During the past decade, teams that have lost the NFC Championship one year have typically crashed and burned the following season.
Seven of the last 10 NFC teams to lose the conference title game failed to qualify for the playoffs the next year. The 2019 New Orleans Saints reached the postseason and lost in the Wild Card round, while the 2015 Green Bay Packers fell in the divisional playoffs.
Only the 2012 San Francisco 49ers matched — or exceeded — what they accomplished the previous year. After the 2011 49ers lost to the New York Giants in the NFC title game, they reached the Super Bowl in 2012, then fell to the Baltimore Ravens.
As Green Bay gets ready for the 2020 campaign, it hopes to buck this recent trend.
The Packers reached the NFC Championship Game last year but were hammered by San Francisco, 37-20. Green Bay did little to improve its roster this offseason, so it must find a way to improve internally to avoid the fate of recent conference title game losers.
“We know that the expectations are going to be great for this upcoming season and we’ll embrace that,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said.
With training camp less than two weeks away, here are five burning questions facing the 2020 Packers.
1. How will Aaron Rodgers respond?
The Packers selected Jordan Love in the first round of April’s draft to be their quarterback of the future. So for the first time since Rodgers became the starter in 2008, his likely replacement is on the roster and looking over his shoulder.
Rodgers hasn’t played near his MVP-level of 2011 and 2014 in recent years, which is a major reason the Packers selected Love.
Rodgers’ passer rating a year ago was 95.4, his third-lowest since becoming a starter. His completion percentage (62.0%) and yards per attempt (7.0) were also the second-lowest at that time.
In the second half of the 2019 campaign, Rodgers had a passer rating of just 84.2. And in the last three regular-season games, he completed an un-Rodgers like 53.9% of his passes.
Rodgers had an impressive touchdown-to-interception ratio of 26-to-4. But for the fourth time in four trips to the NFC Championship Game, Rodgers delivered a forgettable performance.
Now, the question becomes will Love’s arrival fuel Rodgers? Or is the future Hall of Fame quarterback simply incapable of playing to his past level?
If it’s the latter, Rodgers’ departure date is likely approaching fast.
“My sincere desire to start and finish with the same organization, just as it has with many other players over the years, may not be a reality at this point,” Rodgers said in May.
2. How hot is Mike Pettine’s seat?
On the morning of Jan. 22, Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur was asked about defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s future.
“We’re still working through everything right now,” LaFleur said. “Just trying to evaluate everything.”
Within a few hours, LaFleur had apparently finished his evaluations and word broke that Pettine would be retained.
But how safe is Pettine — especially if Green Bay struggles out of the gate?
Green Bay ranked 23rd in rushing defense (120.1) and 24th in yards allowed per carrying (4.7) last year. Pettine’s job status then became a hot-button topic after San Francisco throttled the Packers, 37-20, in the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers piled up 285 rushing yards that night, and journeyman running back Raheem Mostert ran for 220 yards and four touchdowns.
It took Pettine until the fourth quarter to finally adjust and make Mostert his No. 1 priority. By then, the game was over.
Pettine was hired by former Packers head coach Mike McCarthy and had no prior relationship with current coach LaFleur.
LaFleur hired longtime NFL assistant Jerry Gray this offseason to coach Green Bay’s defensive backs. Gray was Minnesota’s defensive backs coach from 2014-’19 but has been a defensive coordinator with both Buffalo (2001-’05) and Tennessee (2011-’13).
If Green Bay’s defense struggled early in 2020 and LaFleur decide to make a change, he’ll have an experienced coordinator in-house.
“I think our players are going to be really receptive to him,” LaFleur said of Gray. “I think he’s going to bring a lot of value to not only our defensive staff but our whole staff maybe and to our team.”
3. Can the Packers become a run-first operation?
Green Bay’s trio of running backs — Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams and rookie A.J. Dillon — has the potential to be one of the best trifectas in the league.
Jones led Green Bay with a career-high 1,084 rushing yards last season. Jones also tied for the NFL lead in rushing touchdowns (16) and total touchdowns (19).
Williams is the only player in franchise history to register 400-plus rushing yards and 200-plus receiving yards in each of his first three NFL seasons. And Green Bay used a second-round draft pick on Dillon, who set school records with 4,382 yards and 38 touchdowns in three seasons at Boston College.
The Packers ran the ball just 41.8% of the time last year, but LaFleur wants to push that number closer to 50.0% in 2020. With Aaron Rodgers around, though, can the Packers truly become a run-first team?
“This league, it’s a physical league, you need to have talented runners, and we definitely have some depth at that position,” LaFleur said. “So we’ve got some good competition at that position, and I’m looking forward to seeing how those guys respond to that.
4. Who’s No. 2?
Many scouts believed the 2020 NFL Draft had one of the deepest and most talented groups of wide receivers in league history.
A record of 15 wide receivers was picked in the first two rounds. And a record 36 wideouts were selected overall.
In Green Bay? It was crickets.
The Packers have been looking for a solid partner for Pro Bowl wideout Davante Adams for the last two years. But Green Bay ignored the wide receiver position in the draft.
“What I will say is, again, we really like the group of receivers we have,” Green Bay general manager Brian Gutekunst said. “We think there are some guys really coming into their own. If the right players would have been there when we picked, if we had the opportunities we liked, we certainly would have considered it. It just didn’t happen.”
That means Allen Lazard, who caught 35 passes for 477 yards and three touchdowns last year is the frontrunner to start the opposite of Adams. Free-agent acquisition Devin Funchess, who played just one game last season before suffering a broken collarbone, will also have a chance to win the No. 2 job.
“We’ve got a lot of confidence in our receiving corps,” LaFleur said. “I think we have the talent and we have depth at that position.”
5. Who will emerge?
Green Bay was quiet in free agency. Then the Packers used their first-round draft choice on a quarterback that’s unlikely to play before 2022.
So, if Green Bay is going to remain near the top of the NFC, it needs a handful of young players to become difference makers.
The best bets seem to be outside linebacker Rashan Gary, safety Darnell Savage and tight end Jace Sternberger — all members of Green Bay’s 2019 draft class.
Gary, who was taken with the 12th overall pick, was largely invisible as a rookie. Gary had just two sacks, three quarterback hits, and by the time the NFC Championship Game arrived, he was buried so deep that he played just three snaps.
“There is a learning curve for a lot of young players,” LaFleur said of Gary. “And we’ve got to figure out ways to implement him more in our scheme.”
Savage, the 21st overall pick in 2019, had a solid rookie year.
Opposing quarterbacks had a passer rating of just 71.1 when targeting Savage. He also had two interceptions, two forced fumbles, and five pass breakups.
Now, the Packers need Savage to move from good to great.
Sternberger, a third-round pick, spent eight weeks on the injured reserve list and didn’t have a catch during the regular season. Sternberger had three receptions and a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game, though, and is the frontrunner to take over for Jimmy Graham.
“He has an element of speed that’s very impressive,” Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said of Sternberger. He’s got fearlessness, he’s very aggressive.
“He has a lot of intangibles, and I just think being able to be consistent, both being available and understanding what he needs to accomplish on the field is going to be huge. If he gets that, he’ll be a guy that potentially can help us.”