The Green Bay Packers interviewed five coaching candidates whose expertise was in NFL quarterbacks, and two more who were former offensive coordinators in the league.
That they hired a quarterback guru told us everything we needed to know, that job No. 1 will be getting Aaron Rodgers to play great again.
But what did the Packers see in 39-year-old Matt LaFleur to think he not only had the background but also the personal skills to connect with Rodgers after the quarterback’s worst season since his first as a starter in the NFL?
For a more detailed answer on that, I recently interviewed general manager Brian Gutekunst, who was an integral part of team president/CEO Mark Murphy’s search process. Remember, among the other coaches the Packers interviewed were Josh McDaniels, who has worked 12 years with Tom Brady; Adam Gase, who worked four years with Peyton Manning; and Pete Carmichael, who just finished his 13th season with Drew Brees.
Why was the unassuming LaFleur the best choice for the 35-year-old, two-time MVP Rodgers?
“(LaFleur’s) background with quarterbacks and the person as well,” Gutekunst answered. “He’s a really genuine, authentic guy. He’s an excellent communicator. He’s really, really passionate, and his work ethic is going to be something our players see and will respect.
“I like his direct, forward approach to the way he looks at things. And his desire to win. When players know that you can make them get better and help them win, they respect that and they’ll be willing to listen to guys that help them.”
In an extended interview last week, Gutekunst talked about the coach-quarterback dynamic and the Packers’ near-term future at that position after hiring LaFleur. It’s the most important issue surrounding the team after Rodgers’ open chafing at Mike McCarthy’s offensive scheme and game planning helped push the team into a spiral that ended with McCarthy’s firing with four games to play.
Gutekunst didn’t address the Rodgers-McCarthy falling out but knows that LaFleur and Rodgers functioning in tandem is critical for the franchise to return to Super Bowl contention after two straight seasons missing the playoffs.
Don’t think LaFleur doesn’t know it, either. He is bringing back former Packers receivers coach Luke Getsy to serve as quarterbacks coach but has said he’ll be heavily involved in coaching the position.
Gutekunst said he met with Rodgers and several other players after the season. The GM surely has Rodgers’ perspective on what went wrong with him and McCarthy, and what he didn’t like about the coach’s offense. The Packers can’t have a coach-quarterback relationship break down like that again, or everyone near the top of the chain will be looking for a new job.
“It’s on all of us to support the coaches and the players and make sure everything works smoothly,” Gutekunst said of avoiding a repeat of the coach-quarterback disconnect. “We’re all in this together, and we’re going to win or lose as a team. Anything any of us can do to help move us toward our goals we’re going to do.”
The hard part for LaFleur will be connecting with Rodgers on a personal level while also being Rodgers’ boss, not just in title but in reality. It’s not unlike the relationship NBA coaches have to negotiate with their superstars.
LaFleur is only four years and one month older than the 35-year-old Rodgers and has been a play caller in the league for only one season, so he won’t walk into their first meeting with the cachet that McDaniels or even Gase would have.
“I don’t think that’s problematic,” Gutekunst said. “I think (that respect) is earned. When our players, and our coaches with our players, when they see these (coaches) are working hard and everybody’s in this to win and do what it takes to win, that respect and those relationships are forged. This is a partnership between players and coaches. It always has been. I understand the question, but it’s one of those things over time those relationships are earned.”
As we approach draft season, it’s also worth remembering that Brett Favre was only a year older than Rodgers is now when the Packers picked Rodgers in the first round in 2005. Circumstances were a little different then – Favre had mused openly for several years about retiring, and quarterbacks’ careers were a little shorter because the rules didn’t protect them like they do today.
Rodgers, on the other hand, has said he wants to play until he’s at least 40, which in theory is realistic based on the performances of Brady (41) and Brees (40) this season.
But the Packers have to at least wonder whether the physical and mental toll of Rodgers’ recent injuries will shorten his career. He has sustained two broken collarbones and a concussion in the last 15 months.
One of the truest NFL aphorisms is that the hardest time to find a quarterback is when you need one. So when should the Packers start looking for real?
You never know who might be available when they pick at No. 12, and you don’t have to go very far back to find good quarterbacks selected in that vicinity. This year’s likely MVP, Patrick Mahomes, was taken at No. 10 in 2017, and Houston’s promising DeShaun Watson went two picks later.
It still strikes me as early for the Packers to draft a quarterback in the first round (they also have pick No. 30). I’m thinking Gutekunst very much wants to use those picks on players who can help Rodgers win in the next couple years.
But what if Oklahoma’s undersized Kyler Murray is available in the draft, and the Packers think he’ll be a special player? What if he’s there late in the first round, or he or another quarterback they think highly of is there at 12?
I didn’t ask Gutekunst about any prospects, but he didn’t rule out drafting a quarterback in any round at any time.
“It’s not about a time, it’s about the player,” he said. “I don’t think Ted (Thompson) went into the draft the year he took Aaron (thinking) he was going to take Aaron. We all thought (Rodgers) was going to go much higher, and Brett was still playing at a very, very high level. It was one of those things, we felt Aaron was a franchise-type quarterback and he was sitting there staring us in the face. I don’t think you can ignore that. I don’t think it’s about time, it’s about the player.”
It is about the player, but for the 2019 Packers, it’s about one already on the roster. Murphy and Gutekunst invested heavily in Rodgers last August to be their quarterback for several years to come, and they hired LaFleur to make that happen.