GREEN BAY — Matt LaFleur doesn’t necessarily want to change Aaron Rodgers. But he does want to make his quarterback’s life easier.
That’s why, amid all the discussion and debate about how the Green Bay Packers’ rookie head coach will go about winning over Rodgers and building a relationship with the two-time NFL MVP, perhaps the most important thing LaFleur must do is convince Rodgers just how much a productive run game could help him.
And then actually call more running plays.
No one is suggesting that Rodgers is philosophically opposed to running the football. He’s seen with his own eyes what a productive run game can do, having had a back-to-back 1,200-yard rusher in Ryan Grant at running back for his first two seasons as the starter (2008, 2009). Then, in 2013 and 2014, Rodgers had a back-to-back 1,100-yard rusher in Eddie Lacy in the backfield with him.
And, Rodgers also bears some measure of responsibility for the Packers’ pass-oriented approach in recent years. While now ex-head coach Mike McCarthy certainly called far more pass plays than run plays, Rodgers had plenty of at-the-line freedom to change plays or throw the ball on run/pass option calls.
But the numbers are clear: Over the past four seasons, Rodgers has thrown the football more than ever before. And not coincidentally, the Packers’ success has hinged more than ever on how well he has played — and how healthy he has been.
“Well, it slows down the rush for sure and opens up the potential for some play-action stuff,” Rodgers acknowledged midway through the 2018 season when asked about the value of a productive run game. But, he also pointed out, the Packers’ run-pass ratio frequently got out of whack because the offense was playing from behind so often throughout the year.
“The score has dictated a lot of how we’ve played. We’ve been down big in a number of games,” Rodgers continued. “It’d be nice to have more balance there. We want to, we really do. But we’ve got to start a little bit faster, (and) if we’re not hitting third downs, we’re limiting our run opportunities.”
And throwing the ball a ton. Rodgers’ three highest single-season attempt totals have come in his past three full seasons — in 2015 (572 attempts), 2016 (a career-high 610 attempts) and 2018 (597 attempts). Rodgers only played in seven games in 2017, when a broken right collarbone sustained in the first quarter of a loss at Minnesota — after Rodgers had thrown only four passes in that game — cost him most of the season. But his numbers project out to 624 attempts had he played all 16 games.
And had he not missed part of the season opener with a left knee injury and not missed most of the season finale with a concussion, Rodgers surely would have thrown more passes during the 2018 season than he’d ever thrown in a single year in his life.
But with LaFleur calling the plays and new offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett taking over the offense from McCarthy and former offensive coordinator/interim head coach Joe Philbin, it’s safe to assume the Packers’ run-pass ratio will be in closer proximity to 50/50 than it has been the past four years. It surely won’t be an even split, but it’s hard to imagine the Packers running it less than they did this past season.
For while the Packers finished the 2018 season having run the ball on just 32.5 percent of their offensive snaps, the 2017 and ’18 Jacksonville Jaguars ran the ball 45.3 percent of the time with Hackett calling the plays, and the 2018 Tennessee Titans ran the ball 48.4 percent of the time with LaFleur calling the plays.
Of course, Blake Bortles and Marcus Mariota aren’t Rodgers, and LaFleur and Hackett surely will tailor the offense to fit the Packers’ personnel. But LaFleur said during an interview Thursday on ESPN Wisconsin that running the ball on early downs will be part of his approach.
“I think anytime you can take as much off the quarterback as possible, that only helps them out in the long run,” LaFleur said. “Certainly Aaron’s got incredible talent, and we’re going to definitely showcase that talent. But I just think in your early downs, the more you can stay balanced and keep the defense off balance and keep them guessing whether we’re going to run the ball or pass the ball, I think that it opens up opportunities for big plays down the field.
“Then, when you get to the known passing situations, whether it’s a third down or a 2-minute drive, then you’ve got to let the guy go play. I’m certainly excited because you’re talking about one of the greatest ever and his talent just speaks for itself.”
The Packers’ lack of commitment to running the ball on first down is borne out in the NFL’s official first-down play-calling statistics.
On first-and-10 plays in 2018, the Packers ran the ball just 36.24 percent of the time while throwing it 63.76 percent of the time. Meanwhile, LaFleur’s Titans offense ran it 55.3 percent of the time vs. passing it on 44.7 percent of its first-and-10s, and when Hackett’s Jacksonville offense in 2017 had a healthy Leonard Fournette in the backfield, the Jaguars ran the ball 57.53 percent of the time and passed it 42.47 percent.
Even so, the Packers were productive when they actually ran the ball. Green Bay finished second in the NFL in average yards per carry (5.0) and running back Aaron Jones led the league in individual yards-per-carry average (5.5). Jamaal Williams averaged only 3.8 yards per rush but has had his productive moments, too.
“I’m excited (about them),” LaFleur said. “I’ve watched quite a bit of those guys. I haven’t watched all 16 games from last season — we’re in that evaluation phase right now — but I think Jamaal and Aaron are two quality backs that bring some versatility. They’re a little bit different in their style. We’re going to find a way to maximize their strengths and let that show through on the field.”
And that happens, in part, through supporting Rodgers via a commitment to the run game. Fans will see that in the NFC Championship Game, where Los Angeles Rams coach/offensive play-caller Sean McVay’s appreciation for the run game — and how it influences the play-action passing game — is obvious.
The Rams ran the ball in the regular season on 43.3 percent of their 1,060 offensive snaps, and in their NFC divisional round victory over Dallas last week, 48 of their 76 offensive plays were runs, with C.J. Anderson (23 carries, 123 yards) and Todd Gurley (16 carries, 115 yards) doing most of the work for quarterback Jared Goff (15 completions on 28 attempts, 186 yards).
In Jones, the Packers appear to have the kind of back (when healthy) that commands a defense's respect.
“The play-action is something that is part of our foundational identity and what we believe in philosophically as an offense,” McVay explained to Wisconsin reporters during a conference call midway through the season. “When you have a player like Todd, he certainly legitimizes those play-actions.
“We do things that are definitely a little bit different as a result of having such a special player like him. Yes, we do believe in the play-action game, without a doubt, but certainly having a player of his caliber and his magnitude at the running back spot legitimizes those run actions because of who it is and because of our offense’s ability to run the ball pretty efficiently.”