Dougherty: Packers have appealing options in quarterback experts Matt LaFleur, Adam Gase
Adam Gase was fired as Miami Dolphins coach less than a week ago with a 23-25 record. Matt LaFleur is coming of a disappointing season with the Tennessee Titans as a first-time play caller in the NFL.
Yet, they strike me as two of the more interesting candidates of the 10 men the Green Bay Packers reportedly plan to interview to be the next head coach.
Now, nobody here is pretending to know whether president/CEO Mark Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst should actually hire either of them. You’d have to sit in on their interviews to get a better sense of that.
But Gase and LaFleur have the kind of backgrounds that make them intriguing prospects for head-coaching positions in today’s NFL. They’re both relatively young – Gase is 40, LaFleur 39 – and have spent much of their NFL careers tutoring the quarterback position while working with some of the game’s best offensive minds.
Gase has an uncommonly varied offensive background, and among his mentors is New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who is another of the candidates for the Packers job, and the great Peyton Manning. LaFleur has spent his entire NFL career working with and for the NFL’s two latest coaching prodigies, Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay.
There’s no one way to become a good head coach in the league, and an eye-catching background hardly guarantees success in the captain’s chair. But all other things being equal, there are real advantages to hiring a head coach who’s an expert on quarterbacks and offense. The NFL is a quarterback league, and getting things right coaching that position and calling plays is must. That makes Gase and LaFleur at least worth a hard look by Murphy and Gutekunst.
Here’s a thumbnail look at each:
He was the league’s youngest coach (37) when Miami hired him in 2016. He had coached quarterbacks for three seasons (Detroit and Denver) and been an offensive coordinator for three more (Denver and Chicago), including calling plays for the Bears in 2015, when Jay Cutler put up the highest rating (92.3) of his career.
At the time the Dolphins hired Gase, he and McDaniels had reputations as being among the brightest young offensive minds in the game. A member of the Broncos’ football staff for their tenures with that organization – McDaniels was with Denver for two years, Gase for six – described both as “brilliant.”
“They’re similar (caliber coordinators),” the former Broncos staffer said. “I’d say Adam is much more open-minded. Josh is, it’s his way or the highway, no one else is allowed to have good ideas. Adam is like, ‘I don’t have all the answers I need, I need help,’ and he’ll take it, tweak and somehow make it his own. Adam would be much easier to work with.”
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Gase’s quarterback in Miami primarily was Ryan Tannehill, who looks like he’s not going to make it in the league as a starter. They made the playoffs the first year (10-6), then Tannehill missed the next season (6-10) because of a torn ACL. With Tannehill back starting 11 games this season the Dolphins were 7-9.
A recent column by Armando Salguero in the Miami Herald described Gase’s firing as an 11th-hour decision based on a combination of his mediocre record and a deteriorating relationship with owner Stephen Ross. Among other things, the column faulted the organization for giving Gase final say over the roster at such a young age, and Gase for the way he handled it. It’s the same problem McDaniels had in Denver. Neither was ready to be both coach and GM, and really, so few ever are.
Gase would not have final say over the roster with the Packers – that’s Gutekunst’s purview. Gase already has interviewed for two other head-coaching jobs, Arizona and the New York Jets on Friday.
One question about is Gase is his approach to leading a team rather than just coaching one side of the ball.
“From what I understand, offensive coordinator, yeah, you want him in a heartbeat,” said an assistant coach in the league who is friends with several members of Gase’s Miami staff. “Head coach? Very hands off. His personality is very reserved.”
Gase entered the league on Steve Mariucci’s staff in Detroit, where he worked in the West Coast offense. He also coached in Mike Martz’s Don Coryell-based scheme (2006-07 in Detroit), McDaniels’ offense (Denver 2009-10), a playbook revamped for Tim Tebow (Denver ’11) and the offense Manning brought from Indianapolis to Denver (’12-14).
His own offense, which he used in Chicago as coordinator and Miami as head coach, has Martz tendencies but with a mix of everything he has learned.
“He’s very bright and very versatile and doesn’t mind changing as long as he gets to call the plays,” the former member of the Broncos’ staff said.
Until this year, the 39-year old spent his NFL career working for Shanahan (eight years) or McVay (one). For four years (2010-13), all three were on the same staff in Washington working for Shanahan’s father, Mike.
It says plenty that Kyle Shanahan brought LaFleur everywhere he went (Houston, Washington, Atlanta), and that McVay hired him as offensive coordinator when he was named the Los Angeles Rams’ coach last year.
LaFleur is a former Division II quarterback (Saginaw Valley State) who coached that position for six years in the NFL (Washington 2010-13 and Atlanta 2015-16), and left McVay after one season so he could call plays for the Titans.
LaFleur’s first shot at calling plays won’t impress anyone – the Titans finished No. 27 in points and No. 25 in yards – but there were mitigating circumstances: Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota was bothered all season by nerve injuries to his throwing elbow and neck that knocked him out of three games and sidelined him for two others.
“Really good guy,” said a high-ranking scout in the league who is familiar with LaFleur. “Smart. Good offensive mind. Has worked with all different kinds of quarterbacks.”
That last part is definitely true. LaFleur was quarterbacks coach in Washington for a running quarterback in Robert Griffin III, as well as for Donovan McNabb, Rex Grossman and Kirk Cousins; in Atlanta for a pure pocket passer, Matt Ryan; and with the Rams he was coordinator for Jared Goff.
The Packers, though, are LaFleur’s only interview.
“He’s a good candidate,” the scout said. “Surprised he has only one interview.”
LaFleur has the advantage of a long history in a West Coast-based system that includes a zone-running scheme, which Mike McCarthy also deployed with the Packers.
“If you’re going to stay committed to Rodgers for 2019, 2020 and beyond, get a guy who somehow, someway has a West Coast background,” said an assistant coach in the league. “Someone who can speak Rodgers’ language.”
Only one season as a play caller isn’t much to go on, but Philadelphia hired Andy Reid and Doug Pederson, and neither of them had called plays. Both wowed in their interviews, and both times the Eagles took a chance that paid off.
That’s what LaFleur and Gase will have to do.