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PACKERS | PRESEASON

Matt LaFleur expects Packers’ joint practices with Jets to be productive, fun

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GREEN BAY — There was at least one guy who wasn’t a big fan of the Green Bay Packers’ last foray into having joint practices with another NFL team.

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“Who would that be?” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said with a knowing smirk.

That, of course, would be quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who did little to hide his disdain for the team’s 2019 practices with the Houston Texans. And as the Packers get ready for Wednesday and Thursday’s joint practices with the New York Jets — arranged by LaFleur and Jets coach Robert Saleh, who are longtime friends — count Rodgers as skeptical that the sessions will be more valuable than run-of-the-mill training-camp practices.

“I’m excited to get past them,” Rodgers said in a sideline interview with the Packers TV Network during Saturday night’s preseason opener against the Texans. “The angst I have about joint practices is the fear about the fighting and the emotions getting to where you might get kind of caught in some sort of 1-on-1 battle with the front lines and guys forgetting that the red (quarterback) jersey means to stay off you.

“But it’ll be fun. Coach Saleh and Matt are obviously good friends; Matt was in his wedding. He’s got a young team and a young quarterback in Zach (Wilson), who I’ve gotten to know a little bit. So, it’ll be fun to see those guys.”

The practices may be more than just a reunion for Saleh, LaFleur and LaFleur’s younger brother, Mike, who is the Jets’ offensive coordinator. The close relationships may actually lead to more productive practices than the Packers-Texans sessions provided in Rodgers’ opinion.

While general manager Brian Gutekunst was a big fan of those practices two years ago because they were a gold mine for player evaluation by the personnel staff — the Packers felt so strongly about them that they were set to have joint practices with the Cleveland Browns last summer before the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out preseason games and all team travel before the regular season — Rodgers’ frustration stemmed from the scheme limitations the practices required.

The Packers were set to open the 2019 season against the Chicago Bears, whose defensive coordinator at the time was Chuck Pagano. And because Pagano’s brother, John, was on the Texans’ coaching staff, LaFleur and offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett had the No. 1 offense run mostly vanilla plays out of concern that John would relay to Chuck what he’d seen from Rodgers & Co.

Rodgers felt that cost the Packers offense, which was learning a new scheme under LaFleur, who’d been hired seven months earlier, valuable time working on unfamiliar portions of the playbook.

“That certainly was a concern when we went against the Houston Texans, and I think both teams were pretty vanilla,” LaFleur acknowledged. “Certainly, that’s always a concern any time you scrimmage against an opponent. ‘What’s going to get out there?’ But that’s something that I’ll talk through with Robert and my brother and those guys. I know those guys well, and so certainly you go into those situations letting everybody know that, ‘Hey, this stuff does not get out and into the hands of whoever we’re playing or whoever is playing (you).’”

Before the Texans came to Green Bay in 2019, the Packers hadn’t done joint practices with another team since 2005, when the Buffalo Bills came to town for practices and the annual Family Night Scrimmage. Rodgers said after the Texans’ visit that he would prefer to go 14 more years without another joint practice; instead, he only went two years as such practices are becoming increasingly commonplace in the NFL.

“Certainly the amount of practice time and the way we practice in training camp has changed. There’s no two-a-days and those kind of things,” Gutekunst said. “The (rest of the) league has probably done more than we have. To have the ability to control the environment but still have high-level competition, your head coach and your coaching staff have to embrace it. And Matt has certainly done that. And, I think it’s always good to have a good partner that’s coming in, as well. I think we do, obviously, this week.

“It’s just another evaluation tool and way to get your team ready. Maybe that puts a little bit more urgency and stress on your football team. … It really gives you a chance to evaluate another team and see how your guys kind of stack up.”

As for Rodgers’ concerns about things getting chippy between the two teams — something that did happen with the Texans after a cheap shot by Houston safety Lonnie Johnson on Packers tight end Jace Sternberger touched off a fight — both LaFleur and Saleh said they are hopeful such issues can be prevented.

“We’re going to try to eliminate the 1-on-1s because a lot of times that’s where it seems to get testy and then that kind of spills over to the team and the next thing you know you’ve got a brawl,” LaFleur said. “That’s certainly something we’re going to try to avoid and just want good, healthy competition, and that’s what we expect.”

Saleh said Tuesday the relationships between the two staffs should also minimize such incidents.

“I think it helps. We’ve had a lot of discussion to make sure we’re both getting the work that we need,” Saleh said. “There’s been a lot of collaboration to make sure that, not only are we getting looks defensively, but they’re getting looks offensively that they need, and vice versa. There’s not as much guard up with regards to communication and protecting, if you will. Just a good collaboration to make sure that we’re both getting the work in that we need to get the most out of this practice.

“(The fighting) is also something we talk about. This isn’t streetball. We’re going out there, we’re going to compete, we’re going to work our techniques, our fundamentals. Just like we do against each other. We’re going to respect our opponent, we’re going to respect what they’re trying to get done also. We’re going to do everything we can to get better. We’re anticipating a good, clean, week of competition.”

And, camaraderie, LaFleur said. His parents, along with Mike’s wife, Lauren, and their kids are staying at casa de LaFleur during the week, and the coaching staffs plan to spend time together after work as well.

“We’ll get some opportunities to hang out in the evening,” LaFleur said. “We’re going to try to something with the Jets staff one of the nights and just enjoy some good camaraderie.”

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