Silverstein: Matt LaFleur's young Packers staff lacks experience in crucial spots
GREEN BAY - When comparing the combined years of NFL coaching experience new Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur has on his nine-man offensive staff, it doesn’t differ that much from what Mike McCarthy and Mike Holmgren — the last two Packers coaches to win Super Bowls — had assembled at the start of their tenures.
All told, there is 38 years of NFL experience on LaFleur’s offensive staff.
When Holmgren began in 1992, his had a combined 30 years and when McCarthy began in 2006, his had 42 years.
But as LaFleur enters his first season as an NFL head coach — and second year as a play-caller — there are dubious absences of experience on a staff that will be taking over an offense with a 35-year-old future Hall of Fame quarterback, a Pro Bowl receiver, a 32-year-old tight end and three or four veteran starting offensive linemen.
At just 39 years old, LaFleur is part of a league trend toward younger, more innovative head coaches. Not surprisingly, he has assembled a young group to assist him, in part because he hasn’t been around long enough to have longtime associates to bring with him.
This offensive group is very young.
It will feature four coaches who have never coached a position in the NFL and another who did it only on an interim basis. Though there are 36 years of experience, only 16 of them include work as the primary position coach and only six were as a coordinator.
That must be scary to those hoping the Packers will turn things around this year.
"I think we’re going to bring a lot of energy every day,” LaFleur countered during a news conference Monday to introduce his entire staff. “And I think we’ll be able to connect and reach our players, and that’s what I’m most excited about. I think they’re all great, high-character guys.”
To get an idea of what LaFleur is starting with, it’s worth comparing the assistant coaches McCarthy and Holmgren had when they began their first head-coaching positions with those on the current staff.
The most notable differences in experience are at offensive line and wide receiver.
Without a doubt, the biggest gamble LaFleur is making is on the offensive line, where he has hired 35-year-old Adam Stenavich. The former Packers undrafted free agent has just two years coaching experience in the NFL, serving as San Francisco’s assistant offensive line coach.
Before that he served as offensive line coach at Northern Arizona (2014) and San Jose State (2015-16).
Back in ’06, McCarthy tabbed Joe Philbin, who had spent two years with the Packers as tight ends coach and one year as assistant line coach. Holmgren hired Tom Lovat, who had 11 years of NFL experience coaching offensive lines and had served for two seasons under Bill Walsh at Stanford.
LaFleur chose Stenavich because of his knowledge of the Los Angeles Rams/San Francisco 49ers style of offense he plans to run. It helps that Stenavich had a cup of coffee in the NFL, but can he do for David Bakhtiari, Lane Taylor, Corey Linsley and possibly Bryan Bulaga what veteran offensive line coach James Campen did for them?
“I worked for a great offensive line coach, John Benton, with the 49ers and learned a lot from him,” Stenavich said. “I’ll definitely use a lot of things I learned from him. Every job you take, you learn different things and take them with you.”
When Lovat took over in ’92, he had to clean up an offensive line room where egos and jealousy had caused dysfunction. It took him less than a year to do it. Philbin was elevated to offensive coordinator after one season and led the Packers to some of their most productive seasons.
Now Stenavich is assigned to keeping quarterback Aaron Rodgers clean and perfecting a zone running scheme that is at the heart of LaFleur’s offense. It’s big shoes to fill.
To assist Stenavich, LaFleur could have hired a veteran line coach whose career might be winding down or was out of a job, but he hired 39-year-old Luke Butkus. He has three years NFL experience as an assistant offensive line coach and five at a low-level quality control/offensive assistant position.
As a result, LaFleur will be rolling with two offensive line coaches with minimal NFL experience.
At wide receiver, LaFleur hired Alvis Whitted, a nine-year NFL veteran who worked his way up the college ranks to Colorado State, where he developed NFL receivers Michael Gallup (Dallas) and Rashard Higgins (Cleveland) and oversaw Tennessee transfer and NFL prospect Preston Williams’ breakout season last year.
Whitted’s lack of experience coaching in the NFL is 180 degrees from what McCarthy and Holmgren sought in their first receiver coach hires.
McCarthy hired 17-year NFL veteran assistant coach Jimmy Robinson, who played a big part in developing Greg Jennings, James Jones and Jordy Nelson over a five-year period. Holmgren assigned the spot to offensive coordinator Sherman Lewis, who had coached receivers and running backs for Walsh for nine seasons, and oversaw Sterling Sharpe’s rise to greatness.
The fact Whitted played with greats such as Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, Tim Brown, Keenan McCardell and Jimmy Smith does give him instant credibility. His track record at Colorado State indicates he’s probably ready for the jump.
But like Stenavich, he’s going to have to earn the respect of veterans, most notably Davante Adams, whose unconventional techniques might not jibe with what Whitted will be teaching. The 44-year-old said he didn’t think he would have a big adjustment coaching established players such as Adams, especially if he can help them get better.
“Some guys in pro football, there’s that 1 percent that are talented enough they can get away with it,” Whitted said. “Now, if we want him to fix certain things, absolutely, that’s going to be part of it. He’ll have to be receptive, too.”
Two of LaFleur’s other young hires were quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy and tight ends coach Justin Outten.
Getsy has two years’ experience coaching Packers receivers (2016-17) and two serving in quality control (2014-15), so he’ll be making a big jump to quarterbacks coach. Holmgren took a big chance with Steve Mariucci in ’92 and Getsy has taken a similar path with time in the college ranks.
As for Outten, who was coaching in high school three years ago and never made it above quality control/offensive assistant with the Atlanta Falcons, there is precedent for such a long shot at tight end. McCarthy selected Ben McAdoo, who had only quality control NFL experience, and Holmgren selected Andy Reid, who had been coaching offensive line in the college ranks.
The final two members of LaFleur’s staff are offensive assistant Jason Vrable and quality control coach Kevin Koger. Vrable has six years NFL experience, mostly as an offensive assistant but part of a year as Buffalo interim running backs coach. Koger comes from the college ranks.
The two guys with more than a handful of years of experience on the staff are offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and running backs coach Ben Sirmans.
Hackett has been an offensive coordinator with Buffalo and Jacksonville the last six years, although not always as a play caller. Sirmans spent the last four years coaching the Packers’ backs and four years before that coaching St. Louis’ backs.
Hackett at 39 and Sirmans at 48 are the “old” guys on the offensive side.
“It’s funny,” Hackett said. “Looking in the past, I’ve always been one of the younger guys on the staff, and now I’m one of the older ones.”