GREEN BAY — The first training-camp practice for the Green Bay Packers was over and there was only one thing inquiring minds wanted to know from quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“How many audibles did you call today?” a reporter began.
“So many,” Rodgers said. “So many. Thirty probably. That’s a good number.”
The reporter continued, asking how many of the audibles were successful.
“Twenty-nine of them,” Rodgers said. “One bad one.”
Of course, this was all done in jest. Still, it was a nod to the controversy that erupted in June when media reports claimed that Rodgers, a two-time NFL MVP entering his 12th season as the Packers starter, and first-year coach Matt LaFleur, who is installing the cutting-edge offense he learned from Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay, were butting heads over the use of audibles.
The gist of any potential conflict between the two is this: Under deposed coach Mike McCarthy, Rodgers had the green light to change almost any play at the line of scrimmage, a system that used his intelligence and experience to get the Packers into the best play for that particular defensive alignment. However, LaFleur’s offense involves a great deal of pre-snap activity, including the use of motions, and that severely limits the quarterback’s ability to call audibles.
Some have speculated Rodgers will try to bully LaFleur on the use of audibles, largely because he’s headstrong and believes it gives the Packers a late-in-the-snap weapon that few NFL teams possess. But if the first week of training camp is any indication, such speculation is off base. Instead, LaFleur and Rodgers are trying hard to find a middle ground that will maintain the integrity of the offense while at the same time giving Rodgers some of the latitude he likes at the line of scrimmage.
Others have noticed. General manager Brian Gutekunst is encouraged by what he sees as a “very, very collaborative” effort on offense among LaFleur, Rodgers, offensive coordinator Nate Hackett and quarterback coach Luke Getsy.
The biggest reason for optimism is that LaFleur and Rodgers seem to be communicating very well, which opens the door for a healthy, productive compromise and, more important, a healthy, productive relationship between the two most important figures on the team.
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“There’s so many things that I like about him, not only from just a physical ability but he is one of the most competitive players that I’ve ever been around,” LaFleur said. “You can see it on a daily basis. It’s not just on the field, it’s in the meeting room, too. I just enjoy our communication. I enjoy the challenge. He’s an extremely intelligent player that has played a lot of ball and you better know what you’re talking about.”
McCarthy and Rodgers worked together for 13 seasons and had a strong bond at one point. However, they grew apart for a variety of reasons and their communication suffered, especially over the back half of their working relationship. That became a problem because Rodgers likes to have regular and frequent communication with the person who is calling plays and McCarthy was the Packers’ play-caller.
In addition to an offense that has taken the NFL by storm, LaFleur brings a freshness to Rodgers’ career, one the quarterback seems to be enjoying as his working relationship with the new coach continues to develop. Of course, the Packers haven’t lost a game yet, but so far LaFleur and Rodgers clearly have clicked.
“What I can say is that him and I are friends,” Rodgers said. “I think that’s the first part of the relationship. The on-the-field relationship is one that grows over time. He hasn’t called a play into me in a game situation yet, so there’s a process of feeling comfortable with the way the play comes in and him trusting me and me trusting him. But I feel great about the communication. He’s in every meeting. We spend time one on one talking about stuff. He’s the main voice in the offensive room, but he really appreciates open conversation and ideas and creativity. It’s been a great relationship, a great start to it, and I look forward to that growing and getting into that rhythm with him as a play-caller.”
In his dealings with Rodgers, LaFleur is walking a fine line. He has a strong belief in his offense, but he also wants to turn Rodgers’ vast experience into an edge for the Packers.
“It’s not necessarily about what I’ve done in my past or what he’s done in his past,” La Fleur said. “It’s about how do we make this the Packers offense and us coming together to get us functioning at the highest possible level.”
LaFleur may not have McCarthy’s bravado, but he is quietly very confident, both in his background and his abilities. And just because he’s willing to compromise doesn’t make him a pushover.
“With the quarterback position, you’re talking about — in my opinion — the toughest position in all of sports,” LaFleur said. “And the last thing that we ever want to do is send a quarterback out there who is uncomfortable with what we’re doing. Like I said, we’re making this the Packers offense. So it is a little bit of a work in progress as we go through and try to find out what exactly our guys do well and make sure we showcase that.”
That’s not giving in, that’s being smart.