(From left) Green Bay Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst, head coach Matt LaFleur and President … [+]
Twelve months ago, this would have been a pipe dream.
The Green Bay Packers had just fired longtime coach Mike McCarthy. The team was in chaos. And the Packers were headed for a 6-9-1 season and back-to-back losing years for the first time since 1990-‘91.
Today, Green Bay is 11-3 and back in the playoffs for the first time since 2016. The Packers can clinch the NFC North division title for the first time in three years with a win at Minnesota Monday night. And Green Bay remains well-positioned for a top-two seed in the NFC and a first round playoff bye.
How did this happen so quickly?
Here are five reasons why.
1. Mark Murphy
Packer Nation loves to throw darts at Murphy, who became the Packers’ president and CEO in 2007. For good or bad — and perhaps a little of both — Murphy has taken the Packers from a “mom and pop shop” into a corporate behemoth aimed at gobbling up every nickel Green Bay’s passionate fan base will spend.
For years, Murphy stayed strictly on the business side, choosing to “let football people make football decisions.”
In Jan., 2018, though, Murphy replaced longtime general manager Ted Thompson with Brian Gutekunst. Then on Dec., 2, 2018, Murphy fired McCarthy with four games remaining in the regular season and later replaced him Matt LaFleur.
Change was needed. Both Thompson and McCarthy had been with the organization 13 years and things had grown stale.
Murphy made tough decisions and both wound up being right
“It’s been two long years here in Green Bay,” Murphy said the day he hired LaFleur. “We are ready to get back winning.”
So far, they have.
2. Brian Gutekunst
Green Bay’s general manager was given the green light in free agency in March. That’s a route that Ted Thompson — Gutekunst’s predecessor — never cared for.
But give Gutekunst credit for knocking it out of the park.
On March 12, one of the wildest days in franchise history, Gutekunst signed free agents Za’Darius Smith, Preston Smith, Adrian Amos and Billy Turner all to contracts. The quartet was given $57 million in guaranteed money, and if the foursome all complete their deals, they’ll earn a combined $183 million.
The moves reeked of desperation from an organization that lived by the “draft and develop” strategy for more than a decade. To date, though, the free agent frenzy has paid major dividends.
In addition, Gutekunst found quality starters in safety Darnell Savage and left guard Elgton Jenkins in the 2019 draft.
Gutekunst was handed a roster without much firepower when he replaced Thompson in Jan., 2018. Gutekunst’s work is far from done, but he’s made major strides in revamping the roster and leading the Packers back to the playoffs.
3. Matt LaFleur
With an 11-3 record, LaFleur currently has the highest winning percentage of any coach in Green Bay history (.756), slightly ahead of the legendary Vince Lombardi (.754).
While LaFleur’s sample size is obviously miniscule, he’s made a terrific first impression.
LaFleur is detailed, organized, creative and has formed a heathy relationship with quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“I think I’ve grown every day,” LaFleur said Friday. “I just, I don’t know. I just try to be myself on a daily basis and you know, really fortunate, thought we were able to hire a great staff here to help support everything.
“It definitely is a total team effort, and like I’ve said before, the players that were here and the players that we added to this roster, just a bunch of great men in that locker room. And they are the ones that get the credit.”
LaFleur certainly deserves his share, as well.
4. Aaron Jones
Jones, one of the more explosive running backs in football, was underutilized during Mike McCarthy’s tenure. Jones has gotten more opportunities this year and made the most of them.
Heading into Week 16, Jones was tied for the NFL lead in rushing touchdowns with 14. Jones was also second in the league in total touchdowns with 17.
Jones leads the Packers with a career-high 830 rushing yards and is averaging 4.4 yards per carry. Jones also ranks No. 2 on the team in receptions (45) and has a career-best 425 receiving yards.
“I feel like it’s something you start developing when you’re younger,” Jones said of having a knack for the endzone. “That’s the place you’re most comfortable at. Not only makes you happy but it makes everybody in the stadium happy, it makes your coaches happy. So why not spread the love and make everybody happy.”
5. The Smith Brothers
The Packers paid a king’s ransom to bring Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith to Green Bay in free agency. But it could be argued that Green Bay has gotten a deal with both players — at least for one year.
Za’Darius Smith has a career-high 10 sacks, a team-best 45 quarterback hits and a team-high 54 quarterback pressures. Za’Darius Smith is also tied for ninth in the league in sacks and has four games with at least 1.5 sacks.
Last week, Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari called Za’Darius Smith “the best player on our team” and expressed frustration that Za’Darius was left off the Pro Bowl team.
“I think the whole (Pro Bowl) voting process is flawed and needs to be reviewed,” Bakhtiari said. “It makes me unsettled. The best player on our team didn’t even make the Pro Bowl this year.
“He’s come in and been an unbelievable football player and I know how it feels. I’ve been in that situation before and I just hope he gets the All-Pro recognition that he deserves.”
Preston Smith has a team-high 11.5 sacks. He also ranks second on the team in quarterback hits (28), quarterback pressures (37), has an interception, a forced fumble and two passes defensed.
The Smith Brothers joined Reggie White and Bryce Paup (1993) as just the second duo in team history to record double digit sacks in the same season.
Green Bay moved on from longtime outside linebackers Clay Matthews and Nick Perry last offseason. The Packers then knocked it out of the park by signing the Smith Brothers.