GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — The 2019 season for the Green Bay Packers marked the dawn of a new era.
Matt LaFleur took over and won more games than any first-year coach in franchise history.
The final result again fell short of the Packers’ goal of winning it all, but this time it had a different feeling, according to Aaron Rodgers.
The two-time MVP was on the losing end of the NFC championship game in his third consecutive appearance.
There was the overtime loss at Seattle in the title game in the 2014 season, the 23-point rout at Atlanta in the conference championship in the 2016 season and Sunday’s 37-20 defeat to the Super Bowl-bound 49ers.
But the 36-year-old Rodgers said the latest loss isn’t like the others.
“It’s a lot different feel,” he said Sunday night. “I remember in those moments the emotion compared to this. I feel really confident in (general manager) Brian (Gutekunst) and the job that he’s done and his staff. They did go all-in — as much as they could — this year and the pieces that they brought in. I’m confident that he’s going to continue to add to this squad. So, that part is very exciting. It is a lot different feel than three years ago.”
Gutekunst spent big on the defense in free agency last March. The second-year general manager acquired pass rushers Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith and veteran safety Adrian Amos. The Packers also used both of their 2019 first-round picks on defenders (outside linebacker Rashan Gary at No. 12 and safety Darnell Savage at No. 21).
Both Smiths invigorated the defense and revitalized themselves, as each had a career high in sacks (Za’Darius, 13 1/2; Preston, 12)
But after being a large reason why Green Bay was 13-3 this season, swept its division and finished as the No. 2 seed in the NFC, that same re-tooled unit was largely to blame for Sunday’s loss because of its inability to stop the run.
The Packers’ leaky run defense, which was in the bottom third of the league for most of the season, allowed 220 yards and four touchdowns to Raheem Mostert, a running back who had been cut seven times in his career.
LaFleur brought with him an entirely new offense that showed flashes of brilliance but struggled to find consistency all season. However, it did uncover a gem in Aaron Jones, who had the most productive season of his young career.
The third-year running back had career highs in carries (236), rushing yards (1,084) and total touchdowns (19). Jones also had 49 catches, second on the team behind only Davante Adams’ 83, and was Green Bay’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Eddie Lacy in 2014.
But outside of Jones and Adams, there wasn’t much offensive production, which begs the question: After reshaping the defense last offseason, will Gutekunst have to spend this offseason finding a dynamic playmaker or two to add to LaFleur’s offense?
“The scheme is there. The scheme and what Matt and his staff put together every week was fantastic,” Rodgers said. “The execution and the moving pieces will continue to improve. Like I said, the window’s open and I think we’re going to be on the right side of one of these real soon.”
Green Bay has the 30th pick in this year’s draft.
PLENTY OF QUESTIONS
The Packers have a number of unrestricted free agents they will have to make difficult decisions regarding, including defensive back Tramon Williams and veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga, who has protected Rodgers’ right side since 2010.
“This is my last year and we’ll see what happens,” Bulaga said. “I don’t have any predictions or anything like that. I don’t know what’s going to happen. So, we’ll see.”
Balaga, 30, and Williams, 36, are two of only four players remaining from Green Bay’s Super Bowl-winning team in the 2010 season.
Other notable unrestricted free agents include outside linebacker Kyler Fackrell (10 1/2 sacks in 2018), inside linebacker Blake Martinez (team-high 155 tackles in 2019, second in the NFL behind Bobby Wagner’s 159), wide receiver Geronimo Allison, 35-year-old tight end Marcedes Lewis and 35-year-old kicker Mason Crosby.
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