Every party has its pooper. I submit to you that the Packers are trending downward. This shouldn’t be happening, but instead of the rookie head coach picking up steam, maximizing his players’ talents, and learning from his mistakes, LaFleur’s coaching has become both inconsistent and non-innovative.
Let’s Take Turns
We’ve seen this coming, but on Sunday Coach Matt LaFleur fully implemented his equal opportunity employment philosophy: my running backs are co-equal, so I’ll just switch back and forth on each offensive possession. So, in LaFleur’s mind, Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones are indistinguishable. Interchangeable. Equivalent. Either or.
Let me ask this: when contract time comes up, in a year, on our tandem of running backs, who thinks Jamaal and Aaron will receive commensurate deals?
Here’s how LaFleur’s take-turns scheme unfolded on Sunday.
On Drive 1, Aaron got one carry for nine yards, Hampered by a false start penalty, the Pack quickly went three and out.
Since he only got one play, the coach apparently allowed Jones to stay on the field for Drive 2, which was a beauty: seven plays, 75 yards, 3:43 time consumed, and capped off with a 5-yard TD run by Jones, who had three carries for 10 yards. The key plays were passes to Lazard, Adams, and Kumerow for 19, 15, and 11 yards respectively.
Drive 3 came with a minute or so left in the first quarter – when LaFleur replaced Jones with Jamaal Williams. Due to an offensive pass interference by Lazard, however, it was another quick three and out.
With good starting field position, and Jones getting his next turn on the team’s fourth offensive drive, the Pack marched 52 yards in five plays, and capped it off with another Jones touchdown burst. Jones contributed but six yards in three carries on this one.
With 5:07 remaining in the half, it was Jamaal’s turn. The ensuing 13-play drive featured a little bit of everything: a Jimmy Graham TD pass reversed by the officials, seven rushes for 14 yards by Williams, and also a false start by him on a first down and two to go with 19 seconds left. Instead of an 11-point lead, the Packers were up at the half by only a 14-10 margin.
The third quarter began with Jones on the field for Drive 5, a 5-play dandy resulting in a 13-yard TD run up the middle – Aaron’s third score of the day. His sole catch of the day, for 16 yards, was nullified by a holding penalty.
Following Tramon’ Williams’ end zone interception, Drive 6 commenced on the 19-yard line. Williams had the honors, leading 11 plays later to a 51-yard field goal by Crosby. In some of Williams’ best work as a Packer, Jamaal reeled off consecutive runs of 15, 10, and 16 yards. The score was now 24 to 10.
The Panthers responded with a 10-play TD drive of their own, making it a seven-point game with 12 minutes to go. Drive 7 started off with a bang, nine- and 13-yard rambles by Jones, but then three pass attempts for four yards resulted in a punt.
Carolina punted the ball back after five plays, leading to the Pack’s seventh and final offensive possession. With Jones getting but five yards on two carries, the Packers punted the ball back. Second-year quarterback Kyle Allen then shocked the crowd with an 18-play drive to the Packers’ 2-yard line – consuming only 2:25 on the clock. As time expired, the final plunge by Christian McCaffrey ended inches short of the goal line.
How cockamamie is LaFleur’s platooning strategy? Let’s go back to the end of the first half. On October 31 – following the victory over the Chiefs courtesy of Aaron Jones – I published my own succinct philosophy about the team’s use of running backs:
“Yes, [Aaron Jones is] still being under-worked in my opinion. Whenever this team is near the opponent’s goal line Jones needs to be on the field. And whenever the Pack reaches the red zone. And whenever the team gets to third down. These should be no-brainers.”
It’s apparent to me that Jones, tied with McCaffrey as the league’s most prolific touchdown producer, should have been the running back at least when the Packers reached the red zone, and for sure as they neared the goal line. I can’t guarantee you that would have produced a touchdown, but it’s likely: the percentages clearly favor such a result. Good head coaches should be basing their personnel decisions on something other than flipping a coin to see whose turn it is to be put in the backfield.
On rare occasions, I’ve witnessed such platooning before, but it certainly has never caught on. Is this LaFleur’s idea of creative innovation?
No, I don’t think I know more about the game, or these players, than does the head coach. I’m not asking him to heed my advice, or even to follow what is the clear consensus of Packer Nation. I’m just asking him to listen to his own statements. We’ve been down this road too many times already in LaFleur’s 10-game head-coaching career.
LaFleur, from all observations, didn’t think Jones was anything special through the first four games of the season. His Game 2 production in the important Vikings win (23 runs for 116 yards, 4 catches for 34) must not have impressed the coach, as Jones in the next two games only got the ball 10 times against Denver and 13 times in the loss to the Eagles.
Next up was Dallas, in Game 5. Jones led the team to a road victory with 19 runs for 107 yards, and 7 catches for 75 more. So what happens in the next two games? Aaron gets 11 and 12 carries, for 47 and 50 yards.
Game 8 had to be the awakener for Coach LaFleur, right? Against the Chiefs, Aaron goes for 67 yards in 13 carries, and he also catches 7 balls for 159 yards – this was the first time in two-and-a-half years that Aaron’s receiving ability has truly been recognized and utilized. What does LaFleur do with this new-found receiving prowess? In the two games since, Aaron has one catch, for a loss of a yard. The inconsistency of LaFleur’s game planning and play calling has become mind-boggling.
You’ll probably also remember that it was Jones who ran out the clock against the Chiefs, with five consecutive runs accounting for two game-sealing first downs. This was also the “Let’s give it to Jonesy” moment, when LaFleur gambled by passing on third down. The recipient of that game-saving pass was once again Aaron Jones.
I’m left to ponder whether LaFleur has severe memory loss, whether he just doesn’t have the smarts to process a plethora of information and data, or what else is going on that causes him to slight one of the league’s premier running backs and game-changers. True to his egalitarian feelings, our play caller parceled out 13 carries each to Jones and Williams against the Panthers.
Speaking of top RBs, here’s how the league’s top four rushers (in order) fared in their most recent outings: Dalvin Cook, 26 carries, 97 yards (and 7 catches for 86 more); Christian McCaffrey, 20 carries, 108 (and 6 catches for 33); Nick Chubb, 20 for 116; and, Derrick Henry, 23 for 188. The average carries for the foursome: 22.25.
Funny, but I don’t yet see the Minnesota, Carolina, Cleveland, or Tennessee coaches adopting LaFleur’s brilliant platooning strategy. The Vikings’ Dalvin Cook has already carried the ball 68 more times than Aaron.
We Need Action, Not Talk
After the Vikings and the Cowboys games, Matt LaFleur effusively praised Aaron Jones. After the Chiefs’ game, LaFleur actually got apologetic over his light usage of Jones. But in the aftermaths of all three of these great wins, LaFleur has made no visible effort to take proper advantage of Aaron’s skills.
After the Carolina win, both Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams indicated that Aaron Jones should be in the conversation for league MVP. But how can that occur, when Aaron has been handed the ball 13 or fewer times in eight of the team’s 10 games to date?
Even a fuddy-duddy aging coach like Mike Zimmer gets it. In their great win against the Cowboys, not only did he and his coaches have Dalvin Cook handle the ball 26 times, but Cook also snared seven passes for an additional 86 yards. Cook, who has already caught more passes than he did all of last year, is being fully utilized. If the Packers don’t fight fire with fire, Cook and the Vikings are going to crush Green Bay on December 23.
I’m tapped out from all our head coach’s empty platitudes. I’ve decided to no longer pay attention to what LaFleur has to say to the press. Sorry, but I don’t find Matt LaFleur credible at this point.
Coach, instead of repeatedly telling us how great Aaron Jones is, how about showing us? You can do this by calling his number, say, 20 times per game, not 13 or so. You can make sure he’s on the field in critical offensive situations. And you can start targeting your tandem of Jones and Williams with eight to 10 passes per contest, not the one target and zero catches we witnessed on Sunday.
Or, you can continue to mimic Mike McCarthy – and see what that does for your career.
The Packers had everything going for them on Sunday: home field, favorable weather, great incentive to bounce back from the Chargers fiasco, about to enter the bye week, facing an undrafted second-year quarterback with just a few NFL starts, and with the Packers’ roster experiencing extraordinarily good health. This game shouldn’t have come down to seconds and inches.