Dougherty: Matt LaFleur taking a risk entrusting offensive line to young assistant coach
Of all the hires on Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur’s young offensive staff, the one that jumps out is Adam Stenavich on the offensive line.
The reason? Stenavich’s resume is awfully thin in relation for the big job he’s taking on.
Stenavich has coached in the NFL for only two seasons, as assistant offensive line coach with the San Francisco 49ers in 2017 and ‘18. Even as a former offensive lineman who also spent parts of five seasons in training camps and on NFL practice squads, the Marshfield native is a risky hire for one of the key jobs on LaFleur’s staff, especially knowing LaFleur could have retained James Campen, the Packers’ offensive line coach the past 12 years.
The move raised eyebrows among a handful of coaches and scouts in the league I’ve talked to the past few days.
“They need to protect the quarterback up there,” said the offensive line coach for a team in the NFC. “And if the guy doesn’t know what’s going on and you’re facing a defense like Chicago and you turn guys loose and Aaron Rodgers gets crushed because the guy can’t make an adjustment – I don’t think it’s the right thing to do. He might turn out to be a hell of a coach, but I know James Campen did it the right way.”
Offensive line is one of the most important positions on a coaching staff because it’s a team within a team. More than any other position group, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts. The line coach has to get five players to perform in unison regardless of injuries, and because of the salary cap he often has to make do with at least a couple of low draft picks or undrafted players.
Yet, of the five offensive staff members LaFleur has hired, only tight ends coach Justin Outten has a slimmer NFL portfolio. Outten has coached in the NFL for three years to Stenavich’s two, but Outten was a coaching intern for one year and an entry-level offensive assistant the last two. He also doesn’t have any of Stenavich’s playing experience.
On the other hand, Outten will be coaching three or four tight ends, with usually only one on the field at any time. Stenavich will be responsible for almost half the offensive players on the field each snap and have probably 11 or 12 players, including practice squad, overall.
We know why LaFleur made the hire: Stenavich knows the specific version of the West Coast offense that LaFleur is going to run in Green Bay. It’s the Kyle Shanahan scheme that Stenavich has worked in with the 49ers the last two years. Stenavich’s exposure to it actually goes back to when he played with Houston, where LaFleur was a quality control coach and Shanahan a position coach on Gary Kubiak’s staff.
LaFleur clearly wanted someone steeped in the idiosyncrasies of the scheme to coach his offensive linemen.
Still, it’s a big leap entrusting Stenavich with protecting Rodgers, whose mobility at age 35 isn’t what it was a few years ago. Stenavich’s five years kicking around NFL training camps and practice squads counts for something, because he was in NFL meeting rooms and on NFL practice fields. But at age 35 (he turns 36 in March), he’s inexperienced coaching the position.
Before being hired by the 49ers, he coached in college for five years, two as a graduate assistant at Michigan and three as an offensive line coach (Northern Arizona and San Jose State).
“(LaFleur) thinks (Stenavich) knows how to teach it,” said an offensive line coach for another team in the NFC. “You’re right to ask the question for sure. I’m asking the same question. I’m sure a bunch of guys in the league who are line coaches are going, ‘Why’d they go with this guy when they could have had this guy, or that guy?’”
As important as teaching the nuances of this offense and blocking scheme, maybe the most important and difficult part of the job is adjusting on game day when a defense throws unexpected looks and blitzes at the offensive line. That requires the ability to adjust on the fly, when things are moving fast and players need answers faster.
“The run game isn’t usually as much of an issue,” one of the line coaches said, “but there are some things that come up that only experience can handle. Where it really comes in is on third down, the pressures. Protection adjustments that have to be made during the game.
“(Stenavich) played a little bit (in the NFL) and then jumped up in that position, it might be because he’s got a gift (for coaching). But it’s like everything else. If you have 10,000 hours at something, you’re better than the guy that has 4,000 hours. You’ve seen it, you’ve experienced how things are. That’s just a fact.”
Another fact is that LaFleur is right to hire whichever coaches he wants, for he’s ultimately responsible for how the team performs on the field.
But just as the Packers have taken a big chance on LaFleur and his thin resume for a head coach, LaFleur is taking a big chance on an offensive line coach with a thin resume for his big job.