Packers following Bears' formula pairing rookie coach with respected defensive coordinator

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy, right, listens to defensive coordinator Vic Fangio during the NFL football team's voluntary veteran minicamp Thursday, April 19, 2018, in Lake Forest, Ill. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

GREEN BAY - As they set out to interview head-coaching candidates, team decision makers held firm to this belief: Their preferred defensive coordinator was already in place.

The trajectory, year over year, was impossible to ignore. The defense showed real, tangible improvement. What the team needed was an upgrade on offense. Better quarterback play. More points.

So they hired a head coach known for his work with quarterbacks. An offensive guru, of sorts. He had little administrative experience, just two years as a coordinator. He called plays for only five games. But there was something about this 39-year-old coach that stood out.

In a game of match making, they paired him with the trusted defensive coordinator.

If that sounds like the Green Bay Packers, there’s good reason. It’s precisely what the Packers wanted in hiring 39-year-old Matt LaFleur as head coach while retaining defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. But they didn’t hatch this idea without some inspiration.

A year ago, the Chicago Bears did the same when they hired Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy as head coach, retaining defensive coordinator Vic Fangio. The Bears' defense ranked in the top 10 the previous season. It wasn’t the reason Chicago finished 5-11. After firing former Bears coach John Fox, team decision makers wanted to give Fangio a chance to finish what he started.

So they hired Nagy to develop their offense, especially young quarterback Mitch Trubisky, and paired him with Fangio.

Their plan unfolded exactly as hoped. Behind a dominant defense ranked atop the NFL in scoring, the Bears went from worst to first in the NFC North, winning the division for the first time in eight years with a 12-4 record. Even a crushing, upset loss at home to the Philadelphia Eagles in last weekend’s NFC wild-card game didn’t detract from this being a transformative season in Chicago.

In a copycat league, Green Bay is expected to duplicate its longtime rival.

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The Packers agreed Tuesday to a four-year contract with LaFleur that includes a fifth-year option, a source told The deal, which could run through the end of Rodgers’ contract, makes LaFleur curator for the Packers’ remaining title window with their two-time MVP quarterback.

In LaFleur, the Packers hired an inexperienced head coach with a reputation for offensive innovation, using a scheme that mixes spread principles found on the college level with a pro-style system. He’s also a coach who thinks highly of Pettine, sources said.

LaFleur worked much of his career as an assistant under San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. He was quarterbacks coach when Shanahan was offensive coordinator in Washington and Atlanta. Shanahan also worked one season as offensive coordinator under Pettine in Cleveland. So there was a shared connection, and LaFleur entered his interview with Pettine already in mind for defensive coordinator.

That was a welcomed development with the Packers. They stressed to LaFleur he had authority to choose his coaching staff, but a source said it was important to them that Pettine be retained.

This isn’t a path president Mark Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst would travel without confidence in the men they employ, both LaFleur and Pettine. It’s most important to hire the right people. That’s especially true of the head coach.

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On paper, this match makes sense. Pettine was disillusioned after two miserable years as the Browns head coach. He has frequently expressed his comfort in being a coordinator and nothing more, mitigating risk of LaFleur being undercut.

It’s hard not to think the Packers’ proximity to the Bears helped inspire some faith that this match making could work.

To a lesser extent, the Packers found themselves this season in a similar situation the Bears had a year ago. Their defense might not have been top 10, but it made significant improvements in Pettine’s first year. Their offense needed fixing, starting with better quarterback play. Pretty easy to see the thought bubble that emerges.

It worked in Chicago. Why not Green Bay?

Of course, nothing is guaranteed. Just because the Bears had success using this model doesn’t mean the Packers will. LaFleur is ultra-inexperienced, though that evidently didn’t stop him from nailing his job interview. The Packers originally expected to conduct second interviews this week, a source said, but changed course. They hired LaFleur after one interview even though he wasn’t scheduled to meet with any other team, a bold gamble.

Now, it’s LaFleur’s turn to justify the Packers’ confidence.

It’s worth nothing that, despite his inexperience, LaFleur actually arrives in Green Bay slightly more seasoned than Nagy a year ago. LaFleur called plays for a full season in Tennessee, not merely five games. The Titans' offense, hindered by injuries throughout 2018, finished 27th in points and 25th in yards. But the Chiefs weren’t a top-10 offense in Nagy’s first year as coordinator, despite much better fortune with health.

The Packers hope LaFleur upgrades their offense while Pettine continues what he started on defense. It worked wonders for the Bears in 2018. Maybe it will do the same for them.

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