For the second year in a row, the Green Bay Packers season came to an end in the NFC Championship. In 2019, the Packers fell to the San Francisco 49ers, 37-20, in Santa Clara. This season, at home, the Packers fell to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 31-26. The defeat in 2019 hurt. But this year’s loss was even more difficult for Packers fans to stomach. As the top seed in the NFC, and hosting the NFC Championship game, things were expected to be different. Sadly for Packers fans, the results were the same. For head coach Matt LaFleur, he faces a long off-season of soul searching.
Matt LaFleur, Green Bay Packers Face a Long Off-Season
Matt LaFleur just completed his second season as the Packers head coach. From the results that he has overseen with the Packers, it appears that president Mark Murphy made the right decision to hire him.
In only two seasons as a head coach, Matt LaFleur has achieved more than a lot of longer-tenured coaches ever have. He has guided the Packers to two NFC North titles and a regular season record of 26-6. This season, he helped the Packers earn the top seed in the NFC playoffs.
As the offensive play-caller for the Packers, Matt LaFleur has helped build the Packers offense into one of the most productive in the NFL. This season, the Packers offense finished fifth in total offense. It also appears that under his guidance quarterback Aaron Rodgers will win his third NFL MVP trophy. Rodgers finished the season with 48 touchdown passes, 4,299 passing yards, and only five interceptions.
Still, with all of the success the Packers offense achieved under LaFleur, he will face a lot of decisions and scrutiny this coming off-season.
Mike Pettine Needs To Go
It wasn’t a question of if defensive coordinator Mike Pettine would cost the Packers, it was a question of when.
After the defense was trucked by the 49ers in the NFC Championship game in 2019, many wondered if Matt LaFleur would bring back Pettine in 2020 as his defensive coordinator. The choice was to continue with Pettine, a decision that LaFleur probably wishes he could get a mulligan on.
The Packers defense is littered with talented players. Jaire Alexander, Za’Darius Smith, and Kenny Clark are all upper echelon level players. Rashan Gary and Darnell Savage Jr. are both ascending players. Still, the Packers defense struggled and when they were needed, failed to step up. This all happened under the “guidance” of Pettine.
When LaFleur was hired, general manager Brian Gutekunst and Murphy urged him to retain Pettine. They believed the defense showed some promise under Pettine who was the defensive coordinator in former head coach Mike McCarthy’s final season with the Packers.
There were calls to remove Pettine during the 2020 season. But once again, LaFleur stood by Pettine. It ended up being a decision that would bite LaFleur and the Packers. Pettine’s ineptitude was on full display Sunday against the Buccaneers. A prime example of that is what occurred late in the first half of the NFC Championship game. The defensive coverage Pettine called for at that time drew the ire of mild-mannered and Hall of Famer Tony Dungy. Dungy rarely rips fellow coaches, so when he says something, it was bad.
For Matt LaFleur, the decision to part ways with Pettine is an easy one. It is also one that should be done as soon as possible. Gutekunst and Murphy need to allow LaFleur to hire a defensive coordinator that has the ability to properly coordinate an NFL level defense.
Special Teams Unit Was Even Worse
While the Packers defense underachieved under Pettine, it wasn’t the worst unit of Matt LaFleur’s Packers. The Packers special teams unit was downright embarrassing under Shawn Mennenga. It is fitting that Mennenga was referred to Matt LaFleur by Pettine when the Packers were in search of a special teams coordinator.
In writer Rick Gosselin’s 2021 special teams rankings, the Packers finished 29th. That shouldn’t come as a shock to Packers fans who watched the Packers special teams this season.
Punter JK Scott, a former fifth-round pick by Brian Gutekunst, once again struggled. It is the second season in a row that he suffered an in-season slump. Long snapper Hunter Bradley, a former seventh-round pick of Gutekunst’s, also struggled. The only bright spot from the Packers specialists was veteran Mason Crosby. If not for Crosby, the Packers special teams unit most likely would have finished the season ranked 32nd.
The punt and kickoff coverage was putrid. That was highlighted on Sunday when Buccaneers kickoff returner Jaydon Mickens returned five kicks for a total of 121 yards. The Packers defense had enough struggles under Pettine but were put in a hole by Mickens putting the Buccaneers in good field position every kickoff.
The Packers never established a returner, on either punt or kickoff, who could setup the Packers offense with better field position. Mennenga failed at his job and just like with Pettine, it is time for the Packers to move on from him. LaFleur can’t waver on this, it has to be done and it has to be done quickly.
Bracing for Departures
This off-season will be a difficult one for the Packers. From all indications, the salary cap for NFL teams will be tight. The Packers are going to have to navigate losing key free agents.
Matt LaFleur has emphasized the Packers running game during his tenure. However, he might lose one or both of his top running backs in free agency. Starting running back Aaron Jones will be hitting the free-agent market. His asking price might be too much for what the Packers can afford. Jones has been a big piece to LaFleur’s offense the past two seasons. Losing him will be a big hit to the Packers offense. Backup running back Jamaal Williams will also be a free agent. Williams has been everything a team could want out of a backup running back. Chances for Williams returning are better than Jones. Still, there is a good chance that A.J. Dillon will be the loan returner at the running back position in 2021.
Corey Linsley was arguably the top center in the NFL this season. His play earned him a place on the NFL’s All-Pro team. Similar to Jones, Linsley’s contract demands might be too much, especially with the Packers giving left tackle David Bakhtiari a new big-money deal. The Packers have the option of moving Elgton Jenkins from guard to center if Linsley departs. Still, losing Linsley would weaken one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.
Luckily for the Packers, the only starter on defense who will be an unrestricted free agent this off-season is cornerback Kevin King. While King has the ability to be a starter in the NFL, his inability to stay healthy and his poor play in the playoffs (especially on Sunday) makes the decision regarding him an easy one.
LaFleur will need Gutekunst to replenish the talent and depth on the roster. If Gutekunst fails to do so, the pressure will fall on LaFleur’s shoulders to pick up the slack.
Don’t Buy Into the Aaron Rodgers Talk
Twitter was abuzz with speculation if Aaron Rodgers will return as the Packers starting quarterback in 2021. For websites that are in need of clickbait articles, they will be pounding the public in the next couple of weeks with articles regarding whether or not Rodgers will return.
But the chances of Rodgers departing is slim to none. The only way that Rodgers departs is if he is the one to choose to. And that seems pretty farfetched.
If it is up to Matt LaFleur, Rodgers will be his starting quarterback in 2021. That should be LaFleur’s answer and it was when he was asked about Rodgers’ future. Rodgers was largely the reason that the Packers made it to their second straight NFC Championship. In fact, if not for Rodgers, it is highly doubtful that the Packers would have achieved what they did this season.
If Rodgers is still in Green Bay in 2021 (or possibly to get him to stay) the Packers need to surround him with some more talent and address the needs the team has. Instead of drafting quarterbacks of the future or h-backs who can help down the road, it is time for the Packers to acquire players who can help them make the next step. As Michael Silver of NFL.com pointed out, it is time for Gutekunst, Murphy, and the rest of the front office to step up and provide Rodgers with everything he needs to win a Super Bowl.
But it is doubtful that Rodgers departs Green Bay this off-season.
Handling the Second Guessing
This off-season, Matt LaFleur will face a lot of second guessing, especially after his questionable decision with over two minutes left in Sunday’s game.
On a fourth and goal from the nine, down by eight points, LaFleur decided to kick the field goal instead of allowing his best player, Rodgers, one last chance to score a touchdown. Not only did it take the ball out of Rodgers’ hands, it put the ball back in Tom Brady‘s hands. Instead of allowing the probable 2020 NFL MVP to possibly tie the game, he depended on Mike Pettine to stop Tom Brady. For some, it was a decision that is unforgivable. For a coach that preaches “all gas, no brake”, it actually looked more like “screeching halt, turn the car off.”
Fans arguing over that decision will last until next season. But LaFleur will also face a lot of second-guessing for other decisions.
His play calling in the second half will also be questioned. LaFleur’s play calling late in the regular season and in their playoff win over the Los Angeles Rams was some of the best the NFL had seen this season. But on Sunday against the Buccaneers, it seemed pretty uneven. Many have wondered why there wasn’t a focus on getting standout wide receiver Davante Adams the ball more downfield.
This off-season will be a difficult one for LaFleur. It was the second straight season the Packers were one step away from reaching the Super Bowl. Many believed that this was the year for the Packers to win a second Super Bowl with Rodgers as their quarterback. Rodgers did his part, but it seems like not everyone else did, LaFleur included.
LaFleur will need to find answers so the Packers don’t come up short again next season.