GREEN BAY — As Matt LaFleur cut Thursday’s final organized team activity practice short to give the players who took part an early jump on their summer vacations, the Green Bay Packers coach knew full well the looming good-news, bad-news nature of what will be his third training camp when the team reconvenes in six weeks.
On the bright side, after watching the COVID-19 pandemic wipe out every second of scheduled on-field work during the 2020 offseason, LaFleur is thrilled his guys will return on July 27 having actually put into practice on the grass of Clarke Hinkle Field what they’d learned in meetings about the offensive, defensive and special teams schemes.
Unfortunately for LaFleur, the dark cloud hanging over his team and its future remains, as the offseason program drew to a close on Thursday the same way it began: without three-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers, who for the first time in 17 offseasons skipped the entire program, including a three-day mandatory minicamp last week that signaled he’s serious about demonstrating his unhappiness with the team’s front office.
Whether Rodgers has a change of heart between now and when camp kicks off — and whether the organization, amid general manager Brian Gutekunst and president/CEO Mark Murphy’s insistence that the future Pro Football Hall of Famer will not be traded, will deliver some sort of grand gesture that prompts Rodgers to return — remains to be seen.
But LaFleur and his coaching staff, stuck squarely in the middle of this staredown between Rodgers and management had no choice but to begin planning for camp, whether Rodgers ends his holdout and shows up or keeps the heels of his cleats dug in and stays away.
That means whether it’s Rodgers, 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love, ex-Jacksonville Jaguars veteran Blake Bortles or former tryout quarterbacks Kurt Benkert or Jake Dolegala under center, the Packers have to get to work.
And while LaFleur acknowledged earlier in the offseason the offense will obviously change based on who’s at quarterback — Rodgers, who is the reigning NFL MVP and has an encyclopedic football memory, or Love, who never even got to wear his No. 10 jersey on a game day last year as a rookie — he and his staff had to put together a practice schedule despite the uncertainty.
“We’ll have one plan,” LaFleur said in a Zoom call with reporters — possibly his final Q&A session in that format if post-pandemic, in-person interviews commence in camp. “We’ve pretty much laid that out. (We’re) just going to fine-tune some things over the next few weeks in terms of the logistics of our schedule and whatnot.
“We’ve got what we feel is a pretty good blueprint in terms of how to get our guys ready to play. … We feel confident with what we’ll have in place with the guys. We’ll look forward to getting them back July 27.”
Although LaFleur has pivoted over the past six weeks from making directly-into-the-camera pleas to Rodgers to return — “We want him back in the worst way,” LaFleur said during the post-draft rookie minicamp in May — it remains obvious the coach wants his star back as soon as possible, believing that after back-to-back NFC Championship Game losses, he has another Super Bowl contender on his hands if Rodgers is under center.
At the same time, LaFleur knows he has to get the rest of the roster ready, too, from Love on down to the guys who’ll be scratching and clawing to make the 53-man roster. There’s also the challenge for defensive players to adapt to new coordinator Joe Barry’s scheme
At the same time, LaFleur knows he has to get the rest of the roster ready, too, from Love on down to the guys who’ll be scratching and clawing to make the 53-man roster. There’s also the challenge for defensive players to adapt to new coordinator Joe Barry’s scheme and a new special-teams system being installed under new coordinator Maurice Drayton.
“I think the offseason’s critical for all these players, especially the young guys — but even our veterans,” LaFleur said. “We’ve got a new defensive system going in. We’ve got a new special teams system going in. So (the offseason allowed them) to learn and lay the foundation for training camp.
“We’re excited about a training camp. We’re excited about this football team. I think the character of this team is really high. The challenge is, can you re-create that magic that we’ve been able to the last couple years and become a close knit, connected team with great player leadership?”
And if the team’s highest-profile leader is absent?
“We’re excited about what the future could hold. And, you know, you’ve just got to take it day-by-day in terms of everything else that’s going out there,” LaFleur said. “(You have to) control the things that you can control, and that’s the attitude, how you prepare and the effort that you give on a daily basis.”
Last week, two of Rodgers’ closest friends on the team, wide receiver Davante Adams and left tackle David Bakhtiari, indicated they have not tried to convince Rodgers to come to camp or given him any recruiting pitches about making another run at a Super Bowl title. (Rodgers led the 2010 team to the Super Bowl XLV championship before Bakhtiari and Adams joined the team.)
Whether that changes as the calendar inches closer to the team’s Sept. 12 regular-season opener at New Orleans, only they can say.
“For me, I care about Aaron Rodgers from a friend perspective. Whatever he wants to do, whatever the situation that comes out, I will never hold any grudge against him. That is my friend,” said Bakhtiari, who spent offseason practices rehabbing his surgically repaired left knee. “Now, as a teammate, I would be idiotic to say that I don’t want the MVP back. He was the MVP of the league last year. He’s done amazing things from not only the quarterback position, but for the franchise.”
But until — or unless — Rodgers shows, LaFleur and his coaches will have to pour their efforts into getting Love ready, just in case.
Love struggled mightily during the first minicamp practice, looked magnificent during the second and then was somewhere in-between in the last one. This week’s OTA practices were conducted at a slower speed and without as much 11-on-11 work, so his up-and-down showing during the minicamp is the most useful film the team has on him so far.
“It’s the same message it’s been all the time,” LaFleur said when asked what he told Love before the players departed. “‘You’re only one play away, so you always have to prepare like you’re the starter. And just to be very intentional about the work that you put in, to go out there with a purpose. To be mindful and in the moment.’
“Every rep for him is so critical, whether it’s on air, on his own or it’s with us in 11-on-11 situations and he’s getting that constant coaching. I think he’s done a great job of embracing just the whole situation, embracing learning from every rep.
“One thing we talked about after (one) practice is, ‘Hey man, you’re going to have some great days and you’re going to have some days that aren’t as great. And you’ve got to be able to ride that wave. You’re never too high, you’re never too low and just making sure that you learn from each and every rep.’ And I think he’s done a really good job of that.”