Dougherty: Matt LaFleur's hands-on approach clicking with quarterbacks
The thing that stood out at the Green Bay Packers’ first offseason practice open to the public this week was Matt LaFleur.
It wasn’t so much seeing the new Packers coach walking through the lines of players as they stretched early in practice Tuesday, chatting guys up for a minute before moving on to someone else, though that was different. It’s the kind of thing you get with a coaching change, especially when the new guy is only 39 years old
It was watching LaFleur work hands-on with the quarterbacks during individual and small-group periods. If you didn’t know better, you’d have thought he was the quarterbacks coach, not the head coach, with the way he talked and gestured with them between snaps.
LaFleur in effect is serving as the primary quarterbacks coach, though his quarterbacks coach by title (Luke Getsy) and offensive coordinator (Nathaniel Hackett) were always there instructing before and after each snap as well.
That’s definitely a change from the four previous Packers coaches I’ve covered going back to 1993.
I wasn’t there for Mike Holmgren’s first season, but from 1993 on, though Holmgren clearly was in charge of the offense, he left the on-field details of quarterback coaching to his quarterbacks coach. Ray Rhodes was a defensive guy, Mike Sherman never coached quarterbacks in his career and even Mike McCarthy, though he ran his vaunted quarterbacks school his first offseason (2005), left the hands-on work to Tom Clements when the team was on the practice field.
This is another way of saying that LaFleur is taking on an enormous load as a first-time head coach who’s only beginning to find out all that goes into running an NFL team. Wait until training camp and then the real games start. The days will be long and the weeks short.
But it’s hard to blame him for taking this approach. He was hired largely for his expertise on quarterbacks and offense, and his priority has to be getting Aaron Rodgers playing like an MVP candidate again. LaFleur knows all the details of what he wants from his quarterback on every play, and he isn’t risking outsourcing the most important project of Year 1 of his regime.
“(LaFleur’s) big quote is, ‘If we’re right in the quarterback room we can make up for other mistakes,” said Tim Boyle, who’s battling DeShone Kizer for the No. 2 quarterback job.
This is a change Rodgers wanted, so he appears to be embracing it. They’re only in the early stages of installing the new scheme and haven’t lost a game, so of course everything is great. You wouldn’t expect to hear anything else out of an NFL locker room at this point.
But it’s definitely a big change for Rodgers, who played the last 13 years in the McCarthy/Paul Hackett version of the West Coast offense. Now he’s in the LaFleur/Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay branch of that scheme, and as the years pass the branches grow further apart.
“It’s going to look different formationally and the motions and some of the things that we’re doing,” Rodgers said this week. “But I think it’s an offense that I can infuse creativity and put my stamp on.”
Based on what LaFleur, Rodgers and Boyle have said, the hardest part for the quarterbacks isn’t any new footwork techniques they’ll eventually need to incorporate for certain plays. It’s more the new language they’re learning, and old language they’re unlearning.
Last year, Rodgers clearly was unhappy that McCarthy revamped his playbook in the offseason and changed some of the language in his scheme. The coach was trying to simplify things, but Rodgers by all indications considered it a wasted exercise that required new learning and simplified nothing.
This year, the changes aren’t at the coach’s discretion. LaFleur’s offense has to be taught as he knows it. But again, this is what Rodgers wanted, a new, more evolved offense.
“I asked (Rodgers) actually how hard it was, the transition in his mind,” Boyle said, “and he said, ‘Honestly, it’s not that bad.’ There are going to be certain words that meant different things previously in different offenses that he has to work through. But he’s completely open to learning a new offense.”
Along with working hands-on during individual and group drills in practice, LaFleur is in all the quarterbacks meetings (with Getsy and Hackett). The concern of having too many cooks in the quarterbacks kitchen probably isn’t as great as it might seem, because one of the cooks is LaFleur. He can settle any discrepancies on the spot.
“It’s going to be fine-tuned, very detailed,” Boyle said. “(LaFleur) has done a good job of owning the room.”
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The biggest concern with this setup is how much it will take away from LaFleur’s panoramic view of the team once camp and the season start. He’ll be faced with an endless stream of decisions about personnel, game planning, analytics and daily scheduling. He’ll need to be attuned to the locker room, where there always are fires to put out.
All the while, he’ll be in on the minutiae at quarterback. I can see why he’s doing it this year — besides making sure everything’s being taught exactly as he wants it, he’s surely looking to develop a deep rapport with Rodgers as quickly as possible, so the more time they spend together, the better.
But this will be unsustainable a year or two down the road. Even a young coach has only so much time and energy, and he’s responsible for the whole team.
“It’s hard for me to think too far in advance,” LaFleur said, “but I just think that’s what’s the most beneficial at this stage.”
We won’t know until November and December whether it actually worked.