After Green Bay’s victory over the Seahawks Seahawks this past Sunday, Quarterback Aaron Rodgers alluded to the obvious: not even all Packer fans have been that confident of the team’s ability or prospects this season. I would agree; I’ve been one of the dubious. Even last Sunday’s victory — eked out at home over a depleted Seattle squad – did little to dispel the notion that this season, Green Bay has been as lucky as good. We Packer fans know championship-caliber quality, and the general consensus is that the team – despite a creditable season from Mr. Rodgers and outstanding seasons from Wideout Davante Adams, Running Back Aaron Jones, Edge Rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith, and Cornerback Jaire Alexander — is not that good. We have also been acutely aware that if the team progressed in the playoffs, another match with the San Francisco 49ers – who drubbed the Pack in Week 12 – was a probable obstacle to returning to the Super Bowl. Mr. Rodgers himself seemed to waffle a bit after the Seahawks game when asked about the Packers’ prospects against the Niners this Sunday.
I would voice this small note of optimism: given their rout by San Francisco during the regular season, the Packers know what won’t work. For instance, the coaching staff cannot have any doubt that Green Bay’s normal offensive line alignment, which has held up reasonably well against most opponents this season, is not a match for a voracious Niner defensive rush. Winners don’t think about past routs; losers reflect. I would place more than a small wager that whenever Coach Matt LaFleur and his staff and Mr. Rodgers would awaken in the middle of the night since the San Francisco defeat, in addition to considering that week’s opponent, they would ponder: Knowing what we now know, what would we have done differently against the 49ers? I would suspect even in the midst of preparing for the Seahawks, the Packer coaching staff used part of its playoff bye week to lay initial plans for the 49ers.
To defeat San Francisco, the Packers will have to get lucky – perhaps through the recovery of a couple of turnovers deep in Niner territory converted into touchdowns during the first half. They will have to come up with new schemes to slow down the San Francisco pass rush – perhaps double tight end sets, a lot of fullback sets – and/or try something that the Niners will not have schemed for, such as placing Wideout Allen Lazard (big; good blocker; a receiver that can’t be credibly covered by a Niner linebacker) at fullback, or perhaps even a T-formation. They will need new schemes that will isolate Mr. Adams one-on-one against Niner Cornerbacks Ahkello Witherspoon or Emmanuel Moseley [i.e., the Niner cornerback that isn’t Richard Sherman ;)] – perhaps perusing old Packer playbooks for plays former Head Coach Mike Holmgren designed to get Wideout Sterling Sharpe in the open during the days that the entire NFL, including the vendors chucking peanuts in the stands, knew that Mr. Sharpe was Green Bay’s only genuine offensive threat. They will need to decide whether Safeties Adrian Amos and Darnell Savage have jelled sufficiently to cover San Francisco tight end George Kittle, who had by far the better of the matchup in the team’s first meeting – and if not, what to do about it. (Our old friend, Cornerback Tramon Williams, has played safety; is he a better cover option against Mr. Kittle?)
Much has been made of Mr. LaFleur being the first Packer coach – amidst extremely august company, including St. Vincent Lombardi – to make the playoffs in his first year. I would submit that this Sunday is the first true test of his coaching acumen. Packer fans with longer memories well recall Green Bay’s visit to San Francisco in early 1996, when the Packers, then considered merely upstarts coached by Mr. Holmgren and quarterbacked by a young Brett Favre, confronted the intimidating San Francisco 49ers quarterbacked by Steve Young, who in the preceding 15 years led by Joe Montana (who remains the best all-around QB I’ve ever seen, notwithstanding the respect appropriately due Tom Brady) and Mr. Young, had won five Super Bowls. That day, the Niners may have been looking past the Packers to the Dallas Cowboys. The tone of the game was set early by a fumble recovery/TD by Cornerback Craig Newsome, but the outcome was decided in part by three long passes from Mr. Favre to Tight End Keith Jackson, who had had a hallowed career but had been little used by the Packers during the regular season; the Niners hadn’t schemed for Mr. Jackson. Defensive Coordinator Fritz Schumer and his staff installed a dozen new defensive formations for the game, which completely disrupted the Niners’ storied precision passing routes. Packer backers’ reaction starting the game was resignation, then successively followed by pleased surprise, stunned disbelief, and finally … euphoria. At the time, the outcome was considered “shocking”; I would submit that in the Favre-Rodgers Era, the win ranks in significance only behind the team’s two Super Bowl victories.
Given the period Mr. LaFleur and his staff have had to think about the 49ers, it’s time to see whether they are, indeed, able to devise something new. French novelist Honoré de Balzac is said to have observed, “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” I would suggest that the bottom of every renowned coaching career, there is an early unexpected win. While no victory this weekend will equal that long-ago Packer victory over the Niners that completed the team’s transition from disrespected doormat to bona fide powerhouse, Green Bay’s game plan Sunday will enable us to begin to assess whether Mr. LaFleur might someday be able to claim a place beside his legendary innovator-predecessors, Messrs. Lombardi and Holmgren. Win or lose, we will still have better memories of this season that we had any reason to expect when it began.