Matt LaFleur sees benefits in switching Packers to more traditional practice week
PHOENIX – Mike McCarthy was the second coach to break with decades of NFL tradition when he changed the Green Bay Packers’ regular-season practice week in 2014.
He still conducted the usual Wednesday and Thursday practices but then flip-flopped Fridays and Saturdays. A year after Chip Kelly challenged NFL norms with Philadelphia in 2013, McCarthy turned Friday into a rest-and-recovery day for his players, and then held a short but full-speed practice on Saturday.
McCarthy made the decision based on GPS data the Packers had accumulated over several years, and he kept that routine for his final five seasons with the team. The plan was designed to elicit peak performance on game days by priming players’ quick-twitch muscles without fatiguing them the day before the game. Another goal was to reduce injuries.
These types of short, full-speed practices the day before competition are common in track and in sports that have been in the forefront of using GPS data, such as international rugby and Australian Rules Football.
But McCarthy’s replacement, Matt LaFleur, is taking the Packers back to the traditional NFL work week. When the 2019 regular season opens, LaFleur’s Packers will practice on Fridays and hold walk-throughs on Saturdays.
“I just think that we can get the necessary work done Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and adjust our practice load accordingly by using that (GPS) data, but still maximize our players’ ability and get them ready to go for Sunday,” LaFleur said Tuesday from the NFL owners meeting. “From the mental approach, I think that’s the best way to do it.”
LaFleur offered several reasons for going back to the traditional format, which a large majority of NFL teams still use, starting with the obvious: It’s what he knows.
He has never worked for a team that practices on Saturday, though he said that when he was an assistant with the Los Angeles Rams two years ago, coach Sean McVay adjusted his practice schedule significantly about halfway through the season by turning Wednesday into essentially a jog-through practice to help keep the players fresh.
“(Wednesday) was just above the neck, almost all mental,” LaFleur said. “You’d get a ton of reps in that day, to be honest with you, and I thought it was really good for our players.”
Thursday will remain the most demanding practice of the week, and then Friday will be tapered to some full-speed work and some jog-through.
LaFleur likes finishing the practice week on Friday, when the emphasis is on red-zone drills, because if he sees something on the practice field that convinces him to change his game plan, he still can go over the change on the practice field in the Saturday jog-through. If the final practice is Saturday, there’s no chance to rehearse the changes.
“I just think that’s the most comfortable and most efficient in terms of coaching,” LaFleur said.
LaFleur said he has become more versed in GPS data since the Packers hired him in January, and that he’ll rely on the data to help with decisions about the length and intensity of practices in any given week. His strength and conditioning coach, Chris Gizzi, will be a primary adviser to help him interpret the daily GPS practice data, along with strength and conditioning assistant Grant Thorne, and Bryan Engal, the team’s head athletic trainer. The GPS data measures, among other things, players’ speed and the force they’re generating when they run and cut. A player’s data then can be compared with past data to determine whether he’s overly fatigued, which can hamper performance and leave a player more susceptible to injury.
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“The whole goal is to get (the players) to Sunday and they’re peaking, that’s the goal,” LaFleur said. “How do you do that yet get all the work you need to get in in the practice setting? You absolutely 100 percent have to use that data and have people in place that know how to not only digest that but also give us all the necessary information so that we can go forward and plan practice.”
LaFleur said he hasn’t decided his schedule for training camp, so he doesn’t know yet whether the team will practice in the morning or afternoon. Until last year, McCarthy practiced in the early morning and in the evening during the first weeks of camp, then went to a regular-season routine of starting practice in the late morning or early afternoon.
Last year, though, McCarthy ran camp on a regular-season schedule, with late morning and early afternoon practice times.
LaFleur said he doesn’t plan on practicing in the evening except for the team’s Family Night scrimmage that culminates the first week of camp.
One of LaFleur’s mentors, Kyle Shanahan of the San Francisco 49ers, begins his training-camp practices at 10:15 a.m. Another, McVay, started almost all his camp practices at 3 p.m. last year.
“I know there’s a lot of tradition here with how much the fans get involved with the preseason, so we’ll take that into consideration (for practice times),” LaFleur said. “As far as the right way to do it, I think you can get equally effective practices whether you go morning practice or afternoon.”