GREEN BAY — Aaron Rodgers can feel the difference this season.
Yes, the Green Bay Packers quarterback will admit, you feel a lot better and like your co-workers a lot more when you’re winning, as his team has been doing — including Sunday’s 34-24 victory over the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, a triumph that improved the NFC North-leading Packers to 4-1. And sure, the fact that last year’s team didn’t win very often — only six times, including just once away from Lambeau Field — probably had something to do with the mood around the building.
And, let’s not forget, general manager Brian Gutekunst’s significant investments on the defensive side of the ball — primarily outside linebackers Preston and Za’Darius Smith, who have had a major impact, too.
Nevertheless, Rodgers believes this year’s team has something some past teams haven’t — something that he feels first-year head coach Matt LaFleur has helped create.
And Rodgers pointed to Sunday’s victory as evidence. The Packers were without their No. 1 offensive threat (wide receiver Davante Adams), got a career game from running back Aaron Jones (182 total yards and four touchdowns on 26 touches), had Rodgers finish with zero touchdown passes and an 85.2 passer rating (but he considered “my best game of the season”) and saw the defense allow 563 total yards (but force three turnovers and record three sacks).
“I just think we’re a more-connected team this year,” Rodgers said. “We’re enjoying each other more. We like each other a little more. We hang out with each other. The locker room is a raucous environment, whether it’s a Monday or whether it’s right after a big win. I just think guys really play for each other more and we have that chemistry because of the leadership that we have that maybe we’ve been lacking the last couple years.
“I think when you create an environment that allows the freedom of expression or you have guys like ‘Z,’ who just bring it everywhere they go. ‘Z’ and Preston are like actual brothers. They love each other and hang out and love doing interviews together. It’s just a different feel.
“It helps those guys are playing well, too. ... (But) I like the vibe on the team. I think we’re having a lot of fun.”
Asked what he though precipitated the change in atmosphere, Rodgers replied, “I think it’s the whole program and adding the personnel that we did. It’s personalities, that’s the biggest thing. And the personalities that we have, I think, are encouraging others to grow and be confident in themselves. You’ve seen the performances. (And) some of the guys who played through injury … I think that’s very admirable of those guys. That’s what playing for your teammates is all about.”
Rodgers, in his 15th season in the NFL and 12th as the Packers’ starter, has long spoken of “connectedness.” And he’s played on other teams that had a similar vibe — including 2014, when the Packers added talent on defense (pass rusher Julius Peppers as a free agent, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as a first-round pick), outside linebacker Clay Matthews took one for the team and played inside linebacker for the good of the defense, and when Rodgers played through a torn calf muscle down the stretch. That team reached the NFC Championship Game before losing to the Seattle Seahawks in overtime.
Whether this team has enough talent and stays healthy enough to make a similar run is hard to predict. But LaFleur, who was an assistant on the 2016 Atlanta Falcons team that reached Super Bowl LI, said Monday that he “absolutely” believes those connections have an effect.
“Whether it’s in high school, college or in the NFL, generally speaking, I think the teams that were the closest, that were the most connected, that played for each other, would have the most success. I don’t think that’s by chance,” Lafleur said. “Obviously you’ve got to have really good players. We’re fortunate that we have a bunch of really good players. But I think the more that they continue to play for each other, I think that’s going to lead to great results and greater success.”
“Ultimately it’s about the guys. I think it boils down to getting the right type of guys in the building. Gutey and his staff have done a great job of assembling a roster of high-character people, and I think anytime you’re able to acquire, good high-character people, you have a lot better chance of that happening.”
Now, the challenge is to make sure it keeps happening. And for all the touchy-feely talk of connectedness, LaFleur said Monday that winning — and how the Packers have done it — has been just as remarkable.
“What’s cool is we’ve found different ways to win games,” LaFleur said. “You’d like to be 5-0 right now, but I think that we’ve done some really good things. Again, there’s still a lot of room for improvement there.”