Dougherty: How low-key Matt LaFleur can win over Packers' locker room
Matt LaFleur’s introductory news conference revealed him for who he is: a young, personable but reserved new head coach of the Green Bay Packers.
It matched the description I’d heard from a couple of people who’d worked with and observed him in his one season with the Tennessee Titans last year.
LaFleur certainly doesn’t have the commanding size and personality of a Mike Holmgren or Bill Parcells. He doesn’t give off the dynamic vibe of a Pete Carroll or the young Sean McVay.
Which raises a valid question: Does the 39-year-old LaFleur have the presence to command a room of 63 NFL players plus another 20 or more assistant coaches? Does he not only know football but have the persona to lead an NFL franchise?
To get a sense for how much of an issue this might be, I talked this week to three longtime NFL assistant coaches. None of them knew much about LaFleur, but they’d worked with all types of head coaches over the years, and their opinions are well worth knowing.
To be up front, three is a small sample size. No doubt there are assistants and scouts in the NFL who place a great priority on a head coach’s physical presence and ability to dominate a room. Even one of the sources who works for the Titans and thinks highly of LaFleur wondered if the young coach will have to muster a little more juice as a head coach.
Still, I found the consistency in the responses of the three coaches I consulted eye opening, as summarized by one who has worked more than 30 years on the offensive side of the ball.
“I used to think there’s only one way, but there are 100 ways to do things,” he said.
Or as another put it: “Can it work? Absolutely. Does he need help? Absolutely.”
Let’s start by saying that none of what follows is an endorsement of LaFleur. He might be a smashing success. He might bomb. He might fall in the vast area between.
The point is, if LaFleur isn’t a winning head coach, it won’t be because of his modest stature (I’d guess he’s about 5-10 and 175 pounds) and unassuming personality. It’s that good head coaches come in all shapes, sizes and personalities, and no one type is a prerequisite for success.
Really, the evidence there is hiding in plain sight. Did Pro Football Hall of Famers Tom Landry, Joe Gibbs and Tony Dungy light up a room? Buddy and Rex Ryan were as alpha as they come, yet what did either accomplish as a head coach?
An NFL coach has to stand in front of his players and coaches almost daily during the season and effectively communicate his vision and expectations. That skill is a must. He also has to somehow, some way inspire his players. But competence and authenticity matter more than any personality trait.
“This isn’t the SEC where you have to come across as this fast-talking, high-energy salesman to get your players to commit to you,” one of the coaches said. “If you come across as being a real person and someone who is going to treat their players like men, someone who’s grounded, you can capture them.
“You come across the other way, often times you come across as being phony. We’ve all seen guys try to do that. The bottom line is, you have to be yourself. Just be yourself, because everyone else is already taken. If he just comes across and is himself, that will be plenty good enough.”
In fact, all three of the assistants said in one form or another that it’s not the coach’s personality that matters as much as the balance of personalities on his coaching staff.
As one put it, if the head coach is low-key, he needs a few assistants who are outwardly energetic. If he wants his players to like and love him, he better have a few assistants with an edge. And if he’s a tyrant, he better have several diplomats among his staff or he’ll create a horrible working environment and lose his players.
“Ninety percent of it revolves around the right pieces to the puzzle,” one of the coaches said. “… If a guy’s low-key, he’s got to be a thinker. He’s got to be, how do I move my chess pieces here? He cannot be low-key and not have a plan.”
This is where LaFleur’s retaining of Mike Pettine as defensive coordinator could be important. Pettine is LaFleur’s opposite: a big guy and strong personality who brings an edge and high energy to meeting rooms and the practice field.
It will be interesting to see if LaFleur and Pettine also retain Patrick Graham, who was linebackers coach and defensive run game coordinator last season. Graham was by far the most animated coach on the Packers’ practice field this past season.
On offense, it’s looking like LaFleur might overhaul the entire staff, so it remains to be seen what personalities he hires, especially at offensive coordinator and offensive line.
“(Pettine) is a nice complement right there for him,” said another of the coaches, who has worked his career on defense. “I think it will be beneficial, and I’d assume from LaFleur’s personality he’s not going to be hard to get along with.”
None of this is to discount the advantages a take-charge, dominate-any-room personality brings to a head-coaching job. It can win over players or motivate them through fear. It can give a team energy and urgency.
But players will sniff out blowhards and frauds. LaFleur can’t become a new person now that he has a new title. He’ll have to hold players’ attention and command the room his way.
“I was told when I first came into the league by an old coach, as long as players think you can make them play better and help them play longer, they’ll always be in your corner,” one of the coaches said. “That was true then, and it’s true now. If you do that, you have them captured mind, body and spirit.”
The question isn’t whether LaFleur is too low-key to be a head coach in the NFL. The question is whether he has the stuff to lead and inspire and hire while remaining low-key.