Tennessee ordeal pivotal in preparing Matt LaFleur to be Packers coach

Ryan Wood
Packers News
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New Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur is introduced during a press conference in the Lambeau Field media auditorium Wednesday, January 9, 2019 in Green Bay, Wis.

GREEN BAY - After the thunder and lightning subsided and the longest game in NFL history ended in defeat, the Tennessee Titans’ real problems surfaced.

It wasn’t their 0-1 record. Or the weather delays that totaled 3 hours, 59 minutes (thanks to Mother Nature in Miami). After the seven-hour ordeal ended with a game-winning, 102-yard Dolphins kickoff return for a touchdown, after Matt LaFleur’s first-ever NFL game as an offensive play caller ended quite opposite of what he’d hoped, things only got worse.

In the third quarter of their season opener, tight end Delanie Walker was carted off the field with a gruesome broken leg. Just like that, the Titans’ top pass catcher — a Pro Bowler each of the previous three seasons — was out for the year. Left tackle Taylor Lewan, also a three-time Pro Bowler, left the game with a concussion. He wouldn’t play the next week.

At least the Titans had their quarterback, right? Wrong. Marcus Mariota left in that same third quarter with an elbow injury. He missed the next game before returning, but even then Mariota wasn’t the same. He had no feeling in his right, throwing hand.

“He literally could not throw more than 15 yards,” LaFleur said.

So here was Matt LaFleur, fresh off leaving the comfort of Sean McVay’s explosive Los Angeles Rams offense, seeking to prove himself as a play caller without his best pass catcher, left tackle and quarterback.

Good luck figuring that out.

In the aftermath of the Green Bay Packers hiring LaFleur as their 15th head coach in franchise history this week, a lot has been made about this not-so-subtle fact: His only year as a play caller did not go very well. The Titans' offense finished 27th in points, 25th in yards. Even the Packers' offense did better, finishing 14th in points and 12th in yards, and the most basic reason for LaFleur being here in Green Bay is because the Packers' offense simply wasn’t good enough last season.

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Maybe the Titans' offense would have struggled even without injuries. It’s impossible to know, because that’s not the world in which the Titans lived last season. Their world — and LaFleur’s by extension — was one of constant struggle, of moving different pieces around to see if they fit, of taking the punches from an NFL season and learning how to fight back.

Put it together, and it’s not hard to see why the Packers were excited about what LaFleur could do for their offense, even if he didn’t get a chance to do it for the Titans.

“When you look behind the stats,” team president/CEO Mark Murphy said, “some of the injuries they suffered. Injuries are never an excuse, but when your quarterback doesn’t have feeling in his hands and can’t throw 15 yards, that affects your offense.”

It is possible LaFleur’s lone season in Tennessee, far from ideal as it unfolded, was the best thing for him.

At times, that certainly wasn’t how it felt.

LaFleur left the NFL’s hottest offense, where he was offensive coordinator under McVay but didn’t call plays, because he wanted to be a head coach. He felt the chance to call plays would make him a better head coach. He hoped it would also make him a more attractive candidate when jobs became open this January.

Despite sitting at the podium Wednesday inside Lambeau Field, where he was formally introduced as the Packers' head coach, it could be argued LaFleur’s move to Tennessee did not make him a more attractive candidate around the league.

The Packers were LaFleur’s only interview this month, which should be highly unexpected given the two names likely atop his reference list are McVay and Kyle Shanahan. The league is starved for innovative offensive minds with cutting-edge ideas. Shanahan and McVay, whom LaFleur has worked under for a decade, embody that trend. When he left Los Angeles, one head-coaching interview this month was not what LaFleur envisioned.

There were times, LaFleur admitted, when he questioned his decision to leave the Rams. But if this past year didn’t make him a more attractive candidate, he firmly believes it made him a better head coach.

There is much LaFleur, the first-time head coach, still must learn. Nothing quite prepares a person for standing in front of the room, leading 53 players and a coaching staff. Until a person is a head coach, it’s impossible to know with certainty he can do the job.

LaFleur is no doubt inexperienced. For players, the change in age alone will be a jolt. At 39, LaFleur is 16 years younger than predecessor Mike McCarthy. He showed his youth Wednesday. At times, nerves seeped through while he was speaking at the podium.

But this past year has forced LaFleur to mature quickly. There is perhaps no greater challenge for a head coach than the necessity to adapt with a season’s unexpected twists and turns, dips and climbs. You may have heard, but injuries have been a frustration for the Packers, too. Starting with their quarterback, like the Titans’ quarterback last year, having a season-impacting injury in Week 1.

When adversity strikes this fall — and, at some point, it most certainly will — LaFleur has been there. Take Week 2 of last season, as example.

Without their quarterback, left tackle and tight end, the Titans hosted the Houston Texans. The season would end with Houston winning the AFC South.

On this day, LaFleur figured out a way for his offense to score enough points to win.

“It was a risk for him to leave L.A. and go to Tennessee,” Murphy said. “But he did it because he knew it would help him become a head coach, to take on the play-calling responsibilities. Quite honestly, if he had stayed in L.A. with the kind of year they had this year, he’d be the hot candidate. He’d be flying all over the country talking to everybody.

“But I think the experience he had in Tennessee, there’s no doubt that made him a better coach and we think he’s absolutely ready to be a head coach.”

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