GREEN BAY — The conversation began with a reminder.
Mike Shanahan knew the reason for the call, and he didn’t disagree with the premise. After all, his greatest accomplishment as the Denver Broncos coach had been getting quarterback John Elway two Super Bowl rings to end his Pro Football Hall of Fame career — after Elway had led the Broncos to three previous Super Bowls, all blowout losses, under previous coach Dan Reeves.
And, Shanahan understood that the Green Bay Packers were hoping to follow a similar roadmap for the waning years of Aaron Rodgers’ career — and trying to do so with one of Shanahan’s former assistant coaches and protégés: Matt LaFleur, who’d been the Washington Redskins’ quarterbacks coach from 2010 through 2013 under Shanahan.
Just as the Broncos had moved on from a successful, veteran coach and pinned their hopes to a young, innovative offensive-minded coach in Shanahan, the Packers had done the same when they fired Mike McCarthy with four games left in his 13th season and hired LaFleur in January 2019.
But to Shanahan, one important detail needed to be emphasized amid the parallels between his work with Elway and LaFleur’s task with Rodgers: It didn’t come together right away for him and his quarterback.
In fact, while the Shanahan-Elway marriage is remembered for those back-to-back Super Bowl XXXII and XXXIII titles, in the fog of history, it’s often forgotten that those championships came in their third and fourth seasons together.
“My first year (1995), we were 8-8,” Shanahan reminded during a telephone interview shortly before the Packers faced the San Francisco 49ers — coached by his son, Kyle — in the NFC Championship Game last month. “And my second year there (1996), we were 13-3 — but we lost to Jacksonville in the playoffs.”
The timeline of the process of getting Elway his elusive first NFL title, which came at the expense of a 1997 Packers team seeking to win back-to-back titles of their own, should be especially of interest to Packers fans given that the team went an unexpected 13-3 and reached the NFC title game in the first year of the LaFleur-Rodgers marriage.
Why? Because while one can easily argue that the Packers are now ahead of schedule in their quest to get Rodgers another championship to go with his Super Bowl XLV title, a playoff loss like the one LaFleur and the Packers absorbed at the hands of the 49ers on Jan. 19 could also prove to be incredibly valuable.
It certainly was for Shanahan, who saw that upset loss to the Jaguars in the AFC Divisional playoffs as a critical moment for him and how he viewed his role in Elway’s rebirth.
“I had been to three Super Bowls with John, and we had lost all three. In fact, we were embarrassed in all three,” said Shanahan, who’d been Elway’s quarterbacks coach with the Broncos when they lost Super Bowls XXI, XXII and XXIV following the 1986, 1987 and 1989 seasons but worked as the 49ers offensive coordinator from 1992 through ‘94.
“So when I did come back (to Denver), one of the interesting things for me was how much I had learned going to San Francisco at the time I did. Because I’d been to three Super Bowls and lost all three in Denver, what a learning experience that was for me those three years (in San Francisco), to experience an organization that had won four and how they went about their business.
“When I came back, I gave John my philosophy of what I thought it would take to win a Super Bowl. But that Jacksonville game, I actually didn’t feel like I did a very good job in that game coaching. And I told him our goal was to get back to the playoffs, and that I would handle myself differently.
“I thought I did a poor job in our game plan. (And) once you lose in the playoffs, you never forget. So when we did have other opportunities, I handled it a little bit differently — and I thought it helped us.”
Like his mentor, LaFleur endured a brutal playoff loss at the hands of the 49ers, and it’ll be incumbent on him to use it as a learning experience. In Shanahan’s case, the lesson learned from the loss to the Jaguars was that he needed to put less on Elway and more on the running game — namely, future Pro Football Hall of Fame halfback Terrell Davis.
Against Jacksonville, Elway had dropped back to pass more than 40 times while Davis had gotten only 14 carries (for 91 yards). From that day forward, Shanahan wanted to run an offense that alleviated Elway’s burden of having to carry the team.
If that sounds familiar, it should: LaFleur, having learned from Shanahan, tried to do the same this season with running back Aaron Jones, who had his first 1,000-yard season and tied for the NFL lead in touchdowns during the regular season. Late in the year, even Rodgers seemed to accept his altered role, acknowledging, “I don’t need to throw 40 touchdowns for us to win.” At other points during the year, Rodgers spoke of how successful games for him were now defined by “efficiency,” “taking care of the football,” “getting us in the right checks,” and “getting us in the right protection scheme.”
“We were 0-3 in Super Bowls and weren’t even close, and then when we finally did win, it was because of the balance we did have. And obviously with John’s leadership and his play, we didn’t have it where he had to win the games,” Shanahan said. “John bought in right away. But at the same time, when you’re used to a lot of the passing stats, it takes a while to get to used to it.
“But at the end of the day, all that matters is winning that championship. That’s what John wanted more than anything.”
And that’s what Rodgers insists he wants — another title.
“It definitely hurts a little more than early in your career, just because you realize just how difficult it is to get to this spot,” Rodgers said after the NFC Championship Game loss. “With all the changes this offseason and with all the installation of a new system and a new program, to get to this point, you felt like it was something special because it just didn’t really make sense.
“We weren’t picked by most people to win our division and we found a way to not only do that but win a home playoff game and get to this spot. (It) just felt like it was meant to be, almost, so that’s a little more disappointing. Then you realize I don’t have the same number of years ahead of me as I do behind me, so it’s (even) more disappointing.”
Any Packers fan old enough to have been watching that night in January 1998 surely remembers Elway helicoptering on a quarterback scramble near the goal line late in the game and Broncos owner Pat Bowlen hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy and announcing “This one’s … for John!” to the Qualcomm Stadium crowd.
Could the same happen for Rodgers? Had the Packers beaten the 49ers, Rodgers would have returned to the Super Bowl after a nine-year absence — which would have been the longest span between Super Bowl appearances of any quarterback in NFL history. Now, at age 36, he’ll aim to make a return trip in 2020 after a decade-long drought.
In 2019, Rodgers finished the regular season having thrown for 4,002 yards with 26 touchdowns and four interceptions for a passer rating of 95.4, the third-lowest of his career as a starter — numbers well below what he posted during his NFL MVP seasons of 2011 (4,643 yards, 45 touchdowns, six interceptions, 122.5 rating) and 2014 (4,381 yards, 38 touchdowns, five interceptions, 112.2 rating).
“The one thing that Aaron has done is he’s won a Super Bowl already. So that’s a little bit different, because John had been to so many Super Bowls, yet we fell short. It was a goal of his before he ended his career to win one,” Shanahan said. “I’m sure with Aaron, he says, ‘Once you’ve won one, you want to win another one.’ I’m sure that’s his mindset.”
It is — and then some. And although he was only 14 years old for Super Bowl XXXII, Rodgers certainly sees the similarities between Elway’s late-career success and his own hopes for another title.
“When I think of John Elway, when I think about him helicoptering with that great run he had, I think about what I was thinking as a young kid who was watching and thinking, ‘Oh man, how awesome would it be to play in a Super Bowl and helicopter for a huge first down and seal a game for a win?’” Rodgers said. “And also, when I think about John, I think, ‘Oh man, he was so old!’ Because he was at the end of his career and I was just a teenager. But you have to have some perspective now and understand there are a lot of parallels.”
“I appreciate the history of the game. But I still feel like, they won two Super Bowls, but John played only four seasons with Mike.
“I’m hoping to get more than that with Matt.”
Fave 5: Jason Wilde's most memorable Packers stories from 2019
Fave 5: Packers reporter Jason Wilde shares memorable stories from 2019
We are sharing Wisconsin State Journal writers' favorite work from 2019. From Packers reporter Jason Wilde: When I started on the Packers beat for the State Journal in 1996 — the first of 13 consecutive seasons I covered them for the paper — I had three really great mentors in Green Bay: State Journal Packers beat writer Kent Youngblood, State Journal columnist Tom Oates, and Tom Mulhern, who was at the Appleton Post-Crescent at the time but would later spend more than two decades at the State Journal covering the Packers and University of Wisconsin football. Among the many lessons I learned from them at that young age of 24 was what an incredible responsibility we bore to chronicle the journey of each team we covered each season. Every journey was different, but covering it was no more or less important based on how the season went or how far the journey took that team. In ’96, it took the Packers to New Orleans and the Super Bowl XXXI title, the historic franchise’s first championship since the 1960s glory days.
Now in Year 4 of my second tour of duty covering the Packers for the State Journal thanks to sports editor Greg Sprout, the 2019 season has been — and continues to be, as the Packers ready themselves for an NFC Divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field on Jan. 12 — a fascinating journey. And it has nothing to do with the franchise celebrating its 100th birthday in August. (Although that was quite the accomplishment. And you should’ve seen the cake.)
From the team hiring Matt LaFleur as its new head coach, to the arrival of flamboyant and dominant pass rusher Za’Darius Smith (and his brother-from-another-mother fellow outside linebacker Preston Smith) in free agency, to 36-year-old Aaron Rodgers’ and the 40-year-old LaFleur’s work-in-progress offense and relationship, it’s all somehow gotten the Packers to a 13-3 record and into the postseason — something Super Bowl-winning head coaches Vince Lombardi, Mike Holmgren and Mike McCarthy couldn’t do in their first seasons.
For my five selections, I tried to pick stories that reflected key mileposts in the 2019 Packers’ journey.
With the team having cut ties with Nick Perry, and Clay Matthews expected to depart in unrestricted free agency, the Packers are counting on the Smiths to create pressure on opposing quarterbacks and deliver more sacks than their two former first-round picks managed together last year.
For the past three decades, Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers have done their best to live up to Bart Starr’s ideals. And while that’s not always the easiest thing to do, their success has given the Packers something no other NFL team can claim in the past century: three Hall of Fame-level quarterbacks.
A the Packers kicked off the NFL’s 100th season with a 10-3 victory over the Chicago Bears, Aaron Rodgers and the offense did just enough — and the defense carried the day.
Now, it’s up to Aaron Rodgers and Matt LaFleur — and the rest of the offense — to keep it going against in Sunday night's game against the Chiefs in Kansas City.
Having already clinched a playoff berth coming into the game, the Packers now have put themselves in prime position for a first-round playoff bye — and perhaps even the NFC’s No. 1 overall seed — with a win next Sunday at Detroit.
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