GREEN BAY – Still under contract, Mike Pettine didn’t really have much choice. If the Green Bay Packers wanted their defensive coordinator to stay for the 2019 season, their defensive coordinator was going to stay.
And the Packers very much wanted their defensive coordinator to stay.
Yet team president/CEO Mark Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst aren’t holding Pettine against his will, even if they could. Though Pettine was noncommittal on his future late last season, his desire to stay in Green Bay grew the more he was accommodated. The Packers hired a head coach who preferred to keep Pettine on staff. A coach Pettine had never worked under, but someone who knew plenty of common associates.
Pettine hired Matt LaFleur’s longtime friend and mentor, Kyle Shanahan, as his offensive coordinator with the Cleveland Browns in 2014. He also hired his brother, Mike LaFleur, as an intern. By the time Pettine spoke with Matt LaFleur – before the Packers hired him as head coach – he felt he knew enough about his new boss to believe it would be a good fit.
“Just knowing what I know of him,” Pettine said, “that was an easy one. When he was hired, it was an easy decision for me. I’d talked to him a little during the process before he got hired and just got the sense that there’s a lot of common ground with us. There’s a shared philosophy for how to do things and what we’re looking for in players, and just the philosophy of coaching.
“So when he was named the coach, it was a pretty easy decision for me.”
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The Packers had good reason to woo Pettine. In just one season, he began turning the momentum of a defense that had spiraled toward the NFL’s bottom.
The Packers’ pass defense jumped from 23rd to 12th last season, despite trading a starting safety (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix) in October, moving their most veteran cornerback (Tramon Williams) to safety, and perhaps their most talented (Kevin King) missing 10 games. They tied Philadelphia and Denver for eighth in the league with 44 sacks, despite their top sacker (Kyler Fackrell) never sniffing a Pro Bowl like the top sackers for the Eagles (Fletcher Cox) and Broncos (Von Miller).
There were plenty of warts, but such can be expected from a first-year coordinator undertaking a project this ambitious. Pettine bluntly outlined his plans for the Packers’ defense in his second season. “Take a big jump,” he said. That’s why, even if LaFleur was the Packers’ most important hire this offseason, retaining Pettine might have been the most exciting.
“We spent a lot of time last year with having to shuffle in a lot of different players,” Pettine said. “In Year 1 of a system, it’s really hard to get into the graduate-level details of the job. So kind of going through the end-of-year cutups, and you come to the realization we spent so much more time last year on coaching players on what to do and not enough time on how to do it, and that’s usually typical of a Year 1.
“We’re looking forward to having guys that are experienced in the system. We have a much better sense of who we are and what our skill set is, what we want to get done.”
With LaFleur so focused on fixing the Packers’ offense, Pettine figures to have even more autonomy on defense than even a year ago.
When coach Mike McCarthy hired Pettine last offseason, he also retained key assistants from former defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ staff. Among them were outside linebackers coach Winston Moss and cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt, who had interviewed with McCarthy to replace Capers. Both have since been released from the staff, with Moss being fired by interim head coach Joe Philbin during the season.
Pettine replaced Moss with one of his closest friends, fired Kansas City outside linebackers coach Mike Smith. Few coaches know Pettine’s system better than Smith, who played four years for Pettine as an outside linebacker with the Baltimore Ravens. Smith’s arrival will give Pettine a coach who’s not only familiar in his scheme but also has personal camaraderie at a key position.
“Mike is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever been around,” Smith said. “Mike can break down an offense, and he’s going to put guys in position to be successful. He’s going to give you different looks, different simulators, all kinds of coverages. It might sound like a lot, but it’s simple to learn. That’s why I’ve been very fortunate to be with him from the beginning.
“Mike, his look at things is pretty freaky, the things that he can come up with and break down an offense.”
Now, the only defensive assistant who has never worked under Pettine is inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti, who worked with LaFleur one season in Washington. With a familiar staff enabling continuity, the Packers’ defense is ideally positioned to take that big jump.
“The nice thing,” Pettine said, “is you don’t reset it back to Year 1. You have a little bit of momentum, and you’ve built a pretty solid foundation with the guys you’re going to have back.”