The Patriots adapted a Chicago Bears’ defensive gameplan a few years ago to shock the LA Rams in the Super Bowl. The Rams’ highflying offense was shut down, scoring just three points against the Patriots’ six down front. Shanahan tree teams were quick to adapt. McVay used more misdirection and 12 personnel. Shanahan and Stefanski use more gap run schemes with a pulling linebacker. Green Bay’s coaches turned to college football to upgrade the Packers’ offensive scheme.
In 2020, the Packers ran the third most RPOs in the league (compare that to the Rams, 49ers, and Browns which were all in the bottom five) and merged the classic Shanahan offense with air raid concepts like mesh and dagger as well as the increasingly popular play “jello” where a wide receiver sprinting across the field in a jet motion takes the linebackers attention enough to sneak the running back downfield in a four vertical concept.
Have the Packers evolved past other Shanahan tree offenses? Let’s take a look at the origins of the Packers’ offense.
The four key movers in the Packers’ offensive scheme, Matt LaFleur, Nate Hackett, Luke Getsy, and Adam Stenavich all have some roots in college football.
Much has been made of Lafleur’s time with Kyle Shanahan and then Sean McVay perfecting that offense. Not as much as been made of his experience in college football. LaFleur spent a year with Brian Kelly at Notre Dame In 2014 and spent a few years with him in 2004 and 2005 as well at Central Michigan.
Kelly hasn’t quite lived up to his reputation as an offensive genius at Notre Dame, but the important part is that LaFleur has plenty of exposure to the college way of thinking. Many NFL coaches have spent their entire careers in the NFL. When they try to adapt college schemes, they may know what the play looks like, but they don’t necessarily understand how to think like a college spread offense coach.
Hackett’s has close to the exact same background as Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay. His dad was a hugely successful NFL head coach and Hackett used that connection to become Jon Gruden’s Offensive Quality Control coach at Tampa Bay in 2006-2007. The offensive quality control coach before him was Kyle Shanahan. After him was Sean McVay.
His path forked in a different direction when he chose to join Doug Marrone at Syracuse in 2010. Marrone had a history coaching O-Line for Sean Payton and tried to bring that offense to Syracuse with Hackett, first as pass game coordinator and then as offensive coordinator.
Turns out, the Saints offense doesn’t work at Syracuse where everyone else has better talent than you. In 2011, Syracuse had the 90th best offense in college football.
In 2012, Hackett and Marrone dumped the existing playbook. Cut out all of the bad plays, chose new one-word play calls for a no-huddle offense, and started combining plays into what we now call RPOs, back then they were packaged plays.
Syracuse set its all-time offensive records that year and was good enough to get Ryan Nassib drafted. Marrone and Hackett soon left for the NFL to coach the Bills and then Jaguars.
Those NFL offenses weren’t as good as Syracuse’s was, but it’s easy to understand why EJ Manuel and Blake Bortles’ lumbering long wind-up throwing motions didn’t lend themselves to an innovative, RPO heavy offense.
Getsy is the secret weapon here. While Hackett dabbled in packaged plays close to ten years ago, Getsy majored in them under Joe Moorhead. Getsy played QB from Akron in 2005-2006 for Moorhead, was a graduate assistant for him there for a few years, and then was his offensive coordinator at Mississippi State.
Moorhead (now the Oregon offensive coordinator) is widely recognized as an RPO guru. Moorhead developed the offense out of necessity at Fordham in the early 2010s and brought it to Penn State where at one point the team ran RPOs on 90% of run plays (with Saquon Barkley at running back).
Moorhead’s philosophy to slap a read on every run play, trust the QB to make decisions, and let the players make the offense can definitely be seen in the current version of the Packers’ offense.
Stenavich is sort of the odd-man out as far as the Packers’ 4-man coaching core goes. His college experience was at San Jose St. where he was offensive line coach for a run first pro-style offense coordinated by coach Al Borges (with Tyler Ervin as the starting running back).
The Borges offense is closer to the west-coast style system that Shanahan employs, and Stenavich likely leveraged that fact to get the assistant offensive line coach job for the 49ers when he left San Jose St. But Borges had also started dabbling in RPOs. His job immediately preceding San Jose St. was at Michigan where he molded together his classic west coast offense with the RPO heavy scheme Rich Rodriguez ran before him.
The key here is that unlike many NFL offensive line coaches (and certainly many that understand and know how to coach the Shanahan wide zone system), Stenavich has a background with college concepts.
What’s next for the Packers’ offense? My guess is that it will take another step forward in 2021. Robert Mays mentioned on the Athletic NFL podcast that a lot of coaches he’s talked to this year are watching the Packer’s tape from 2020 and thinking about how to incorporate it into their offense. You can bet that defensive coordinators are watching it too.
I don’t think continued success will come from visiting the same concepts over and over again (though that will happen as long as they work), but from continuing to evolve and mix in better players.
Last season going from a washed-up Jimmy Graham to Robert Tonyan transformed the team’s play action pass game. This year the team will replace Jamaal Williams and Dexter Williams touches with much more dynamic running backs, AJ Dillon and Kylin Hill. Tyler Ervin will be replaced with Randall Cobb (who might have even better chemistry with Aaron Rodgers than Davante Adams does) and Amari Rodgers (one of the better run after the catch receivers in the draft).
We’ve seen a powerful offense like this before. Rodgers won the MVP award in 2011 and 2014 with offenses that were ahead of their time and had a ton of talent. The problem was that offense went stagnant. McCarthy didn’t adapt enough. Don’t worry about that happening to LaFleur. In this week’s press conference, he talked about using the offseason to add new concepts and adapt existing concepts to what the defense was doing. McCarthy always talked about doing that too, but LaFleur’s staff has the right kind of innovative background to actually do it.
Mike Price is a lifelong Packers fan currently living in Utah. You can follow him on twitter at @themikeprice.