GREEN BAY — Everyone knew there would be a learning curve for the Green Bay Packers offense this season.
When first-year coach Matt LaFleur was hired to January and charged with bringing his version of the NFL’s hottest offense to Green Bay, it became a race to see if the Packers could get up to speed in the new scheme in time for the season opener against the Chicago Bears Sept. 5.
Even though the Packers have one of the NFL’s brightest and most experienced quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers and a supporting cast consisting mostly of veterans, the new offense is a radical change in philosophy and terminology and it will be an upset if the Packers have it up and running for the start of the regular season. First the players had to learn the playbook, then they had to get on the same page and now they have to work out the kinks.
All of that takes time. Time in the meeting room, time on the practice field, time against live opponents.
With that in mind, LaFleur’s decision to withhold 16 of his starters, including Rodgers and seven others on offense, from the Packers’ exhibition opener against the Houston Texans on Thursday night at Lambeau field was a curious one.
It wasn’t necessarily the wrong decision, but it was a bit puzzling.
Only time will tell whether LaFleur squandered an opportunity to give the first-team offense a few series to work together in a live setting. But given the occasional frustration LaFleur and Rodgers have expressed with the energy and execution of the offense during the first two weeks of training camp, one has to believe some work might have been beneficial.
We’ll never know now. LaFleur gave DeShone Kizer and Tim Boyle, who are competing to be Rodgers’ backup, most of the snaps at quarterback in the Packers’ 28-26 victory. That was also important because backup quarterback is the most unsettled area of the team and LaFleur needs to find out if one or both are capable of handling the role.
Of course, Rodgers likely will get some work in the second and third exhibition games, which are the games he normally plays anyway. For reference, Rodgers played a career-high 92 snaps in 2008, his first year as the starter, and has seen his preseason snaps decline almost every year since then, dwindling all the way to a paltry seven last August.
But this isn’t a normal year in Green Bay. Rodgers and the offense didn’t need the work in recent years because they had the playbook down pat. This year presents a much different challenge.
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Joint practices with the Texans Monday and Tuesday showed how far the Packers have to go on offense. That was especially true of Tuesday’s practice, when the Packers failed to get a first down in a 2-minute drill and couldn’t get the ball into the end zone in a red-zone drill.
Put that together with LaFleur’s snappy but short practices and you can’t help but wonder if he’s giving the offense enough work. The Packers have practiced for two hours only twice in pads.
Perhaps that’s by design. Although LaFleur has said often the offense needs to play with more energy and step up the pace, especially between plays, maybe he’s secretly happy with the unit’s progress. Or maybe he’s one of a growing number of coaches who think exhibition games are a waste of time for starters because the schemes are so vanilla and the risk of injury is too great.
Packers fans need no reminder of the 2015 exhibition game when wide receiver Jordy Nelson was lost for the season. Had Rodgers been injured Thursday night, LaFleur would have alienated the fan base before he even coached a game.
After the game, LaFleur said his first unit sat out because it got all the work it needed against the Texans earlier in the week. Rodgers went against Houston’s No. 1 defense often during those joint workouts and he did it without fear of injury since he was wearing a red, no-contact jersey.
“I think it really came down to the opportunity to play against the Texans in practice,” LaFleur said. “We gave those guys the majority of the reps, the 1s, and I thought they got the necessary work in throughout the week and I didn’t want to put them at risk tonight.”
It’s also possible LaFleur showed everything he wanted to show on Monday and Tuesday and didn’t feel it would be beneficial to cover the same ground in a game. John Pagano is a member of the Texans’ coaching staff and his brother, Chuck, is the defensive coordinator for the Bears, so it was clear LaFleur was keeping much of the offense under wraps.
All of that makes sense. Yet, both LaFleur and Rodgers have called the offense a work in progress and a chance to work against another defense at game speed would seem to be an opportunity to accelerate that pace. LaFleur said the offense will get some game work next week against the Baltimore Ravens.
“That’s something that we’re going to assess on a weekly basis,” he said. “I know going into this next game they’ll get some reps.”
That’s smart because LaFleur wasn’t hired to oversee a three-year rebuilding plan. With all the resources the Packers have put into their defense, it’s clear they expect to win this season and that will require the offense operating efficiently from the start.
It’s a fine line LaFleur is walking and we’ll find out how well he’s doing it on Sept. 5.
Tom Oates is a columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.