How 'one degree of separation' helped Packers coach Matt LaFleur put first staff together
GREEN BAY – In his first month on the job, Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur spent much of his time compiling a 24-man staff for the 2019 season.
Among its members, there are nine offensive coaches, eight defensive coaches, three special teams coaches and four strength and conditioning coaches.
Nine assistants were retained from fired head coach Mike McCarthy’s staff, including defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. A 10th, quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy, previously spent four seasons with the Packers before leaving for Mississippi State, where he was offensive coordinator last season.
That leaves 15 assistants who had no prior experience in Green Bay.
Finding a coaching job in the NFL isn’t much different than other businesses. Many times, it helps to know the right people. In this case, many members of LaFleur’s staff will be working together for the first time, but they are not strangers to each other. In fact, with the exception or receivers coach Alvis Whitted and a trio of quality-control coaches (who by nature are inexperienced), everyone on staff has at least one colleague they’ve already worked with elsewhere.
SILVERSTEIN: LaFleur's staff lacks experience in crucial spots
Here’s a road map of who knows whom, shedding a glimpse into how the Packers' coaching staff materialized.
Mike Pettine, defensive coordinator
The critical relationship will be between LaFleur and his defensive coordinator. If they are in lockstep, the cohesion will bridge the offensive and defensive sides, creating chemistry important for team building. Pettine, the oldest coach on staff at age 52, has never worked with LaFleur, but he has worked with several people who have. “Matt and I are one degree of separation with about 20 people,” Pettine said. Among them are Kyle Shanahan, a LaFleur mentor who was Pettine’s offensive coordinator in Cleveland during the 2014 season. Mike LaFleur, Matt’s younger brother by seven years, was also a coaching intern on that 2014 Browns staff. LaFleur has called Pettine an important resource for him as a new head coach. There are plenty of examples of where Pettine could have helped LaFleur form his staff.
Jerry Montgomery, defensive line coach
Entering his fifth season with the Packers, his second as defensive line coach. Arrived in Green Bay to be defensive front assistant, but replaced former defensive line coach Mike Trgovac last season. Montgomery, 39, kept the defensive line functioning despite rampant injuries last season, including each of the three Week 1 starters ending the year on injured reserve. “Having Jerry back with the defensive line is critical,” Pettine said.
Kirk Olivadotti, inside linebackers coach
This was clearly a LaFleur hire. Olivadotti, 45, has never worked with Pettine, but he spent one season on staff with LaFleur at Washington. LaFleur was a quarterbacks coach and Olivadotti a defensive assistant under Mike Shanahan in 2010. The Packers are only his second NFL team. Olivadotti spent 16 seasons as a defensive assistant in Washington, interrupted only by his three seasons as linebackers coach at Georgia. He’s the one defensive assistant on the Packers staff with no direct ties to Pettine.
Mike Smith, outside linebackers coach
This was clearly a Pettine hire. A former outside linebacker with the Baltimore Ravens, Smith played four seasons for Pettine until a shoulder injury ended his career. Pettine later gave Smith his first NFL coaching job as an intern when he was the New York Jets defensive coordinator in 2010. Smith, 37, was Pettine’s linebackers coach in New York the next two seasons. Pettine has called Smith one of his best friends.
When the Browns fired Pettine in 2016, it was Smith, then a linebackers coach in Kansas City, who got him back into coaching when he invited Pettine to spend a few days with the Chiefs during organized team activities that spring. Pettine has said he has “great football conversations” with Smith. After the Chiefs fired Smith last month, Pettine quickly found a spot for him on staff.
“We’re so close,” Smith said, “but we both have a passion for football and love football. That’s kind of what football junkies do. … It’s just great to pick his brain. I’m telling you, I probably would’ve taken this job for free. Don’t tell him that, but to keep learning from him, because he’s very special and very well respected in this league.”
Jason Simmons, defensive backs coach
Another holdover from last year’s staff, Simmons received a promotion when the Packers relieved defensive passing game coordinator Joe Whitt Jr. Simmons, entering his ninth season with the Packers, worked last year as the secondary coach under Whitt. He started as a special teams assistant before moving to the defense.
Pettine said he had “no issues” working with Whitt, that he has “a ton of respect” and expects Whitt to be an NFL defensive coordinator “sooner than later.” Pettine also said he appreciated it when Whitt would be outspoken in meetings. “I don’t want a room full of bobbleheads,” he said. From afar, it always seemed like a potentially strained arrangement, given Whitt also interviewed to replace Dom Capers.
In Simmons, 42, Pettine will have a defensive backs coach who was not also a finalist for his job.
Ryan Downard, assistant defensive backs coach
Pettine hired Downard for defensive quality control last season. He has been promoted to be Simmons’ assistant with the secondary. Pettine said it’s a “big step” for Downard, 30, but the decision to promote him was easy because of how well he knows the defense, and how effectively he can teach it. Downard’s time with Pettine dates to their days in Cleveland, where he was a defensive assistant.
“I’m sure there was a temptation,” Pettine said, “to want to bring in a bigger-named defensive back coach. Matt feels the same way, you want to promote from within, grow your own mentality.”
Wendel Davis, defensive quality control
New to the NFL, the 30-year-old Davis has come up through the college ranks. He most recently was a defensive graduate assistant at Georgia the past three seasons. That placed him in the same city as LaFleur in 2016, when he was the Atlanta Falcons quarterbacks coach.
Christian Parker, defensive quality control
Also new to NFL coaching, it’s unclear if Parker is previously connected with anyone on the Packers staff. He was a defensive analyst at Texas A&M last season. In 2017, while at William & Mary, Parker, 29, was an AFCA/NCAA 30 Under 30 Coaches Leadership Institute selection.
Nathaniel Hackett, offensive coordinator
Hackett has never worked with LaFleur but, unlike with Pettine, he already knew him personally before being hired. Both came up in the league as quarterbacks coaches before they were offensive coordinators. LaFleur and Hackett reminisced Monday about tag-teaming interviews with the same quarterback prospects at the NFL scouting combine.
“We’d go off on our own, the two of us,” Hackett said, “and sometimes some other guys would join us, and we’d take that one quarterback and we’d really just grind on him. He’d ask a question, I’d ask a question. We just had a great time. so that’s a lot of hours there interviewing a lot of people. I think that would probably be the most time that we got to spend together and hang out and talk about quarterbacks, talk about our evaluations, what we thought they were, where we thought they were going to (be drafted). I thought that was really a time that we got to know each other.”
While Hackett, 39, has never worked with LaFleur, it’s worth noting he has worked with Pettine. The two were offensive and defensive coordinators, respectively, with the Buffalo Bills in 2013, working under head coach Rex Ryan.
Luke Getsy, quarterbacks coach
As a receivers coach, Getsy’s time in Green Bay overlapped with running backs coach Ben Sirmans. After a tough year as Mississippi State’s offensive coordinator, the chance to coach Aaron Rodgers was too much to pass up. It’s likely a recommendation from Rodgers, and perhaps general manager Brian Gutekunst, were primary factors. Getsy, 35, has never worked for LaFleur or Hackett, but his prior experience with the Packers and their quarterback are beneficial.
“Certainly I reached out not only to Aaron, but a couple other guys with him being in the building before,” LaFleur said, “just to find out what they thought of him as a man and as a coach, and everybody gave him a thumbs up.”
Ben Sirmans, running backs coach
The lone holdover from McCarthy’s offensive staff, Sirmans enters his fourth season as running backs coach. Initially hired to help resurrect Eddie Lacy’s career, Sirmans has instead impressed by helping a pair of third-day draft picks (Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams) develop into productive NFL running backs. Sirmans, 48, never crossed paths with LaFleur, or his mentor and friend Sean McVay, but he was on the Los Angeles Rams coaching staff before them. He coached Rams running back Todd Gurley in 2015, when Gurley was the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year. So LaFleur should have some prior knowledge of Sirmans’ work with tailbacks.
Alvis Whitted, receivers coach
Whitted has NFL experience as a receiver with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons and Oakland Raiders, but his last season was 2006. That’s well before Hackett was in Jacksonville, or LaFleur was in Atlanta. He was recommended for the job by new Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, according to The Athletic. Scangarello was the San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks coach the previous two seasons, working with Shanahan and Mike LaFleur.
Whitted, 44, spent the past seven seasons as Colorado State’s receivers coach, working under head coach Mike Bobo in 2015. Bobo must have thought highly of Whitted, considering he kept him on staff when he was hired. Before Colorado State, Bobo was an offensive assistant at Georgia for 14 seasons, including offensive coordinator from 2007-14. Late in his time at Georgia, he worked three seasons on staff with Kirk Olivadotti. LaFleur previously worked with Olivadotti in Washington and hired him two weeks before Whitted.
Justin Outten, tight ends coach
Outten was an offensive assistant with the Falcons the past three seasons, working under Dan Quinn. He was on staff with LaFleur as an intern in 2016. Outten, 35, was a high school coach in Houston prior to 2016. “In terms of the NFL game,” LaFleur said, “he maybe doesn't have all the experience on paper. But I was very impressed with him two years ago when I worked with him in Atlanta.” LaFleur sees Outten as part of a three-man group that will focus on offensive line play, with his specific emphasis on tight ends. Outten was an offensive lineman at Syracuse.
Adam Stenavich, offensive line coach
Stenavich was hired after spending the past two seasons as assistant offensive line coach in San Francisco, where he not only worked for Kyle Shanahan but also was colleagues with LaFleur’s brother, Mike. But this is a homecoming for Stenavich, a Marshfield native who played college football at Michigan. Stenavich, 35, was undrafted in 2006, but he went on to spend time with four NFL teams, including the Packers practice squad in 2006 and 2007. He’ll have big shoes to fill replacing departed offensive line coach James Campen, who he played for.
Luke Butkus, assistant offensive line coach
True to his last name, much of Butkus’ coaching career has kept him in Illinois. Among his few stops that weren’t the Chicago Bears or the Fighting Illini, Butkus was an assistant offensive line coach with the Jacksonville Jaguars from 2013-15. His final season in Jacksonville overlapped with Hackett’s first. Butkus, 39, said he enjoyed working for Hackett because of the enthusiasm he brings to the job.
“He’s infectious,” Butkus said, “and he’s high energy, high motor. He wants to make it fun, and it’s great. Because too many times in this profession, it can be dull and just monotonous, but he’s always keeping you on your toes.”
Jason Vrable, offensive assistant
Vrabel, 34, spent the past two seasons in the same job with the New York Jets. Before that, he spent four seasons with the Buffalo Bills. Vrabel’s first season in the NFL was with the Bills in 2013, when Hackett and Pettine were coordinators.
Kevin Koger, offensive quality control coach
Koger’s most direct connection with the Packers is third-string quarterback Tim Boyle, who signed undrafted out of Eastern Kentucky last spring. Koger, 29, spent the past three seasons as a receivers coach at Eastern Kentucky. It’s unlikely Boyle got Koger a job. Perhaps a recommendation from Eastern Kentucky head coach Mark Elder was beneficial. Among his previous jobs, Elder coached three seasons at Central Michigan, which is in LaFleur’s hometown of Mount Pleasant. Elder didn’t start coaching at Central Michigan until 2007, a few years after LaFleur was a graduate assistant with the Chippewas.
Shawn Mennenga, special teams coordinator
Another coordinator who has never worked with LaFleur but did work with Pettine. Mennenga, 48, was a special-teams assistant for seven seasons with the Browns, including Pettine’s two years as head coach.
“He’s a great guy,” Mennenga said of Pettine. “A great man to work for. A lot of respect for him. I’m glad to work with him again.”
Maurice Drayton, assistant special teams coach
A holdover from last year’s staff, Drayton, 42, is entering his second season as the Packers assistant special teams coach. He retained his job despite former special teams coach Ron Zook’s termination. Previously, he held the same position for two seasons with the Indianapolis Colts.
Rayna Stewart, special teams quality control
Stewart, 45, enters a position that previously did not exist on the Packers staff. The team traditionally kept only two special teams coaches under McCarthy, the coordinator and an assistant. Drayton held the same position last season at Vanderbilt, working under Mennenga.
Chris Gizzi, strength and conditioning coordinator
Former Packers linebacker. Joined the Packers’ strength and conditioning staff as an assistant in 2014. LaFleur said he promoted Gizzi, 43, to coordinator at the suggestion of former coordinator Mark Lovat, who was retained as an assistant.
Mark Lovatt, strength and conditioning assistant
Lovatt, 49, has worked on the Packers' strength and conditioning staff since 1999, and was the coordinator since 2010. At his suggestion, LaFleur said, he was retained as an assistant with Gizzi being promoted to coordinator.
Thadeus Jackson, strength and conditioning assistant
Jackson, 38, has held this job since 2010. His background includes a couple of years as a strength and conditioning assistant at Alabama.
Grant Thorne, strength and conditioning assistant
Originally hired as a strength and conditioning consultant in 2013, Thorne, 33, was promoted to assistant after the 2014 season. Prior to that, he served for four years as a sports performance coach at Purdue.