Dougherty: Why Packers GM Brian Gutekunst went all in on new coach Matt LaFleur
Matt LaFleur was the Atlanta Falcons’ quarterbacks coach in 2016 when he first caught Brian Gutekunst’s eye as a potential head coach in the NFL.
Gutekunst was director of player personnel when the Green Bay Packers twice faced the Falcons that season. Forward-thinking front office executives are always on the alert for head-coaching prospects, and LaFleur held a key role on a Falcons team that defeated the Packers 33-32 in October and 44-21 in the NFC Championship game.
Atlanta put up 860 yards in total offense in those games, and quarterback Matt Ryan had a collective 136.5 rating. Ryan also won the NFL’s MVP that year.
That offseason, Gutekunst learned a little more about LaFleur when he interviewed for the GM job in San Francisco with new 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, who as offensive coordinator in Atlanta was LaFleur’s direct boss.
“That (offense) was always something that stood out to me, I thought it was really creative and put a lot of pressure on our defense,” Gutekunst said in an interview this past week. “LaFleur worked with the quarterbacks there and was moving up through the ranks. Somewhere back then is when I was aware of him and started putting him on those lists.”
Gutekunst didn’t say much during LaFleur’s introductory news conference last week – most of the questions were directed at team president/CEO Mark Murphy, who made the hire, and LaFleur – but more than anyone else in the Packers’ front office, Gutekunst will be working side by side with the new coach.
The two will be consulting on many matters that come up in running a team, ranging from the hiring of LaFleur’s coaching staff to learning the kinds of players LaFleur is looking for and traits he prefers at specific positions. As a young (39 years old) rookie coach, LaFleur also is likely to lean more on Gutekunst for advice than Mike McCarthy did last season in his 13th year as an NFL coach.
Their collaboration is second in importance to the team, behind only the coach (or play caller) and quarterback.
That’s one reason why, in my mind, it’s better to have the GM hire the coach, so he’s fully invested in the coach’s success.
Gutekunst was deeply involved in the process that ended with LaFleur’s hire, though only Murphy knows how much influence the GM had in the decision. With many contacts in the scouting world, Gutekunst helped vet all the candidates and was one of three people (Murphy and team vice president of finance Russ Ball were the others) in the room for all 10.
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“I thought it was good discussions all around, always felt my input was taken into account,” Gutekunst said. “Never at one point did I not feel that I was involved in the decision.”
In an extended interview, Gutekunst addressed many questions about LaFleur that he didn’t get to answer at the news conference. Following are a few of the topics, though the subject of Aaron Rodgers will be addressed in an upcoming column:
» Although Murphy emphasized that LaFleur’s interview blew him away, Gutekunst sounded like he was swayed even more by what he learned while vetting LaFleur.
Conversations with sources around the league convinced Gutekunst that LaFleur had been preparing to be a head coach for years.
Last year, LaFleur left a potential springboard job as Sean McVay’s offensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams to become the Tennessee Titans’ offensive coordinator so he could call plays and be head coach of the offense. He took a big risk leaving a Super Bowl contender – the Rams’ quarterbacks coach, Zac Taylor, reportedly will be the Cincinnati Bengals’ head coach when the Rams’ season ends, even though he has never run an offense – to expand his coaching and managerial skills.
Gutekunst also relied on trusted sources to determine that LaFleur has the presence to command a room of 63 players and 20 assistant coaches, and the hard edge to make the tough decisions that go with a head-coaching job. As anyone who watched his introductory news conference saw, LaFleur has a reserved personality, and a non-coaching Rams source said his main question about LaFleur as a head coach is whether he can command the room.
“Most of that was just talking to people who had coached with Matt, worked with him,” Gutekunst said. “Then his presence in the (interview) room was positive as well. He had the whole offense (while) working for a defensive head coach this past year in Tennessee. Him actively seeking that opportunity and doing that this year made me feel pretty good about it.
“… My contacts down there in Tennessee, listening to them speak about how he ran the offensive meeting room. He’s worked with a bunch of different kinds of quarterbacks is important as well. Those are some of the things you’re never going to completely know until you have the guy in the building doing it, but your best bet is talking with the people that worked with him.”
» After LaFleur’s introductory news conference, I wondered if he fully appreciated the standards of success to which he'll be held in Green Bay. The Packers have the most NFL titles in league history (13) and for the last quarter century have been one of the league’s premier franchises.
Since 1992 they have the NFL’s third-best winning percentage (.620), behind only New England (.662) and Pittsburgh (.637), and in that time they’ve been to three Super Bowls and won two. But it’s eight years and counting since their last Super Bowl, which helped get McCarthy fired even though he won a title.
At his news conference, LaFleur didn’t talk about championships and Super Bowls nearly as much as McCarthy did when he was introduced as coach 13 years earlier.
“I do think (LaFleur) completely understands,” Gutekunst said. “That was one of the things that definitely came across in the interview process and talking to people (who said) how driven he is and how hard he works and how important it is not just to succeed and win, but I think he’s one of those guys even in wins can get frustrated because they didn’t play as well as they could have. That definitely came across not only in the research but in the interview process.”
» What matters most is whether a coach can get the most out of his players and staff. But the chemistry between the coach and GM is vital, too. They have to work closely together in personnel matters, and if one is pushing while the other is pulling, the divide can filter down through an entire organization.
What convinced Gutekunst that LaFleur was someone he’d jell with?
“Certainly there’s a presence a coach or anybody who’s interviewed for a job presents in the time you talk to him,” Gutekunst said. “You try to see if that matches up with what you’ve heard about that candidate. I think you’re looking for someone who’s honest and has integrity, and Matt certainly has those things. Not only did we get that from an interview, we also got that from people he’s worked with.”
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» LaFleur surely helped his cause for getting the job by including Mike Pettine on his list of prospective defensive coordinators when he interviewed (they share the same agent). The Packers’ front office had good reason to be happy with Pettine in his first season as coordinator, even if the stats (No. 22 in the NFL in points, No. 18 in yards) don’t leap off the page. Not starting over on that side of the ball too will be an advantage for a new head coach.
But Gutekunst said the decision to retain Pettine was LaFleur’s, as is the hiring of all assistant coaches, which is nearing completion.
“I’m here for support in whatever way Matt needs me,” Gutekunst said. “Whether that’s calling around vetting some coaches, whether that’s giving him names of guys he might not know, I’m here for him, and however I can help him. But at the end of the day he has to make that call, and he’s in full control of that. I’ve been really impressed over the past week or so how he’s gone about it. Very thorough, very deliberate, spends a lot of time with all the guys we’re talking to. My role here is to support Matt.”