Dougherty: Matt LaFleur brings bright, young offensive mind to Packers
The timing of Aaron Rodgers’ airing his beef with Mike McCarthy’s offense after a game on Sept. 30 was probably no coincidence.
Just three days before the Green Bay Packers’ mundane 22-0 win over the Buffalo Bills that Sunday afternoon, Sean McVay’s electric Los Angeles Rams offense, in front of a national TV audience, had hung 38 points and 465 passing yards on the Packers’ bitter NFC North rival Minnesota Vikings. Rodgers acknowledged later that he’d watched some of that game.
The image of the Rams moving the ball up and down the field against one of the league’s better defenses had to have been on Rodgers’ mind as he walked off Lambeau Field after beating the Bills. By the end of his news conference, it was hard not to wonder if Rodgers was wishing he played for a young offensive mind like McVay or San Francisco’s Kyle Shanahan, who have been all the rage of the NFL the last couple of years.
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Well, now Rodgers does.
Matt LaFleur, the 39-year-old coach the Packers hired Monday, has worked his entire NFL career with Shanahan, McVay, or both.
That of course doesn’t mean LaFleur will be a good head coach. Look at all the failures off the Bill Belichick coaching tree, for instance. You never know how these guys will do until they sit in the captain’s chair.
But LaFleur will bring to the Packers the same scheme and approach to offense that McVay has to the Rams and Shanahan to the 49ers. Whether he has the same skills, on that we’ll have to wait and see.
Going into the weekend, if I’d been forced to bet on the Packers’ choice, I’d probably have gone with New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. His reputation as an offensive mind is as good as anyone’s in the NFL. He also has a strong, take-charge personality, which usually is good for someone who has to lead an NFL franchise. But that too can cut both ways.
Regardless, there was no obvious guess. With Rodgers just finishing the first year of the most lucrative contract in NFL history, it makes sense that president/CEO Mark Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst were looking hard at coaches whose expertise is that side of the ball in general and quarterbacks in particular.
The Packers are married to Rodgers for at least a couple of more seasons, and they need to get him back playing at an elite level after the disaster that was 2018. It’s no coincidence that five of the coaches Murphy and Gutekunst interviewed had coached quarterbacks in the NFL: LaFleur (six years), McDaniels (four), Adam Gase (three), Pete Carmichael (three) and Jim Caldwell (seven).
Murphy and Gutekunst might not have been locked into hiring one of those guys going into the interviews, but they clearly considered it important to look hard at candidates they thought might click with Rodgers. They chose LaFleur, and now it will be up to the 39-year-old, former Division II quarterback to make that work.
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It probably didn’t hurt that LaFleur, according to a source, also had Mike Pettine on his list of prospective defensive coordinators.
Pettine just finished his first season as the Packers’ defensive coordinator, and though the numbers (No. 22 in points, No. 18 in yards and No. 28 in defensive passer rating) might suggest otherwise, his defense passed the eye test this year. Despite a shortage of game-changing talent — there wasn’t an abundance to start with and by season’s end he was missing his four most talented players (Jaire Alexander, Kenny Clark, Mike Daniels and Kevin King) — Pettine still got enough stops to usually keep the Packers in games.
Now Pettine will get the chance to build on this season, and the Packers won’t be starting over on that side of the ball, too.
As to the biggest questions: Did Murphy and Gutekunst make a good hire? Will LaFleur succeed or fail? Your guess is as good as mine.
What I will say is, LaFleur has a resume worthy of attention, even if the Packers were the only team to interview him this year (Tennessee interviewed him as a head-coaching candidate last year before bringing him on as offensive coordinator). He has worked with all different styles and ages of quarterbacks, among them, Robert Griffin III in Washington, Matt Ryan in Atlanta, Jared Goff with the Rams and Marcus Mariota in Tennessee.
This hire has a whiff of the Mike McCarthy hire in 2006. No one would have considered McCarthy a front-runner when Ted Thompson interviewed him — he was coming off a season in which the offense he coordinated in San Francisco finished No. 30 in scoring and dead last in yards. But Thompson liked their interview, went with his gut, hired him anyway, and in McCarthy’s first five years the Packers went to an NFC championship game (2007) with one quarterback (Brett Favre) and won a Super Bowl (2010) with another (Rodgers).
LaFleur doesn’t have McCarthy’s play-calling experience going in. For four years before going to the 49ers, McCarthy called plays in New Orleans, whereas LaFleur became a play caller for the first time in 2018. But he’s also been hired on the heels of an unimpressive showing — Tennessee finished No. 27 in scoring and No. 25 in yards this season.
Just as McCarthy had a rookie quarterback in San Francisco, LaFleur had an injured one in Tennessee. Marcus Mariota sustained a nerve injury in his throwing elbow in the opener and was dogged by it all season. He had to wear a glove because of lost feeling in his throwing hand, was unable to finish two other games after aggravating the injury and missed two others.
No matter, the Packers’ job now is LaFleur’s. Does he have the right stuff to lead a team and coaching staff, and create the chemistry in the locker room and among his coaching staff that it takes to win in this league? Can he get Rodgers back to playing great?
Murphy’s and Gutekunst’s jobs are riding on it.