GREEN BAY, Wis.-- It appears that Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams have been paying attention. They must have noticed what their new coach, Matt LaFleur, has said about the running game, and how their new offensive leaders, LaFleur and coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, have called plays with their previous teams.
The way the Green Bay Packers’ top returning running backs looked when they came back for the start of the offseason program confirmed it.
And quarterback Aaron Rodgers noticed it immediately.
Rodgers ID’d the duo as among the players who looked much improved in the physique department since he last saw his teammates more than three months ago.
“I’m excited about them,” Rodgers said. “I like to tease Aaron Jones from time to time. He’s the most athletic, fast guy with a little bit of a belly. He’s pretty lean this year. It’s fun being back with all the guys. I especially like those two guys.”
Neither Jones nor Williams has been available yet to talk about their offseasons, so everyone will have to take Rodgers’ word for it. But it would have been wise on the part of the two third-year running backs to come back ready to impress the new coaching staff.
In one of LaFleur’s first interviews after he was hired in January, he made it known how important the run game will be in his plan -- and his plan to restore Rodgers’ greatness.
"I think anytime you can take as much off the quarterback as possible that only helps them out in the long run," LaFleur said.
As Tennessee’s playcalling offensive coordinator last season, LaFleur fielded the NFL’s seventh-most prolific running game while utilizing a pair of backs: Derrick Henry (1,059 yards) and Dion Lewis (517).
While Jones led the NFL with a 5.47-yard average per rush, he missed the final two games because of a knee injury -- the third MCL sprain in his two NFL seasons. The Packers were anything but committed to the run last season, when they dropped back an NFL-high 71.5 percent of their offensive snaps.
“Well, I know we want to run the ball,” Rodgers said this week. “That’s important. Everything comes off of a positive run game. They ran the ball really well last year with their guys. But the action comes off of that, the boot comes off of that, so we’re going to have to run the ball. And we have those two guys and some guys behind them who can really play as well.”
While the Titans’ offense, which ranked 25th in the NFL overall last season, might not be the model, LaFleur’s time with Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan is. Both coaches find ways to set up the pass with the run game.
And then there’s Hackett’s influence. In 2018, the Jaguars led the league in rushing yards per game with him as the playcaller.
It’s why some thought that even with Jones (728 yards rushing with eight touchdowns last season) and Williams (464 yards, three TDs) returning from last season that the Packers might explore the free-agent running back market -- specifically former Falcons back Tevin Coleman, who was in Atlanta while LaFleur was the quarterbacks coach there in 2015-16. But Shanahan plucked Coleman off the market with a two-year, $8.5 million contract to come to the 49ers.
Whichever back carries the ball, it’s clear that LaFleur likes to have options similar to what he did in Tennessee with Henry and Lewis, and like what Atlanta had with Coleman and Devonta Freeman.
“I think that’s something that happens on a weekly basis in terms of in-game adjustments in terms of who’s got the hot hand, who’s running well,” LaFleur said earlier this offseason. “But both those guys brought a little something different to the table. At the end of the day, it’s so matchup-based. I can remember going into a game versus Denver where we were going to try to get Tevin in more of a receiver role and we hit him on a couple -- I think he had over 100 yards receiving in that 2016 Denver game. So certainly there’s some games where you go in with the mindset knowing that one of the guys is going to be featured, if you will, a little bit more than the other guy.”