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State of the Franchise: Packers trying to win now, build for future

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Green Bay Packers organization, Packers fans around the world and those who believe that Aaron Rodgers is not only the G.O.A.T. of quarterback play but also of appearing in television ads: 

The Green Bay Packers have been a model organization for a period spanning nearly three decades. An annual playoff contender, the Packers endured a mild blip and returned again as the leaders of the NFC North. With one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history guiding them, they're looking for another Lombardi Trophy while also setting themselves up for future success.

How the Packers got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The highs:

  • Beating the Chicago Bears in Week 1 of the NFL's 100th season. This was big, since a lot of Bears fans (like myself) were yapping going into it. Set the tone for the entire year. 
  • Sweeping the NFC North. I mean, fans of the other NFC North teams like to make fun of Green Bay's playoff losses, but those teams could at least try beating them in the regular season. 
  • Winning the NFC North for the sixth time since 2011. (But it was their first division title since 2016.) 
  • Beating the Seattle Seahawks in the Divisional Round of the playoffs, advancing to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since the 2016 season. 

The low:

  • Getting blown out by the 49ers twice. This happened in both the regular season and the NFC title match.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Matt LaFleur. Fans of the Packers' NFC North rivals really hated to see Mike McCarthy go, even as he was in the midst of securing his second consecutive sub-.500 finish in Green Bay in 2018. But it was the right move for the Packers, as evidenced by their 13-3 mark, NFC North title and NFC Championship Game appearance in LaFleur's first season. Now, some might downplay the challenge facing LaFleur heading into last year, saying that taking over a job where Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback is a dream scenario. But really, it came with a greater degree of difficulty than might have been apparent at first glance. There were reports Rodgers had friction with McCarthy, and we weren't sure the new guy was going to be much better. This really could have been a combustible situation. But LaFleur seemed to handle it with aplomb. 

Over the summer, LaFleur said he'd have to "work through ... the audible thing" with Rodgers, which folks took to mean trying to reduce the QB's longstanding leeway in terms of changing plays at the line of scrimmage. A buttoned-down, follow-the-rules approach might work if you're coaching Jared Goff (as LaFleur did when he was the Rams' offensive coordinator) or Marcus Mariota (as he did when he served in that role with the Titans). But treating Rodgers the same way would be like giving Austin Dillon the keys to your car and telling him to keep it under the speed limit. LaFleur backed off and ultimately let Rodgers do his thing. At the same time, LaFleur got Rodgers to give the ball to running back Aaron Jones when receiver Davante Adams was battling turf toe, which led to Jones having 19 total touchdowns last season. To me, LaFleur made all of the right moves and got Rodgers excited about football again.

Quarterback: Jordan Love. The Packers are moving on from quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and -- wait. (Checks notes.) Oops. Turns out Rodgers is still on the roster. That's my fault.

Quarterback: Aaron Rodgers. A lot of people will draw a parallel between Rodgers' current standing -- as a veteran star on a Packers team that just drafted someone 26th overall to replace him -- and Brett Favre's similar position when Rodgers was drafted 24th overall back in 2005. You know, it's history repeating itself, like how Luke Skywalker sought Yoda's guidance in Episode V, then took on the role of Yoda-like mentor to Rey in Episode VIII. (For what it's worth, that was one reason I loved Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi, even though many fan boys/girls weren't having it.)

That said, today's situation seems vastly different to me. In 2005, Favre was already talking about (what turned out to be one of many future) retirement(s). And those '05 Packers, while competitive, hadn't been to the NFC Championship Game since 1997. These Packers, on the other hand, reached that height just last season. The 36-year-old Rodgers also said that he would like to play into his 40s, like a lot of other big-name quarterbacks, including Tom Brady (42) and Drew Brees (41).

And -- saying this as objectively as I can as a Bears fan -- Rodgers is still at the top of his game. He threw for 4,002 yards last year with 26 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He has six interceptions in the last two years combined, which is as many as a guy like Jameis Winston can knock out in two quarters. So the central question here is less Can Rodgers hold off Love? and more Why draft a QB now?

To his credit, Rodgers' public comments on the draft were delivered with the professionalism you would expect from him. He said that he didn't blame Love for being drafted, adding that Love seemed like "a really good kid," and that he always had a great relationship with his backups. Rodgers also mentioned how much he loved Michael Jordan, saying MJ was the greatest player in NBA history, a point that he would love to debate anybody on. So now I find myself hoping that Love is a huge LeBron or Kobe fan, and this is what causes friction for them.

Projected 2020 MVP, Non-Rodgers Division: David Bakhtiari, left tackle. Obviously, Rodgers is the most valuable player to this team and a candidate for the league award. But let's throw a little love at his left tackle, who continues to be one of the best in the business. Dude has played more than 5,000 offensive snaps over the last five seasons but has allowed just 16 sacks in that span, per Pro Football Focus. He's the kind of player that, if you're a fan of a rival team, you claim not to like, because he's so good, even as you secretly admire his skill.

Projected 2020 breakout stars: Rashan Gary, linebacker and Darnell Savage, safety. The Packers used their two first-round picks in 2019 on Gary and Savage. Gary entered the league with a torn labrum and also raised some eyebrows when he founded his own sports agency prior to the draft, leaving some to question his commitment. Especially since his career at Michigan wasn't quite what you would have expected. Still, he's a gifted athlete and could be a top defender. Savage is another guy with big-play ability who could take a leap this season on a Packers defense that played really well down the stretch last year. Green Bay allowed just 14.2 points per game over its last five regular-season games, after allowing 22.0 points per game in Weeks 1-12. And they allowed 20 points or less in nine games.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH? I know, you're sitting there reading this, saying to yourself, "Of course it's high, Rank. This team is great!" Because they have Rodgers and should be expected to win. But does the front office feel that way? You would think a team that was one win away from reaching the Super Bowl would do everything in its power to get over the hump. But maybe the Packers' front office watched the losses to the 49ers and thought they aren't actually that close. Maybe they realize the team was 18th in both total offense and total defense and are thinking it's time to play for 2021. Because that is what drafting a quarterback and running back in the first two rounds -- instead of a receiver who could provide go-for-it-now help -- suggests to me. Even so, the Packers have Rodgers and figure to be in the playoff mix once again.

Three key dates:

  • Week 3 at Saints. The Packers have an intense schedule. Here, they'll play the Saints on the road in what should be a highly anticipated Sunday Night Football matchup. 
  • Week 9 at 49ers. Their season ended on the West Coast last year, and if they want to take a step forward this season, they need to beat the 49ers. Winning the North is fine. But the Packers' fans demand excellence. 
  • Week 17 vs. Bears. For the first time since 2015, the Packers will not close the regular season against the Detroit Lions. Looking back, that scheduling quirk seems like an unfair advantage. This year, the Packers will likely be playing for their playoff lives against a team that will likely have already put away the NFC North. (Sorry, couldn't resist.) Even if you're just a fan of the sport, you hope this is for the NFC North title -- though as a Bears fan, that prospect scares me.

Will the Packers be able to ...

Keep Jordan Love's presence from being a distraction? For the record, I love Love. And I even said he was a good fit for a team like Green Bay. Here's the proof:

Again, Rodgers has said the right things, as you would expect. But what happens if the season takes a turn for the worse? As I pointed out, the Packers will have some tough games against playoff-caliber teams like the Saints, Buccaneers, Texans and 49ers on the road. You know if the Packers stumble even a little bit, there are going to be people asking when Love is going to take over. If you win, this obviously will never become an issue. But if there are losses, well -- oh boy.

Find a receiver to go with Davante Adams? Packers fans were dismayed (to put it lightly) when the team traded up for Love in the first round in lieu of, as we already discussed, drafting a pro-ready receiver. Even after that surprising move, the more optimistic fans reasoned that the draft was so deep at wide receiver, the Packers could take their quarterback of the future in Round 1 and still come away with a pass-catcher in Round 2. And then after the team drafted a running back in Round 2, those fans looked to Round 3. Then Round 5 (skipping Round 4, of course, because the team gave up that pick in the swap for Love). Then Round 6. And finally, Round 7, when it became clear the Packers would not be using a single pick at the position. It was kind of like when you're waiting for a friend at a bar, and you send them a "Hey, where are you?" text, and your phone shows that three-dot typing a reply message, and then ... nothing. For three days. 

I mean, if I had been in the Packers' brain trust and seen CeeDee Lamb falling down the draft board, I would have moved picks to jump in front of the Cowboys to take him. But that's easy for me to say on this side of the computer. Of course, we don't know what general manager Brian Gutekunst was trying to pull off behind the scenes. He even told NBC Sports' Peter King that he tried to make a move in the second round, but it just didn't work out. And we will never truly know what was going on. We just don't know. 

What we do know is that the team is left with Allen Lazard (who became a favorite in the fantasy community last season and was singled out by Rodgers in a recent press conference), Equanimeous St. Brown, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and free-agent signee Devin Funchess. Which seems a little thin for a team that runs 11 personnel 60 percent of the time.

Get Christian Kirksey to fill Blake Martinez's shoes? The reliable Martinez signed a $30 million deal with the New York Giants after four years in Green Bay. I always liked Martinez's game -- he's a solid player who was always good for around 140-plus tackles per season. But former Browns linebacker Christian Kirksey was a much cheaper option for the Packers at two years, $16 million, and he could arguably be a more talented player than Martinez, making the team's gamble on him worth the risk. The key will be injuries. Kirksey has played in just nine games over the last two seasons after never missing a game in his first four years in the NFL. And he's entering his age-28 season. I've seen enough stuff like this from the Packers over the years to know he's going to not miss a snap and will end up in the Pro Bowl.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: The Packers were 8-1 in one-score games last season. You can take this information in a number of ways. You can either boast that this team was one of the best closing groups in football, or you can pessimistically reason that if three of those games had gone the other way, the Packers would have been 10-6 and playing host to the Vikings in the first round of the playoffs instead of getting a bye as the NFC's second seed.

... people are overthinking: Drafting AJ Dillon in Round 2. I won't knock them for this pick. Yes, Aaron Jones set the world (or, at least, the fantasy world) on fire last year with 19 total touchdowns. Most of Jones' production came in the four games that receiver Davante Adams missed. Which is great. But you are starting to see that LaFleur's offensive vision includes a Derrick Henry-like back, and the 6-foot, 247-pound Dillon certainly fits the bill as the kind of player who can be a handful for teams later in the season. I'm sure LaFleur sees him as plodder who will run over fools in the snow tundra of Lambeau Field at the end of the year on the way to the playoffs. 

ANOTHER thing people are overlooking: The Packers have gone three consecutive seasons without ranking in the top 10 in scoring offense for the first time since 1990-92. Green Bay put up 23.5 points per game in 2019 (15th in the NFL). That's the lowest mark by a 13-win team since the 2008 Titans averaged 23.4. The Packers were just ahead of the Buffalo Bills in scoring among playoff teams last year. 

The Bills. With Josh Allen. 

Rodgers' production has declined since he won the MVP award since 2014. His passer rating from 2008 to 2014 was 106.6. It has been 97.5 since that time. And it again leads me to wonder why the team didn't draft more offensive firepower this season.

For the 2020 season to be a success, the Packers MUST ...

  • Keep Jordan Love off the field. Unless he's running out there because they're blowing teams out. Or they've wrapped up a playoff seed and want to give him some experience. Because if the Packers start to treat Rodgers the way the Giants treated Eli Manning last year with Daniel Jones, that's going to be a problem. 
  • Beat the 49ers.
  • Get to the Super Bowl. This should be the goal every year when you have a Hall of Fame quarterback.

In closing

You have to respect the Packers organization. They have been consistently relevant since the 1990s, which you can't say for a lot of people, outside of the Backstreet Boys. But here's my thing. Gutekunst has been with this franchise forever, even if he only became GM in 2018. And the organization always seems to follow a similar path every year. Every move they make seems to set them up to be good for years to come. That's why they drafted Aaron Rodgers when they had Brett Favre. It's why they drafted Love while they still had Rodgers. And while it's great for fans to always have a good, competitive team to root for, sometimes you just want to see them burn the future to the ground and go for a championship.

Imagine the Chicago Bulls drafting every Harold Miner and Jonathan Bender to try to find the next Jordan instead of surrounding MJ with good players who could help him actually bring home titles. The Packers sure win a lot. But when your two Hall of Fame quarterbacks (Favre and Rodgers) have as many combined Super Bowls as Eli Manning, you have to at least be a little disappointed, right? Trust me, I say this as a Bears fan who laments that the 1980s defense won only one Super Bowl. It's not just me -- Brandon Marshall pointed this out, too. At some point, you'd love to see the Packers just go for it. I mean, not me personally, but Packers fans.

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