NFL

LaFleur's costly caution leaves Packers & Rodgers to lament another wasted year of Super Bowl window

By Sports Desk January 25, 2021

Fortune favours the bold. It is a phrase has been used so often that it has become a worn-out cliche. But cliches are cliches because they consistently ring true, and that famous Latin proverb applied at Lambeau Field on Sunday as the Green Bay Packers and Aaron Rodgers suffered more playoff heartache.

Their forlorn efforts in last year's NFC Championship game rout at the hands of the San Francisco 49ers still fresh in their minds - defensive coordinator Mike Pettine showed the game to his group last week in an attempt at motivation - the Packers reached the same stage this season seemingly well placed to put those memories behind them and reach Super Bowl LV.

The top seed in the NFC, the Packers matched up significantly better with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers than they did the Niners last year and had the potentially crucial advantage of playing in freezing conditions at Lambeau Field in front of 8,500 fans.

And yet, with the chance to force a compelling back-and-forth encounter into overtime, the Packers - specifically their head coach Matt LaFleur - shied away from the opportunity, taking a conservative approach that ultimately proved their undoing.

LaFleur's costly caution

Green Bay faced a fourth and goal from the Tampa Bay eight-yard line trailing 31-23 with a little over two minutes left in the fourth quarter.

If LaFleur had needed evidence of how to approach this situation, it came at the end of the first half when, rather than punting and settling for a 14-10 half-time lead, Bucs head coach Bruce Arians went for it on fourth down and, a play after converting to keep the drive alive, gave Tom Brady the green light to launch a 39-yard bomb to Scotty Miller that put Tampa Bay 21-10 to the good.

Rodgers and the Green Bay defense helped the Packers recover from a 28-10 third-quarter deficit and move into striking distance. However, when it came time to make a crucial decision, LaFleur ignored the old axiom and instead opted for caution, taking the ball out of the hands of his best player as he elected to kick a field goal and trust his defense to get the ball back.

It was a task that proved beyond them as a contentious pass interference penalty gave Tampa a game-sealing first down, leaving Rodgers to reflect on another year in which the Packers came up short.

Wondrous Rodgers

LaFleur's rejection of the aggressive approach that served Arians well at the end of the second quarter ensured that one of the best seasons of Rodgers' Hall of Fame career was wasted.

Rodgers is a near-lock to win the third MVP of his career after a season in which he took an offense of the Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay ilk to new heights.

He led the league in completion percentage 70.7, threw for 4,299 yards, a league-leading 48 touchdowns and just five interceptions.

His TD-INT ratio of 9.60 was the sixth-best in NFL history and second among quarterbacks to have played 16 games in a season, behind his 2018 mark of 12.50.

Tied for third in the NFL with 37 passing plays of 25 yards or more, few offenses were more explosive than that of the Packers in 2020, with Rodgers' adjusted net yards per attempt figure of 8.89 tied for sixth of all-time.

That is the same number Patrick Mahomes posted in his 2018 MVP season and, just like the Kansas City Chiefs that year, the end result for the Packers was a devastating loss.

Unlike the Chiefs, the Packers now face the prospect of significant changes in the offseason that could impact their ability to continue to contend in the NFC.

A challenging offseason

In an offseason where the salary cap could shrink to $175million, the Packers may lose center Corey Linsley and running back Aaron Jones to free agency, while Davante Adams, who led the NFL in receiving touchdowns (18) and yards per game (98.1) in the regular season, is a candidate for a lucrative contract extension.

The Packers, therefore, face some tough decisions in the offseason and it is the lack of clarity over how the team will look in the immediate future that seemingly led Rodgers to describe his own future as "uncertain" in his post-game media conference. 

Rodgers may have been over-dramatic in the heat of the moment and another season with the Packers appears more likely than a move elsewhere or his retirement.

But the downcast attitude Rodgers presented after the game was indicative of a quarterback who knows that Super Bowl windows are, for most teams, ephemeral by their nature.

With his fourth-down call, LaFleur ensured another year of the Packers' window slipped through their fingers. If they now struggle to keep a formidable team together and Rodgers' career ends without a second Super Bowl ring, LaFleur's rejection of the bold will be remembered as a key reason why.

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