GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers’ visit to Super Bowl radio row Thursday morning in suburban Minneapolis wound up being much more than a promotional tour for a hotel company.
The Green Bay Packers quarterback came with strong opinions: About losing his quarterbacks coach, Alex Van Pelt, this offseason, and about the team needing its defense to improve significantly.
Appearing on ESPN Radio’s “Golic and Wingo” with Mike Golic and Trey Wingo in advance of Sunday’s Super Bowl LII between the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots, Rodgers made it clear he is not pleased that Van Pelt is no longer his quarterbacks coach. Van Pelt parted ways with the Packers after the season and is now the Cincinnati Bengals’ quarterbacks coach.
After Rodgers mentioned earlier in the interview some of the changes this offseason had been “a little strange,” Wingo asked Rodgers what he meant.
“My quarterback coach didn’t get retained,” Rodgers said of Van Pelt. “I thought that was an interesting change — really without consulting me. There’s a close connection between quarterback and quarterback coach. And that was an … interesting decision.”
Said Golic in a subsequent interview with ESPN Wisconsin: “You could tell (Rodgers) is more than a little P.O.’d about it.”
On Jan. 4, Packers coach Mike McCarthy said parting ways with Van Pelt was the result of Van Pelt “pursuing other opportunities, a personal contractual decision that him and I both mutually agreed on. So he will not be back as our quarterback coach.”
Later in that news conference, McCarthy added, “Frankly, this decision was made last year. I don’t want to speak on Alex’s, his thoughts, but this is a moment he’s prepared himself for.”
McCarthy brought Joe Philbin, the team’s offensive coordinator from 2007 through 2011, back last month while also restructuring the coaching staff, giving offensive line coach James Campen the title of “offensive run-game coordinator” and new assistant Jim Hostler the job of “offensive pass-game coordinator.”
Van Pelt, who was a player at the University of Pittsburgh when McCarthy was an assistant there, joined the Packers as running backs coach in 2012. He also served as both the quarterbacks coach and the wide receivers coach in 2015, so it’s possible Rodgers felt Van Pelt could have been chosen as the pass-game coordinator had McCarthy decided to keep him.
McCarthy has since hired Frank Cignetti Jr., who most recently worked for McAdoo as the Giants’ quarterbacks coach and also worked in New Orleans with McCarthy in 2000 and 2001, to replace Van Pelt.
During that Jan. 4 news conference, which came before the team hired Brian Gutekunst as its new general manager, McCarthy also was asked whether Rodgers had any input in the GM search.
“I don’t think this is really fair to Aaron. Players play and coaches coach,” McCarthy said. “I clearly understand where Aaron is in his career, the magnitude of what he brings to our organization. But it would be really ignorant to try to think, to put any of these changes on him. That’s not right, it’s not accurate. He wants what everybody wants here. He wants to do everything he can to win.”
Arguably the Packers’ most significant coaching change this offseason was on defense, where coordinator Dom Capers was fired after nine seasons. McCarthy hired ex-Cleveland Browns coach Mike Pettine to run the defense, which has not finished in the NFL’s top 10 in yards allowed or points allowed since 2010, when the Packers won Super Bowl XLV.
Asked how far the Packers are from being a Super Bowl team again, Rodgers pointed out that three of the teams to reach the conference championship round — the Eagles, Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars — had defenses that ranked near the top of the league. The Vikings finished the regular season No. 1, the Jaguars No. 2 and the Eagles No. 4.
“I’d say we’re not too far off. If you look at the final four teams that were in it, three of the four have dominating defenses, and the other one is the Patriots, which are often the most well-coached team in the NFL,” Rodgers said. “You’re looking at what Jacksonville did with their defense; what obviously Minnesota, what they do with their defense, and Philly was phenomenal. We need to get back to playing championship defense.”
The Packers finished the 2017 season 26th in scoring defense (24.0) and 22nd in yards allowed (348.9). They were 17th against the run (112.1), 23rd against the pass (236.8), 28th in third-down defense (allowing a 42.8 percent conversion rate) and 31st in red-zone defense (allowing a 65.2 percent touchdown rate).
“The defense needs to be better than the offense. I mean, that has to happen,” McCarthy said in that press briefing on Jan. 4 — before Gutekunst was hired as GM and before McCarthy tabbed Pettine to replace Capers. “So you’ve got four ways to do it. You get player acquisition, player instruction, obviously player finance – who you pay to build your roster — and you get player performance. … We can always get better, and that’s really where I’m at with it. So the defense, we need to be better.”