Dougherty: Packers will need another busy offseason to close talent gap with 49ers
SANTA CLARA, Calif. - The Green Bay Packers won 14 games and made it to the NFC championship game, but we now know they’re only about halfway there.
Two blowout losses to the San Francisco this season, including Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line, exposed that for all to see.
With a new coach and some big offseason moves, the Packers went from a bad NFL team to one of the better decent ones. But compared to the best, well, general manager Brian Gutekunst and coach Matt LaFleur have a long way to go.
The Packers’ first-half no-show Sunday – the game basically was over when they went into intermission trailing the San Francisco 49ers 27-0 – took much of the shine off their turnaround season. Moreover, their inability to stop the run from start to finish, when they knew it was coming, was shocking – a “disgrace,” one defensive line coach in the NFL texted me after the game.
In 27 years of covering the NFL, I’m not sure I’ve seen a defense so helpless stopping the run play after play as the Packers were trying to stop Raheem Mostert (29 carries, 220 yards) Sunday night. What made it especially galling was that it happened when the stakes couldn’t have been higher.
“That we’re not physical enough. Either that or we’re not coaching something right,” LaFleur said of where his run defense failed.
He later lamented: “They were just able to rip through us running the ball.”
The Packers had much go their way this season, from uncommonly good health to a favorable schedule, that they won’t be able to count on in the next few years to come. For one, they’ll play a first-place schedule in 2020, not a third-place one. And who knows how they’ll fare with the injury gods?
Regardless, two things stood out in this beatdown: One, for as much credit as LaFleur deserves for his role in turning things around as a rookie coach and only a second-year play-caller in the league, he’s going to need a steep learning curve to catch up with his mentor, 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, who’s in his third season as a head coach and 11th as a play caller in the league. LaFleur lost twice to Shanahan this season by the combined score of 74-28, which can’t be explained by talent alone.
Second, the difference in speed between the two teams jumped off the field. Mostert was the fastest player in the game, and 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle are big and fast too. On defense, the 49ers’ front seven, which includes five first-round draft picks in the defensive line rotation, played a tick faster than the Packers’ offense.
The contrast with the Packers’ lack of speed at key positions was stark.
For one, they’re too slow at inside linebacker with Blake Martinez and B.J. Goodson. That position has been devalued in the NFL in the past 15 or 20 years as the league has become more passing oriented, but it might be time for that to change.
The job in today’s spread game, especially against good run-oriented teams like the 49ers and Baltimore Ravens, requires a rare skill set, a player big and explosive enough to make a difference in the run game but fast and agile enough to not be a liability in coverage.
All three of the 49ers’ off-ball linebackers (Kwon Alexander, Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw) were better and faster than anybody the Packers put on the field at that position. If the Packers are going to solve their run-defense issues, Gutekunst will have to spend some resources there, as well as on the interior defensive line.
The Packers also have a glaring lack of speed at receiver. Their one fast guy, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, played his way out of the rotation in his second season, and everyone else (Allen Lazard, Geronimo Allison, Jake Kumerow) is big but slow for the position.
Same at tight end (Jimmy Graham, Marcedes Lewis, Robert Tonyan).
When asked if speed is an area his team needs to address this offseason, LaFleur said: “That’s something we’ll have to take a look at. You always want as much speed as you can have.”
It’s clear that even after Gutekunst’s spending spree last year on free agents Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos and Billy Turner, the GM will need another big offseason to make the Packers a true contender to win the Super Bowl. Aaron Rodgers’ clock is ticking, and at age 36 he needs more help than he used to. There’s nothing to wait for at this point.
Gutekunst might not have quite as much money to work with as last year, but he and his scouting staff are going to have to figure out something, or that money spent last offseason is going to end up a big waste.
After the game, Rodgers said he feels differently than he did after the 2016 season, when the Packers similarly were blown out in the NFC championship game at Atlanta. You might remember that after that bad loss he said the team had to go all-in in the offseason. But in his own way Sunday, he also acknowledged the work the roster needs.
When asked if Gutekunst needs another offseason like the last one, the quarterback said: “Nobody would mind.”
For his part, Rodgers gave off a much different vibe than after that NFC title game loss in ’16 even though the clock on his career has ticked three years closer to the end. He lauded LaFleur for creating a culture where the players have taken ownership, and he said that and new players such as the Smiths rejuvenated him and the team.
“This will always be a special team because it became fun again,” he said.
Rodgers also was overt about his faith in Gutekunst after last offseason, which he didn’t have after the ’16 season when he tried prodding former GM Ted Thompson to do more.
“I feel really confident in Brian and the job that he’s done and his staff,” Rodgers said. “They did go all-in – as much as they could – this year and the pieces that they brought in. I’m confident that he’s going to continue to add to this squad. So, that part is very exciting. It is a lot different feel than three years ago.”
Still, there’s no sugarcoating the harsh reality the 49ers dealt the Packers this season, twice in fact.
Sure, the Packers can step back in a few days and look at the 2019 season as unexpectedly successful in some ways. They won 14 games with a young rookie head coach. Not many saw that coming.
But two total duds against the one really good team they played this season revealed the Packers for who they are and what’s ahead. They still have a long way to go, and based on Rodgers’ age, not much time to do it.