GREEN BAY - The whole thing started in Houston, back in 2008.
Robert Saleh was about to enter his third year as a defensive quality control coach for the Texans, and head coach Gary Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan had a need for one on offense. Saleh stumped for his best friend and former roommate at Central Michigan University, Matt LaFleur, to get the job.
This happens all the time in coaching. Merit matters, but it helps to have someone get you in the door – and the summer of 2008 started a course that will bring not just LaFleur, Saleh and Shanahan back together again on Sunday night in Santa Clara, but a host of other coaches for each team when the Green Bay Packers take on the San Francisco 49ers.
“There’s a lot of love on that side besides this week,” Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett said. “But it’s going to be fun to see them.”
Kyle Shanahan said Matt LaFleur’s first year in Houston was spent mostly drawing up running plays and their relationship really blossomed in 2009 as LaFleur became more involved in the passing concepts and quarterback meetings. And as the pair worked to design the offense, Texans offensive lineman Adam Stenavich was on the field as a member of the practice squad.
When Shanahan got a chance to work for his father, Mike, in Washington in 2010, he was going to leave Houston – but he wanted to take LaFleur. It required a promotion to quarterbacks coach, however, which was a big step in his career.
“Seeing how good he was at it, it really allowed me to relax a little bit and focus just on coordinating and really turned that stuff over to him,” Kyle Shanahan said.
Saleh left Houston after 2010, moving to Seattle to work under defensive coordinator Gus Bradley. Bradley would become Jacksonville’s head coach and hired Saleh as linebackers coach in 2014 and Nathaniel Hackett as quarterbacks coach in 2015. That was where Hackett worked with 49ers offensive line coach John Benton for a year, also. And in that time, Saleh and Hackett formed a friendship and a competition in the workout room.
“Drove me into the dirt,” Saleh laughed. “You get to experience a lot with Nate. Lot of good stuff. Lot of good stuff. He’s great.”
After three seasons in Washington, Kyle Shanahan and LaFleur took a one-year hiatus from their partnership in 2014. Then-Cleveland head coach Mike Pettine hired Shanahan to be his offensive coordinator for the Browns and LaFleur worked at the University of Notre Dame. While with the Browns, Shanahan needed an offensive intern – so he brought in Mike LaFleur, Matt’s younger brother.
It was there that Pettine, now in his second year coordinating the Packers’ defense, got a feel for how Shanahan attacked defenses.
“Each game plan is very different, it’s very much tailored to A) who he has available and B) who he’s going against and what type of defense is this,” Pettine said. “I always use the analogy the game plan is like custom-tailoring a suit. It’s not pulling one off the rack. I think he’s really good week-in and week-out being able to change what he’s doing to take advantage of the opponent.”
In 2015 Shanahan and Matt LaFleur reunited in Atlanta, culminating with a Super Bowl trip in 2016. Shanahan brought along Mike LaFleur as an offensive assistant and needed another intern on offense, hiring a former Houston area high school coach in Justin Outten.
After that Super Bowl campaign, Shanahan took the head-coaching job in San Francisco. He took Mike LaFleur to coach the receivers and Stenavich to assist Benton on the offensive line.
Shanahan had also long targeted Saleh to be his defensive coordinator.
“I’ve always had a lot of respect for him,” Matt LaFleur said of Saleh. “I’ve known him a long time. He’s as detailed as anybody I’ve been around. He’s got those guys, they play extremely hard. You can see it as soon you put on the tape.”
LaFleur also left Atlanta in 2017, his first step in becoming the head coach of the Packers. That year he took the offensive coordinator job for the Los Angeles Rams. In 2018, he left for Tennessee to call plays.
In January of 2019, the Packers hired LaFleur in large part of because of his history with the successful offenses called by Shanahan.
“There’s so many things that I learned from him,” LaFleur said. “But, I think it’s just his detailed approach that he takes every day. I think he’s a guy that has a great vision for what he wants to get done, how to use players, how to adapt and, you know, put people in the right position. A lot of my football philosophy has been shaped by him.”
Once installed as the Packers’ new coach, LaFleur poached Stenavich with a promotion to offensive line coach. He also pulled Outten out of Atlanta to coach tight ends. But, Shanahan prevented LaFleur from picking off his brother, which helped lead to the hire of Hackett as offensive coordinator. And, LaFleur retained Pettine as his defensive coordinator.
With such familiarity with one another, Shanahan and Saleh forecasted success for LaFleur in his first season as a head coach.
“That working combination is going to work. Believe that,” Saleh said back in February. “And it’s going to be awesome, too. As far as the install and them working together and everyone from all angles talking to really every player on the offense, they’re going to see every coach on the same page, they’re going to hear the same stuff, they’re going to see it all flow together where their roles are so defined, there’s no gray area. It’s all black and white. And because of it I just find it very hard to believe that they won’t have success.”
Now, all the friends and former colleagues are coming together in one of the more interesting games of the NFL season from a coaching standpoint.
“It’s one of those things where it’s going to be hard to trick certain guys that know you so well and there’s so many commonalities,” Hackett said. “I think it’s just going to be about doing what we do and having the guys execute at a high level. If they can do that and they’re confident in what we want to get done, we’re going to have a chance.”