Dougherty: Aaron Rodgers expects others to copy Packers' 'very, very creative' offense
GREEN BAY - In Week 4 of the 2018 season, the Los Angeles Rams beat the Minnesota Vikings in an explosive, entertaining shootout in front of a Thursday night national TV audience.
Among the interested viewers was Aaron Rodgers, who watched Rams coach Sean McVay’s innovative offense make one eye-catching play after another while putting up 556 yards in a thrilling 38-31 win.
This week Rodgers still remembers having watched “every second” of that game and off the cuff started ticking off some of the touchdowns that stood out: Todd Gurley beating Cover 4 in the red zone on a choice route down the seam; a leak route turned wheel route that Cooper Kupp caught for a long 70-yard touchdown; and an empty-set audible to a seam route for another score (31 yards to Robert Woods).
We got a glimpse of the impression that game made on Rodgers three days later. As he glumly lamented the Packers' stagnant offensive showing (six points in the second half) in their 22-0 win over Buffalo, you’d have thought the Packers had lost the game. He still had visions of the Rams in his head.
And this week as he recalled that Rams-Vikings game, it’s clear it really was a revelation to him.
“It made an impression I think on everybody in the locker room,” Rodgers said in a phone interview. “We were kind of amazed at how that game went down. … That was a time where a lot of us in the locker room had some daydreams of what it would be like to play in that offense. How different would it be, how do our skill sets translate? Is it better for us? Or the same?”
Well, we have the answer. Playing in his second season in the Kyle Shanahan/McVay scheme, albeit with different players and a different coach, Rodgers is back playing at the highest of levels. At age 37 he led the NFL’s top-scoring offense and is likely going to win his third league MVP.
The change from former coach Mike McCarthy’s offense to Matt LaFleur’s has been profound, even though both come from the West Coast family. In the simplest terms, in LaFleur’s offense everything develops off the outside-zone run, so the commitment to the run is greater than any offense from Rodgers’ past.
That’s illustrated in the Packers’ run rate, which this year was seventh highest in the league (44.7% of their offensive snaps). Last year in their transition to LaFleur’s offense they were 17th at 40.2%. Now compare that to Rodgers’ final three seasons under McCarthy, when the Packers ranked last (32.4% in 2018), 26th (38.6% in ’17) and 31st (35.3% in ’16).
And as this year has shown, the change in emphasis and scheme plays well into the aging Rodgers’ skill set.
Late in McCarthy’s tenure the Packers’ offense was too reliant on Rodgers extending plays. Basically, it often defaulted to, 'Rodgers, go make a play.' That got harder as Rodgers got older.
LaFleur’s scheme does more to maximize Rodgers’ abilities to read defenses before and after the snap, to get the ball out fast and to throw with deadly accuracy (he led the league in completion percentage at 70.7). Rodgers still makes plays outside the pocket, but only occasionally rather than as the norm, and often as part of a designed bootleg.
There always will be times when quarterbacks have to just drop back and throw, but the play-action pass that’s at the core of LaFleur’s scheme has become a huge part of Rodgers’ arsenal. According to Pro Football Focus, almost a third of the Packers’ plays (29.3%) were play-action passes, which ranked ninth in the league. And on play action Rodgers led the NFL in passer rating (134.6) and touchdown passes (21) and threw zero interceptions. If Rodgers needed any convincing about what a well-designed run game can do for a quarterback, this year has done it.
“So many of the big plays come off the (play) actions,” Rodgers said, “and the actions are tied directly to the runs. It’s obvious you have to run the ball effectively. … Look at the stats on play action this year, we’ve been way, way, way, way more efficient and explosive in that area. And you talk about the efficiency bump we’ve had this year, a good part of that obviously has been the timing and the rhythm of the passing game. But that’s not just drop-back passing, that is the timing and the rhythm of the action passing game, which I feel like has really brought a different explosive element to our down-the-field action passing game.”
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Shanahan’s original innovation was extensive pre-snap motion and jet-sweep action. Pass plays are designed to look exactly like runs before and just after the snap, and the motions are there to occupy the defenses’ attention and stretch them horizontally for an extra beat or two, whether it’s run or pass. It’s worth noting that for all the jet-sweep and orbit motion the Packers run, their receivers have only 21 rushes this year. But the defense has to honor all the motion and action just the same, because they never know when it might be a handoff.
LaFleur, offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy and Rodgers spent last coronavirus offseason via Zoom tweaking the scheme to better fit the Packers’ personnel and get the most from Rodgers’ experience decoding defenses. Rodgers doesn’t want to tip off opponents as to the details, but he says this year’s changes are why he now calls this LaFleur’s offense, rather than Shanahan’s.
“It’s kind of the next iteration of what they were doing in those other offenses he was a part of,” Rodgers said.
And Rodgers feels very much like he’s operating on the cutting edge of the NFL.
“It’s a copycat league, and we all copy off each other,” Rodgers said, “but I think there will be a few more copying off us this year because we’ve been doing things that are very, very creative.”
A little more than two years ago, when he was watching Rams quarterback Jared Goff pile up all those points and yards on that Thursday night early in the 2018 season, Rodgers had no way of knowing he would get the chance to play in the scheme that got his attention that night.
He was right to be captivated. It has proven to be a great match, though we’ll find out over the next few weeks just how far he can take it.