Dougherty: Matt LaFleur's true test will be working with Aaron Rodgers
As the Green Bay Packers’ new head coach, Matt LaFleur has to lead an entire team and staff of coaches.
But let’s face it, nothing will be more important than his work with Aaron Rodgers.
LaFleur’s history of working with quarterbacks isn’t the only reason Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst hired him to replace Mike McCarthy this week, but it was pretty much a prerequisite.
“Quite honestly the way our team’s structured, we (need) somebody who’s going to be able to work with Aaron and help him play the very best he can play,” said Murphy at the news conference to introduce LaFleur as the 15th coach in Packers history on Wednesday.
Yes, the Packers need Rodgers back playing at an elite level if they’re going to win a Super Bowl anytime soon. They can’t have any repeats of last season’s disaster, when the Rodgers-McCarthy partnership went kaput.
The question is whether Murphy and Guekunst chose someone who will connect with Rodgers on both personal and professional levels. That will be as important as anything LaFleur does in the coming months.
The 35-year-old Rodgers has been in the league for 14 years. He’s one of only nine players in NFL history who have won multiple MVPs. He’s strong-willed and essentially has known only one offense his entire NFL career. After last season, I think it’s safe to say he’s not the easiest guy in the world to coach.
LaFleur’s age and inexperience could cut either way. At 39 he’s only four years older than Rodgers, which means they came of age at about the same time. Their cultural frame of reference will be similar. They’ll speak the same language, so to speak. That could help a lot with their communication and chemistry.
LaFleur also comes from an offensive system — Kyle Shanahan’s and Sean McVay’s — that surely has caught Rodgers’ eye, just as it has the rest of the NFL. That has to excite the quarterback. A new, young head coach is likely to bring a hunger that Rodgers might find appealing, too.
But LaFleur’s age also means Rodgers’ new boss isn’t that much older than he is. Rodgers actually has been in the NFL longer — LaFleur entered the NFL three years after Rodgers, and in his one season as a play caller, last year at Tennessee, he finished No. 27 in points and No. 25 in yards. So he doesn’t command the instant respect from a longtime star that an older, more accomplished coach might. There’s the real possibility that Rodgers will think, “What can this guy teach me?”
For what it’s worth, the two already have talked. The Packers had Rodgers call LaFleur after they’d decided LaFleur was their guy, but before he’d been offered the job.
“The conversation went great,” LaFleur said. “I can tell he’s a passionate guy, and he wants to win. And I think that holds true for me as well. So I think we’re in alignment there. Because like I said before, this game is about winning. I know that he wants to add to his legacy, and the only way we’re going to accomplish that is to win a world championship.”
LaFleur’s challenge will be creating a relationship with an intelligent, veteran quarterback where there’s a sense of collaboration while also clearly being the boss.
I’ve talked with former Packers coach Mike Holmgren in the past about the quarterback-coach relationship, and he said that mutual respect is a must. He thought mutual respect is what always held things together no matter how rocky things got with Steve Young and Brett Favre on any given day or week.
LaFleur said to help him with Rodgers, he’ll lean on his experience as Matt Ryan’s quarterbacks coach in Atlanta in 2015 and ’16. When LaFleur and Ryan started working together, Ryan was 30 and an eighth-year pro who had been to three Pro Bowls; LaFleur was a 36-year-old former Division II quarterback in his seventh season coaching in the league.
LaFleur told the story of the first time he corrected Ryan on the field during a practice. Ryan missed on several throws on skinny posts, and when LaFleur chided him about his footwork, the quarterback did not take it well.
“What was cool about it was for about the next 10 throws, he was ripping the ball,” LeFleur said. “So I let it go for a while, and I’ll never forget I just said, ‘Hey, I think I’m going to tick you off every day.’
“No, Matt and I have a great relationship. He was incredible to work with. I do sincerely mean this. When you’re dealing with a quarterback, it is a partnership. He and I have stayed in contact to this day. I think we have a great respect to one another. I think I probably learned as much from him as he learned from me.”
LaFleur’s offensive scheme is based on the same West Coast that McCarthy ran — LaFleur comes from the Mike Shanahan branch, McCarthy from Paul Hackett — but the McVay-Kyle Shanahan branch has evolved in a much different direction than McCarthy’s.
In a nutshell, LaFleur said the premise of his offense is unpredictability created by having a lot of plays look similar at the start but then go in very different directions.
“If you give Aaron time and you are unpredictable, he’s going to excel, because we all know the talent he has,” LaFleur said “That’s how we’re going to build this thing. But anytime we go into a game, I certainly want to know his thoughts. Because I’ve always said if a player doesn’t have confidence in what you’re doing or a play, just tell me. We’ve got a lot of plays to pick from. We’ll cross that one out, and we’ll move on to the next one.”
A new coach always brings a sense of renewal to a team, and an air of change, excitement and possibilities. So it is with LaFleur and the Packers now.
But the real work is coming soon enough, when the coach and the quarterback start working together daily in April, when the offseason programs begin. The two are tied at the hip, and each man’s success depends on the other.
If they click, the Packers’ prospects for the next few years will look good, maybe great. If not, last year will become the same ol’, same ol’.