Packers coach Matt LaFleur succeeds by setting tone for young staff, team
GREEN BAY – Intentional. Detailed.
They were the most often-used adjectives to describe Matt LaFleur a year ago this month when he was hired to become the 15th head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Throughout the next 12 months, digging in or at the details would be a mantra espoused for himself, his coaching staff and players.
Which is why despite a 13-3 record, an NFC North crown and a first-round playoff bye in the books, he can’t sit quietly and see the total picture bathed in roses. He pulls his Packers hat off his head and tugs at it, adjusts, shifts in a black leather chair.
Perhaps after Feb. 2 this could all be considered “good enough,” the details penned just right – but for now he and his offensive coaching staff are trying to do three more times what they did successfully 13 times before: Adjust. Attack. Adjust again.
“The communication – I think that’s what it really comes down to, is how efficiently, how effectively can you communicate when things are going a little bit weird and you’re just getting different looks or different stuff thrown at you that you’re not expecting,” LaFleur told PackersNews.com. “How fast can you communicate to come up with a solution? That does take time in terms of we’re all learning each other. You also gotta be mindful of what our players know. Because at the end of the day it all goes back to our players. So you might have a solution for something but maybe you don’t feel good about it because you haven’t put them through it too many times.”
It’s easy to forget that the season started with only two coaches on LaFleur’s offensive staff having done their specific job before at the NFL level – offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and running backs coach Ben Sirmans. Alvis Whitted (wide receivers), Luke Getsy (quarterbacks), Justin Outten (tight ends) and Adam Stenavich (offensive line) had never run their respective rooms as the voice for their group.
None of them had ever worked together, either. So LaFleur had to set the tone for them as well as the entire team.
“He’s been the same guy since the day I got here in January,” Hackett told PackersNews.com. “He’s been the same person. How he looks at everything. His personality. How he talks. How he addresses people. Every single thing that he does.
“Just no matter what the situation is, it’s been so consistent that it allows us to be able to mold around him.”
And as for the weekday responsibility, Hackett was assigned the red zone, Getsy third downs, Sirmans short-yardage, Whitted the two-minute and Outten the goal line. Stenavich and Outten have run game responsibilities. Assistant offensive line coach Luke Butkus works through protections. Offensive assistant Jason Vrable breaks down film and gives LaFleur a broader picture of that study.
When talking about his staff is when the head coach finally can settle himself, saying flat out he couldn’t do this job without them.
“The thing I can say most about this staff is that I feel really good about the people we hired,” LaFleur said. “There’s not an agenda. Guys just want to win. That is so refreshing, so easy to work with on a daily basis.”
Hackett looks over the run and pass plans and he was the one LaFleur asked to “set the table” for the game plan. With that he takes the ideas, the plays and overall vision for the upcoming game from everyone and distills it down through the head coach’s eyes and thought process.
“At first, you’re kind of going blind. Let’s be real,” Hackett said. “I’ve never had to go through a game-planning week with him. So the first week you’re kind of figuring stuff out. Like oh, I should have had more of this. Oh, maybe that’s too much. So you’re kind of testing the waters all the way through the season. Everybody is.”
Unsurprisingly, there have been bumps in the road as they’ve felt their way around the game plans.
The Packers' offense ranks No. 18 in the NFL. It is No. 15 in scoring, No. 17 in passing and No. 15 in rushing. After 16 games, the coaches know you are what you are to a degree. They’re not pleased with that. If there’s one area where they’ve excelled more often than not, it’s in the red zone where they are seventh in touchdown efficiency (64%).
Throughout the year, the coaches have mixed and matched. Eleven different players have scored a touchdown. Fifteen have caught a pass. The only offensive lineman to start Week 1 in Chicago and finish Week 17 in Detroit was left tackle David Bakhtiari.
In training camp some of Aaron Rodgers’ favorite plays were worked into the system. A couple of “cans” at the line of scrimmage turned into a broader menu for the quarterback to pull from on the field. Davante Adams became more of a focus after a win over Denver in Week 3. LaFleur put it on himself to give Jimmy Graham better routes after a loss to Philadelphia in Week 4.
The outside zone running scheme was amended to incorporate more inside tracks in a Week 5 win at Dallas. Aaron Jones was deployed more as a wide receiver, and then motions and formations were changed to help free him up. When Adams went out for four weeks, a different wide receiver seemingly was featured in key spots. LaFleur and Hackett said it was fair to say it took a quarter of the season for the coaches to get a good handle on who could do what best.
“You gotta get to know your guys and you never know until you get out and play a football game,” Hackett said. “A real football game. People talk about OTA and training camp but it’s different.”
The week-to-week detailing has often led to long Monday nights of prepping, and then after a week of installations they’ve been thrown a curveball on game days.
More often than LaFleur and Hackett can remember happening to teams of theirs in the past, opponents then changed their defensive schemes in game – “off profile” looks LaFleur called them – throwing the staff into a different cauldron.
“That’s why you really want to go into it, no matter who you’re playing, with all-purpose plays so you don’t get caught in a bad situation where you’re like man, I’ve got no answer for this,” LaFleur said. “That is really not acceptable to say I don’t have an answer for that. You better have something that can solve the problem.”
And as the Packers resume practice Monday to host their divisional-round playoff game, that is the heart of the new plan that will be set in place. The intent of a week of self-scouting was to find what the offense does best, most often. For much of the year, few could put a finger on what that exactly is and LaFleur would bristle at the idea of needing an identity outside of winning. And at this juncture, if there is one thing the head coach and his offensive assistants can say they do well, it's work together and create just enough answers to the win the game at hand.
“There’s been moments where it’s been really good in terms of our ability to go out and execute and how things are tied together and the details,” LaFleur said. “Then there’s been moments where it hasn’t been up to the standard. That’s encouraging to me in the fact that we’ve somehow found a way to win 13 games yet I feel like there’s so much more out there for us. Specifically on the offensive side of the ball but then you look at our defense and special teams, I don’t think we’re near a finished product. So that gives me optimism moving forward.”