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Packers embracing expectations after bounce-back 2019

Pairing of Matt LaFleur and Brian Gutekunst has paid immediate dividends in Green Bay

Head Coach Matt LaFleur
Head Coach Matt LaFleur

INDIANAPOLIS – One year ago, Brian Gutekunst and Matt LaFleur came to the NFL Scouting Combine with two first-round draft picks, cap room and a whole lot of questions coming off a 6-9-1 season that led to an organizational overhaul.

Four marquee free agents and two All-Rookie selections later, the Packers returned to the Indiana Convention Center this week on much more solid ground following a 13-3 campaign that ended the team's two-year playoff drought.

But for all Green Bay accomplished in LaFleur's first season as head coach, the Packers understand how expectations have shifted in the wake of their bounce-back campaign.

"Our guys have to know that we're going to be one of the hunted this year," LaFleur said. "We're going to have to attack it with the right mindset."

LaFleur isn't concerned about the natural noise that's bound to increase in volume after an historic 2019 season. Instead, LaFleur and Gutekunst are concentrated on building another championship contender in the weeks and months ahead.

That process starts with the communication between them. In 2019, the Packers' second-year GM and first-year head coach manned the controls of the biggest one-year turnaround in franchise history.

Unlike 2019, however, Green Bay won't have the same luxury of high draft picks and ample cap room. The margin for error may be narrower, but Gutekunst has a full year of valuable data to lean on in regards to the direction of the team under LaFleur and what's needed for the Packers to take the next step.

"With Matt and his staff, kind of getting to learn their process and getting to learn our process, it's been good," Gutekunst said. "He communicates exceptionally well. I really enjoy talking ball and trying to help put the vision of this team together."

Listening and leadership proved to be among LaFleur's biggest strengths in his first year as Packers head coach. He kept an open-door policy all season long and championed veteran players speaking out on team matters and issues.

Za'Darius and Preston Smith not only became impact performers on the field but also emotional leaders in the locker room. The expression of those various personalities contributed to quarterback Aaron Rodgers praising LaFleur after this season in saying "football became fun again" for him in 2019.

The train cannot stop there, though. The Packers came up one win short of the Super Bowl, falling to San Francisco 37-20 in last month's NFC Championship Game.

LaFleur, whose younger brother Mike is an assistant with the 49ers, debated whether to attend Super Bowl LIV after experiencing and witnessing disappointments there as a Falcons assistant coach in 2016 and a friend of L.A. Rams coach Sean McVay two years later.

He had vowed not to go back without his own team in the game, but he eventually went to Miami to support his brother at the urging of his wife, BreAnne, and Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy.

"There is nothing like being in that game," LaFleur said. "That's always what you're striving for, that's what you're working for each day. I know I'll never be satisfied until we're holding that Lombardi Trophy."

One thing LaFleur has enjoyed this offseason is getting a chance to sit back and reassess things. After climbing the coaching tree from Atlanta to Los Angeles, then Tennessee and finally Green Bay, the past month has afforded LaFleur a chance to review his schemes and begin making adjustments to his operation.

He already has earmarked shortening verbiage to make the offense more easily adaptable for young players. LaFleur is also eager to continue his work with Rodgers, three-time Pro Bowl receiver Davante Adams and budding playmaker Aaron Jones.

LaFleur won't know exactly what the 2020 Packers roster will look like for at least another two months but he's excited for the possibilities.

"A year ago, it's just like scramble mode," LaFleur said. "You're trying to get everybody on the same page and implement your offense, defense and special-teams systems.

"Now, the foundation's been laid, the systems are in place. It's how do we refine those in order to get the most out of our players. And also, anytime you get to add to your roster, that's an exciting time."

For now, the spotlight shines brightest on Gutekunst and his personnel department. The Packers have to make determinations on roughly 20 free agents over the next three weeks and hold 10 picks in April's NFL Draft.

The Packers routinely mention how 2019's success doesn't guarantee anything in 2020, but Gutekunst and LaFleur remain together and focused on securing a fifth Lombardi Trophy for both the organization and community.

"Obviously, the longer we're around Matt and really getting to know what he wants to do offensively and defensively, we can adapt a little bit, too," Gutekunst said. "I'm excited just for Year 1 to Year 2 with our current players to see how they can expand on that, and then whatever additions we make hopefully will fit a little more with what they prefer to do."