in his twelve years in charge, with one Super Bowl victory too.
So, despite the desire the fans had to replace McCarthy, his achievements represent the pressure and expectations facing LaFleur as he takes the Packers forward. Like a number of other teams in the league, the Packers are hoping that their new leader has been sprinkled with the magic that is seemingly possessed by his former boss, Sean McVay. In a league now driven by offence, the McVay link has become very fashionable and sought after.
The relationship between McCarthy and his quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, had reached breaking point and was a big deciding factor in the coach losing his job after twelve and a half years in charge, so it is clear how important the relationship between LaFleur and Rodgers will be.
There have been a couple of hiccups early on, most notably LaFleur questioning whether or not Rodgers, a two-time MVP and Super Bowl winner, will call his own audibles.
It is clear that it will take time for Rodgers and LaFleur to click, but it is important that it happens sooner rather than later for the Packers to be successful this year. Rodgers can be a spiky character, but it is thought that he will benefit from being challenged and stimulated by a coach with a more inventive scheme.
Many considered 2018 to be a ‘down’ year for Rodgers, but he still logged 4,442 yards, 25 TDs and a miniscule 2 interceptions. Even a marginal improvement will see #12 competing for MVP honours once again. To do that though, he’ll need more than just the help of his coach. Davante Adams remains the greatest weapon Rodgers has at receiver and has emerged as one of the best wideouts in the league, but there will be pressure on the other receivers to carry some of the workload too.
Marquez Valdez Scantling enjoyed an encouraging rookie year and the fabulously named Equanimeous St.Brown also showed promise, so it is imperative they continue on an upward curve to give LaFleur and Rodgers additional help in the passing game.
Jimmy Graham disappointed in his first season at Lambeau so the Packers will be hoping he can rebound in a new system, although he faces pressure from the emerging Robert Tonyan and newly drafted Jace Sternberger. Look for rookie o-lineman Elgton Jenkins to emerge as a starter, as he has impressed massively in the preseason.
In the backfield, Aaron Jones has the potential to become a breakout star in the NFL. Last year he led the league with 31% of his carries going for either a first down or touchdown.
Jones was representative of a lot of the frustration with McCarthy last year, as despite his success, the Packers ranked last in run percentage, rushing the ball only 32.5% of the time.
Expect that to change under LaFleur, who has stated that he wants to “assemble the offence through the running game” to take pressure off 35 year old Rodgers, in much the same way the Saints have done in recent years to alleviate the pressure on Drew Brees.
It is not just about taking the pressure off Rodgers though, it is about utilising a player who has shown elite characteristics as an NFL back. LaFleur will look to get the ball in Jones’ hands in a variety of ways, utilising him in the slot too in much the same way he used Dion Lewis in Tennessee last year.
Brian Gutekunst has continued to be a departure from his predecessor Ted Thompson by spending heavily in free agency. The defence was the biggest beneficiary of this, welcoming big money additions Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith to add power to the ends of the line, replacing the outgoing fan favourite Clay Matthews.
Adrian Amos also comes in at strong safety to replace the somewhat disappointing Haha Clinton Dix. Mike Daniels was surprisingly cut but Kingsley Keke and Montravious Adams are both highly thought of and expected to make an impact in 2019.
Gutekunst boosted his defence via the draft, using his two first round picks on the athletically gifted yet still raw Rashan Gary and playmaking free safety Darnell Savage. Mike Pettine goes in to the new season with a number of new toys to play with and will be expected to mould this unit into one of the best in the conference. They have failed to take pressure off the offence in the past, expectations will be high that they do not make that same mistake this year.
The NFC North is now one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL, with the Bears, Packers and Vikings all expected to be strong this year. The Bears led the way last year under Matt Nagy, who won Coach of the Year in his first season, but have suffered the loss of defensive guru Vic Fangio.
The Bears are still expected to be strong again this year, but the Packers support should have confidence in an improved defence and most importantly, the resurgence of a quarterback that is unrivalled in this division when on his game. The Packers schedule gets off to a tough start and they could easily be 4-1 or 1-4, so it is imperative that they start sharply to give themselves the best chance to win the division as the schedule eases up in the second half of the season.