Green Bay Packers

How Green Bay Succeeded Without A WR1

Photo Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

While the biggest question for the Green Bay Packers this season was how well Jordan Love would do in his first year as a starter, the close second was how his group of young, unproven receivers would persevere.

The answer to both of those questions is a resounding “pretty frickin’ good.”

Love comfortably threw for over 4,000 yards in the regular season despite not having a single receiving option, even sniffing 1,000 yards. Green Bay’s highest-yardage receiver, rookie Jayden Reed, finished with 793 yards.

That’s an anomaly for the modern passing offense. Twenty-eight players in the league had over 1,000 receiving yards in 2023. And yet many of those players will be watching the Divisional round from home. Meanwhile, Green Bay’s ragtag bunch will forge ahead on the road to the Super Bowl. How did the Packers make not having a true WR1 work, and is it sustainable?

“WR1” is more of a fantasy football term, but it works for our purposes. Generally, teams have a go-to guy that they’ll look for. When all else fails, find a way to get the ball to this fella, and good things should happen. It’s what Aaron Rodgers had in Davante Adams and Jordy Nelson. By the way, “WR1,” as in the team’s top passing target, doesn’t have to be an actual wide receiver. Travis Kelce and Gronk were the de facto WR1s for their teams multiple times despite being tight ends.

Having an elite, do-it-all receiver is obviously good. But it has downsides if the game plan involves tunnel-visioning on that player.

We saw it for Green Bay in the 2021 Divisional Round. Rodgers was locked onto Adams, but the San Francisco 49ers did an excellent job limiting that connection. Rodgers didn’t have a good backup plan and kept forcing the ball to Adams.

Green Bay didn’t have the money to find a WR1 in free agency this season, and they passed over some top options in the first round of the draft, choosing to fill their roster in the middle rounds. Christian Watson was the de facto WR1 to start the season by virtue of being the highest draft pick and the most experienced person in the room, relatively speaking.

Watson can grow into that true WR1 role, but it didn’t work out that way this season thanks to early injuries and offensive struggles.

Instead of inheriting a proven WR1, Love had to grow with his weapons and spread the ball to whoever was open. Love couldn’t afford to play favorites as he adjusted to life as a starter.

Green Bay didn’t have a 100-yard receiver until New Year’s Eve. That was Bo Melton, a practice squad call-up making the most of his opportunity. Next week, it was Reed. It was Romeo Doubs in the Wild Card Round. Green Bay’s offense is designed to scheme players open, and Love takes the matchups he has. Defensive coordinators can’t plan on erasing the top target because there isn’t one. Doubling teaming Reed just means more targets for Dontayvion Wicks, for example. It’s worked well.

Could it work for everyone? No. This type of offense only works because of LaFleur’s system, the type of men drafted, and Gutekunst hitting on his picks early.

LaFleur’s system asks a lot of wide receivers and tight ends to do the dirty work in the blocking game. He employs war daddies willing to help others achieve glory.

You see that in players like Watson and Reed. They are probably the most gifted receivers in the room, but they had minimal involvement in the victory over the Dallas Cowboys. And yet, both players looked like they’d won Super Bowl MVP after the game. LaFleur lauded their passion for their teammates and willingness to do the dirty work.

Reed remarked to Aaron Jones during the game, “You the reason I go hard, bro. You somebody to look up to, bro. You somebody to play for, no cap. I want to go out there and block for you.” These players truly care for one another, and it takes a special sort of player and locker room culture to foster this mindset.

In a world where most big-name wide receivers can become divas, the Packers will prioritize character and humility. Every year, star players like Stefon Diggs publicly criticize his lack of targets or players like A.J. Brown who will purge their social media when they aren’t satisfied with the team.

But it’s easier to cultivate that culture when winning is the norm and when those players are actually good. LaFleur has had one losing season in his five years in Green Bay. He turned things around this year before it became a second losing season. If losing becomes the norm, that culture may crumble.

And while Green Bay made the playoffs with a young, cheap offense, it’s more of an anomaly than something that can be easily replicated. Brian Gutekunst took six wide receivers and two tight ends in the last two drafts. Four of those wide receivers and both tight ends look like legitimate NFL players. Add Melton, a savvy pro scouting pickup, and Malik Heath, a promising UDFA, and Gutekunst has a high hit rate the past two years. That’s a rate that’s hard to sustain.

Green Bay has a lovely setup right now, but Gutekunst will need to stock up on young talent again in a few years. Can he hit big again?

For now, Green Bay’s decentralized offense is a powerhouse. Love’s crew is punching above their weight class and making the kinds of plays you expect from established stars, not rookies. It’s a credit to Love’s growth, the work of the receivers, LaFleur’s scheme and culture, and the front office’s eye for talent that led to a perfect storm of quality.

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