GREEN BAY, Wis. -- A year ago, one of the major storylines of the NFL offseason centered on Matt LaFleur and Aaron Rodgers.
Most had questions about how it would work, this arranged marriage between the first-year Green Bay Packers coach and the two-time NFL MVP quarterback who had seemingly lost his way -- and lost interest -- in former coach Mike McCarthy's offense.
LaFleur's first season hardly could have gone better: 13-3 in the regular season, the NFC North title, a first-round playoff bye and a trip to the NFC Championship Game, where it all ended in a blowout loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
A year later, as LaFleur wraps up his second offseason -- this one done virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic -- he has to be thankful he's not a first-year coach, given the limitations.
"There's just so many advantages to having that first year under our belt," LaFleur said. "Now, we understand that also, going into Year 2 that there's pressure with how we performed in Year 1 for the most part. There's gonna be some heavy expectations and we've all got to be ready to embrace those and make sure, again, that we're doing everything in our power to get better each and every day so we can live up to those."
With that in mind, here's a look back at that first year and how it will shape LaFleur's second season:
Connecting with Rodgers: There was the so-called audible issue, which began when LaFleur said at the NFL scouting combine his offense doesn't give the quarterback as much freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage as Rodgers enjoyed -- and perhaps abused -- in the past. But by the time the regular season arrived, LaFleur made it clear that Rodgers will still have "the green light to do whatever he needs to do to get us into a good play. We're not going to take that from him."
LaFleur didn't get the Packers back into the top 10 offensively; they finished 18th in yards and 15th in points. And statistically, it wasn't close to Rodgers' best season -- he posted the lowest Total QBR (50.4) of his career and held the ball for an average of 2.88 seconds (sixth longest among all quarterbacks last season, according to NFL Next Gen Stats) -- but his level of buy-in made up for it. He became a central figure in a players' leadership council that began meeting with LaFleur weekly midway through the season. Said Rodgers late in the year: "Matt has fostered that ability I think by keeping things very simple."
LaFleur's built-up credibility with Rodgers could help when it comes to how Rodgers deals with the Packers' decision to draft his possible replacement, Jordan Love, in the first round this year.
"This has been a great opportunity to go back and really fine-tune everything, go through everything last year that was good, what didn't work, what we want to add to it, what we want to take out," Rodgers said recently. "Matt and [offensive coordinator] Nathaniel [Hackett] have done a really good job of going through those and keeping me in the loop about conversations."
Good health: From the start, LaFleur showed he was serious about turning around the Packers' injury problems. He cut training camp practices short -- on average 17 minutes shorter than McCarthy's practice time the previous summer. He never went longer than 2 hours, 19 minutes in any single practice. McCarthy's final camp featured five practices that went longer than 2½ hours.
LaFleur also restored a traditional in-season practice schedule that had the team on the field Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before a Sunday game. Previously, McCarthy had the players practice on Saturday but used Friday as a recovery day.
While LaFleur kept the medical staff intact from before and flip-flopped the assistant strength coach and the head strength coach, injuries were drastically reduced. The Packers' biggest injury was to receiver Davante Adams, who missed four games because of turf toe.
If LaFleur is tempted to increase practice time this summer to make up for lost OTA and minicamp work, perhaps he'll look back at his notes from last August and remember how well it worked.
In-season adjustments: Without Adams, LaFleur had to shift the focus of his offense to the running game, specifically Aaron Jones. In Weeks 1-4 before Adams' turf toe, Jones totaled just 270 yards from scrimmage (55th among all NFL players in the span). In the next four weeks, Jones put up 551 total yards from scrimmage (second among all players). In the Week 8 win at Kansas City, Jones set a career high with 159 yards receiving and became the first Packers running back since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to post 150 yards receiving in a game. In that game, Rodgers completed 10 passes to running backs, including all three of his touchdown passes -- the most TD passes to backs in a game during his career.
It perhaps offered a glimpse into how LaFleur really wants to function on offense and might have led to general manager Brian Gutekunst's two second-day draft picks, running back AJ Dillon (second round) and H-back Josiah Deguara (third round).
"Our philosophy is going to be the same," Hackett said. "We always want it to be a balance. We always want a [marriage] between the run game and the play pass and the play-actions. That's always what our philosophy is going to be."
The coach-GM partnership: For nearly three decades in Green Bay, the head coach reported to the general manager who reported to the team president. That setup led to the resurgence of the Packers in the 1990s and a pair of Super Bowl titles.
Mark Murphy, the president since 2007, surprisingly changed that structure when he hired Gutekunst in 2018. Both LaFleur and Gutekunst now report to Murphy, putting the coach and GM on equal ground. Although it was a different structure than the Packers had in the past, at the time of the change about half of the teams in the NFL were set up that way.
"He's just really easy to get along with," LaFleur said of Gutekunst this offseason. "He's really easy to talk to. He's a humble guy that just works his tail off. He's got great intentions. It's just somebody that's so easy to relate to and to work with on a daily basis."
Gutekunst signed four high-priced free agents -- Adrian Amos, Preston Smith and Za'Darius Smith on defense along with offensive guard Billy Turner -- in his first offseason, and LaFleur & Co. made good use of all four.
The one big (49ers) problem: Two of the Packers' four losses came at San Francisco. And they weren't close. The two losses were by a combined 46 points. The Packers will play there for a third time in 11 months on Nov. 5. Three of their four losses last season, including playoffs, came in California.
Much like the Packers of the 1990s, who had to figure out how to beat the NFC's top teams at the time -- Dallas and San Francisco -- before they could get to the Super Bowl, the Packers have to do so again.
Part of that could be on defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, whose unit gave up 285 yards rushing in the NFC title game. LaFleur initially didn't do Pettine any favors by leaving him without a firm public endorsement during his wrap-up news conference after the season. Behind closed doors, however, LaFleur had already told Pettine he would return.
"He and I had just had a very positive conversation when the season ended and it was all about moving forward and it as very open and honest [about] what do we need to do to get better, what are we doing well, what steps needed to be taken to take that jump from making it from the championship game to getting past it," Pettine said recently.
"I saw it as much ado about nothing. So there was never a moment where I felt I would be anywhere but in Green Bay," Pettine continued. "I know [Matt] addressed it at the combine, but since the meeting that we had even before his [season-ending news conference], he and I had been full speed ahead, so it really was not something. There was a little angst with my wife about it, but other than that, no, I was fine with it."