Nickel: Young coach, elite QB a rare pairing —​​​​​​​ and additional challenge for Matt LaFleur

Lori Nickel
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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New Packers coach Matt LaFleur worked with a young Marcus Mariota in his one year as offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans, but in Green Bay he'll have to earn the trust and respect of 35-year-old Aaron Rodgers, one of the game's best quarterbacks.

What is the likelihood that a 39-year-old, first-year NFL head coach can lead a 35-year-old, two-time MVP, Super Bowl champion quarterback to the playoffs in their first year together?

That had to be something Green Bay Packers management considered when it hired Matt LaFleur to coach the team and Aaron Rodgers.

It’s not just that LaFleur is young — the average age of NFL head coaches is 50.1. It’s that he’s only four years older than one of the best quarterbacks of the last half century.

Such alliances — young coach, already-elite quarterback — are rare but not unprecedented. We have seen 30-something coaches lead top quarterbacks — it just takes a great deal of digging to find examples.

And they don’t come out of Green Bay.

LaFleur is the youngest Packers coach since Curly Lambeau, a player-coach at age 21. Bart Starr was 40 — turning 41 shortly after being hired — and he had two rookie quarterbacks behind 34-year-old John Hadl for his 4-10 first season. Mike Holmgren was 44 when hired; Mike Sherman was 45.

Mike McCarthy was 42 when he got the head gig in 2006 and coached 36-year-old Brett Favre, and the pair endured an 8-8 year together before they found success in 2007. But young as he was, McCarthy had three seasons more experience than LaFleur does in a league where every game matters.

So for deeper analysis, let's turn to an expert, Neil Paine, who writes for

Paine looks at the best sports teams and players nationally and analyzes their success — or sometimes, shortcomings — from a statistical and analytics perspective. He wrote a fascinating story Dec. 5, concluding that the Packers have squandered Rodgers’ talents in the last couple of years.

“When I looked at how many Super Bowls you would expect a quarterback with the stats of Aaron Rodgers, he had fallen short of that,” said Paine.

Even though Rodgers could play until he's 40 or so like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Tom Brady, there's not a lot of time left in the Aaron Rodgers era, and it’s significant pressure on LaFleur.

Young, but not youngest

The NFL Hall of Fame has a list of youngest modern-era coaches, and LaFleur is not on it; he’s not record-breaking young.

The youngest is Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, who turned 33 on Jan. 24 (he was 30 years 11 months when he was hired). He’ll be coaching the Rams this Sunday in the Super Bowl against New England.

The Arizona Cardinals recently hired Kliff Kingsbury, 39. San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan is also 39. LaFleur admires the work of Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy, 40.

LaFleur was on McVay's staff, and the two are very close, but their situations are different — McVay directs a fairly young quarterback in 24-year-old Jared Goff. When McVay is done with the Super Bowl, LaFleur plans to catch up with him and talk about the enormous job ahead.

“When they were asking (new Cleveland Browns coach) Freddie Kitchens if he was ready to be a head coach, did you see that quote?" LaFleur asked in a recent phone interview, then paraphrased: " ‘You tell me who is ready to be a head coach in the NFL.’ There’s no manual on how to do this.

“A close friend of mine shared a story about Mike Sherman," LaFleur added. "He said after he got the job here, he came back to his office, sat down and 10 minutes later was like, ‘All right, what do I do now?’

“That’s a little bit of relief because anybody who is going through this the first time has some of those… they’re certainly not doubts…but you’ve got to find your own way. The only way I know how to do that is attack each day.”

The four-year age gap between LaFleur and Rodgers is pretty small, historically speaking.

“That was one of the smallest ones I could find,” Paine said.

In 1962, 31-year-old Zeke Bratkowski quarterbacked the Los Angeles Rams and was just one year younger than 32-year-old Harland Svare, who filled in as head coach for the second half of the season. Jack Kemp was in his early 30s and a really good quarterback for the Buffalo Bills in the 1960s when he took direction from 33-year-old coach Joe Collier.

Shula and Unitas 

But where were the quarterbacks of Rodgers' caliber — future Hall of Famers, MVPs and Super Bowl champions?

The best example was Don Shula, who was only 33 when he took over as head coach of the Baltimore Colts in 1963 with Johnny Unitas at quarterback.

“Who is, it’s fair to say, on the same level as Aaron Rodgers,” said Paine.

Unitas was only three years younger than Shula, but the coach and quarterback enjoyed many productive years together — and great success after an initial 8-6 record in 1963. Baltimore was 12-2 the following year, losing to Cleveland in the NFL Championship game.

“What came out of my research: There is precedence of guys that have as small of a gap or even smaller,” Paine said. “And ones where the younger coach was working with a Hall of Fame quarterback — but it’s a little hard to find. And it’s even harder to find where it was fruitful for a number of years.”

John Madden won Super Bowl XI with Oakland when he was only 40 (and his quarterback was 31-year-old Ken Stabler). But Madden had plenty of experience by then, as he was 33 when he was hired to take over the Raiders.

Really, there are more examples of young coaches who struggled.  

Josh McDaniels didn’t have the results the Denver Broncos hoped for when he was hired at 32. Eric Mangini’s stint with the New York Jets — when he started at just 35 — had mixed results. Raheem Morris was just 32 when he was hired by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and inherited 38-year-old veteran Jeff Garcia, but the results were unspectacular.

When 32-year-old David Shula (Don’s son) became coach of the Cincinnati Bengals in 1992, he inherited veteran quarterback Boomer Esiason — and was only two years his senior. The result was a 5-11 season.

But it’s not unusual to see a coach in his 30s eventually go on to great things. Mike Shanahan was 35 when he got the Raiders job in 1988. He had a 7-9 first season and an acrimonious split from the team; he didn’t find his success until later with Denver.

The Packers brass of general manager Brian Gutekunst (left) and team president and CEO Mark Murphy (right) have put their trust in the 39-year-old Matt LaFleur to lead quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the rest of the team to great heights.

Despite the odds, LaFleur will be expected to lead Rodgers through a season that ends in the playoffs.

“It has been done, but it’s kind of difficult to find,” Paine said. “For every example where they are successful, there are ones where maybe they didn’t quite deliver.

“But Aaron Rodgers is so far beyond most of the guys in terms of comparisons, that I don’t think it would surprise anyone to see the Packers bounce back with the right personnel.”

Let’s consider the upside. Some young coaches infuse energy into a team and their game plans can have a bit of unpredictability. LaFleur's leadership style is also player-friendly because he looks at the coach-QB relationship as one that’s collaborative.

“This goes back in my time working with a guy like Matt Ryan, working with Jared Goff, working with Marcus (Mariotta) last year — I’ve always viewed that as a partnership. We are working together to make each other better,” LaFleur said.

“Doesn’t mean you have to be buddy-buddy with them by any means. There’s just going to be a common respect for each other. You’re going to give each other your best effort.”

No fast way to build a résumé

What LaFleur doesn’t have is the résumé. When there’s conflict, coaches in their 50s and 60s such as Pete Carroll (67), Andy Reid (60), Mike Zimmer (62) or Sean Payton (55) command a certain level of respect because of their track record.

We've heard the debates about the Rodgers-McCarthy relationship — and whether there was second-guessing over strategies and plans. Maybe Rodgers would've benefited from a Tom Coughlin type. Rodgers wasn't mentored much by Favre, almost always had young or same-age backup quarterbacks and it seemed like he could benefit from an experienced, authority figure. But stealing away a coach like Baltimore's John Harbaugh or Philadelphia's Doug Pederson is next to impossible.

“Certainly, I’m going to have to prove myself to everyone in this building,” LaFleur said. “All I know how to do that ... is day by day, but the best leaders I’ve been around have been genuine, and very consistent. Yet — demanding.”

Young coaches can bring an almost obsessive approach to preparation, high energy, new ideas and maybe even a better understanding for the advancements in the game.

LaFleur also has an appreciation for the position he’s in, and that’s a good first step for anyone working in Green Bay in 2019.

“My grandpa was a high school coach, and he used to, when I was little, reference the Green Bay Packers and Vince Lombardi all the time,” LaFleur said. “To be sitting in this office, where the great ones once sat, is truly an honor.

“My concern is trying to just do the best job I can on a daily basis. And try to surround myself with the best people possible. I certainly know I don’t have all the answers — and that’s why I lean on people who are close to me who have kind of gone through these experiences.”

The odds seem to be stacked against him. But change can be good. No one — and I mean no one — expected Rodgers to match or exceed the level of success established by Favre in Green Bay. Now it's up to LaFleur to blaze his own unique trail with Rodgers.


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