Two days removed from a stunning playoff loss to end his third year as coach of the Green Bay Packers, Matt LaFleur addressed reporters for the final time this season. It was a press conference dominated by the future of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and what that situation would mean for the franchise moving forward. LaFleur made clear that those within 1265 Lombardi Ave. want the soon-to-be 4-time NFL MVP back in 2022.
“Every conversation I’ve been involved in with (GM Brian Gutekunst) and (team vice president) Russ (Ball) and (team president) Mark Murphy, we’re all we’re all on the same page here,” LaFleur on wanting Rodgers back. “There’s no debate.”
Rodgers said after the game Saturday that he intends to make a decision before free agency begins in early March. With the Packers in rough shape salary cap wise — currently more than $44 million above it — the options seem to be return to Green Bay on a contract extension that significantly lowers his salary cap number for 2022, have the Packers work a trade with another team or retire.
Plenty will go into that decision but playing the biggest role could be how the Packers decide to deal with all the other veteran players that are either unrestricted free agents or potential salary cap casualties. That includes the likes of Davante Adams, De’Vondre Campbell, Robert Tonyan, Za’Darius Smith, Billy Turner, Preston Smith, Dean Lowry and more. Rodgers made clear he does not want to be playing for a team in a rebuilding situation and LaFleur understands the only way for the quarterback to return for an 18th year in Green Bay is if they can assure him that won’t be the case.
“No, there’s no plan for a rebuild,” LaFleur said. “When you get this close, obviously, we’ve won a lot of football games. “We know in order for there not to be that (rebuild) he’s got to be a part of this thing, so I don’t think that’s anybody’s intention.”
Making sure that is the case despite the cap issues facing the franchise will be the responsibility of Gutekunst and Ball, the latter of which serves as the team’s lead contract negotiator. Since the team and Rodgers re-worked his contract before last season that made it nearly impossible for him to be on the roster for 2022 at his current cap number, Gutekunst and Ball have likely been working on ways to keep Rodgers and maintain a roster that can compete for a championship.
“We’ll get more into that plan now that the season is over in terms of the specifics of how you go about doing that,” LaFleur said as he confirmed there was a plan in place. “There’s ways to, I don’t want to say manipulate, but there’s ways to move money and to make sure that we get the bulk of our key contributors back. Are there absolutely going to be some tough decisions? No doubt about it. But I’m really confident in Russ’s ability and Gutey’s ability and us collectively to figure a way to do this thing.”
After the drama of last offseason where a public rift between Rodgers and team management provided gossip and rumor that ruled the months of May, June, and July, both sides have said they are in a much better position heading into the next month or so. Rodgers and Gutekunst have a stronger relationship and seem to understand where each is coming from and that extends to everyone involved.
“I think it’s a little bit different mindset,” LaFleur said. “I think just the communication between us is pretty crystal clear. So, I’m hopeful it doesn’t drag on quite as long and we’ll make the necessary decisions once we kind of find out where he’s at.”
What if that decision is he wants to finish his career somewhere else? Have the Packers spoken about that possibility and what they will do if it comes up as it did a year ago?
“I haven’t even been part of any of those discussions, nor have I, like I said last year, allowed my mind to kind of get to that point,” LaFleur said. “I just want to do everything in our power to try to get him back here and making sure that he’s comfortable with the direction of our football team, confident that we can continue to have success here, and, again, try to find a way to get us kind of over that hump so we can reach it further and further and further. Obviously, at the end of the saying only one team’s happy and until we were holding that Lombardi Trophy, I don’t think we’re ever going to feel great about where we’re at.”
LaFleur said he and Rodgers spent quite some time speaking Monday. While he would not get into what exactly that conversation entailed, he made sure the quarterback knew how he and the organization felt about what he means to them.
“We’re hopeful that he’ll be back next year, obviously,” LaFleur said. “This guy has done so much for such a long period of time for this organization, for the city, for this team. I want to be respectful of his process, whatever he needs to go through, to make the best decision for himself. And certainly, we would love for him to be a Packer and be a Packer until the day he decides to retire.”
The Packers offense was not good against San Francisco but Green Bay still led the game with roughly four minutes to go because of a dominant effort from the defense. That lead evaporated thanks to a blocked punt that was returned for a touchdown. It was one of at least three major miscues for the special teams in the game, starting with a blocked field goal just before halftime and then having just 10 men on the field for what proved to San Francisco’s game-winning field goal.
The performance followed a season-long trend of inexcusable mistakes from ST coordinator Maurice Drayton’s unit, one that finished dead last in Rick Gosselin’s annual special teams rankings. Yet, LaFleur was not ready to fire him just yet.
“We have not gotten involved with any part of that process with any of our coaches,” LaFleur said. “We got to look at everything, man. We got to look at everything. If we feel like we can improve in certain areas, then we will make tough decisions. But we’re not even remotely close to getting into that at this at this point in time.”
Promote from within
Green Bay offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett was in Denver on Monday to interview a second time to be the Broncos head coach. He is reportedly among the three finalists for the gig and has also interviewed for several more head coaching positions in the league. LaFleur is hopeful that Hackett will get the Denver job or one of the others while knowing it will leave a big hole to fill on his staff. Going about filling that opening has been on his mind and if it is something that ends up needing to happen, the person filling it will come from within the organization.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in the guys that we have on our staff,” LaFleur said. “We’ve got so many good guys. It’s not going to be an easy decision, let me just tell you that.”
The main candidates would likely be quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy or offensive line coach Adam Stenavich. Both are thought of highly by those inside and outside the organization. Getsy was the offensive coordinator at Mississippi State in 2018 before returning to Green Bay in 2019 as quarterbacks coach and was given the title of passing game coordinator prior to the 2020 season. Stenavich has overseen the offensive line the last three years and got the title of run game coordinator in advance of the 2021 season.
Douglas wants to be back
There wasn’t a single player on the roster that came out of nowhere to make a huge impact more than Rasul Douglas. The cornerback was signed off Arizona’s practice squad in October and by December he was named an alternate for the Pro Bowl and deserved more. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns, while also producing game-clinching takeaways against Arizona and Cleveland.
All that success is going to draw interest from other teams when free agency begins, though if it were up to Douglas, he would not be leaving the state.
“Of course, everyone knows I want to be here,” Douglas said. “I’ll just leave it at that.”
Whether that happens will likely be a money decision. With so many other players’ futures uncertain due to the Packers salary cap issues, Douglas will be among the tough decisions Gutekunst, Ball and LaFleur will have to make.
Dillon updates injury
If the Packers had won Saturday night, running back AJ Dillon likely would not have been able to play in the NFC title game. The second year back confirmed that he fractured a rib during a kickoff return early in the second half. He was unable to return, ending his night with 25 yards and a touchdown on seven carries.
“It’s really tough missing time, always, especially in a game like that with that magnitude,” Dillon said. “In a game where I feel like I could help make an impact. Obviously, I always want to help the team any way I can. I always say that. It’s tough to not go out there.”