GREEN BAY — It’s all about the scheme in the NFL these days.
Teams seeking head coaches are shopping almost exclusively in the offensive aisle, looking for aggressive young coaches with cutting-edge offensive schemes.
Matt LaFleur, who was introduced as the head coach of the Packers on Wednesday, checks off that box and many more for Green Bay. In addition to describing a career path that saw him tutor some of the NFL’s top quarterbacks and work with emerging offensive gurus such as Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan, LaFleur was confident, bright and unpretentious when meeting with reporters.
What LaFleur doesn’t have is experience as a head coach. At any level of football.
The Packers have had success hiring head coaches who hadn’t run their own programs in college or the NFL, including two — Mike Holmgren and Mike McCarthy — who won Super Bowls. LaFleur, a 10-year NFL coaching veteran who was the offensive coordinator for the Los Angeles Rams in 2017 and Tennessee in 2018, could well do the same and return the Packers to the playoffs after a two-year absence.
However, it’s always a leap of faith when a team hires an assistant coach and puts him in charge of 53 players for the first time. Does he have what it takes to command every corner of the room? Can he be an inspirational leader? Will he be able to create a culture of accountability?
At this point, there is no way to determine if LaFleur is ready for that. There never is when an assistant moves to the front of the room. All you can do is look for signs that they have the right personality and cross your fingers.
Packers president Mark Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst — especially Murphy — are banking their reputations on LaFleur, who, based on his news conference and a later session with print reporters, is unlikely to win over a room with fiery rhetoric. He did, however, seem like a coach who would impress players with his honesty and knowledge of the game.
Both Murphy and Gutekunst praised LaFleur’s character — “quiet confidence and yet humility,” Murphy said — and his adaptability in getting the best out of quarterbacks with widely varying skill sets at previous coaching stops in Washington, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Tennessee.
“When we got in the room with him, the presence that he had in front of us just made me feel like he could coach our whole team, that he could drive our team to where it needed to be, that he could be aggressive enough to (succeed),” Gutekunst said. “We need to get better and we need to play harder and I thought he could do that for us.”
That was important to Murphy and Gutekunst after they met with the nine-member players leadership council last week to get input on what type of things they thought the new coach needed.
“They wanted somebody that would hold players accountable,” Murphy said. “And the (players) talked a little bit about how they felt a complacency had set in among some players and coaches. So in my mind, that was something that as we went through the process was kind of in the back of my mind: Is there something we can do that can kind of shake people up so we don’t have the complacency.”
Clearly, LaFleur convinced the Packers he can be demanding enough to lead the entire team after coaching quarterbacks for six seasons and heading up an offense the past two. LaFleur said he’s learned from watching other coaches take the same step, especially the Rams’ McVay. He also cited his gradual build-up from coaching the quarterbacks in Atlanta to being the offensive coordinator in Los Angeles and adding play-calling duties as the offensive coordinator in Tennessee, where injuries sabotaged his offense.
“(It was) not only being the play-caller, but being the leader out in front of half the team, having to go through a lot of adversity and having that mentality of, it doesn’t matter fellas what comes at us, we’re not going to blink,” LaFleur said. “I think the biggest challenge moving forward is still having that involvement with our offense but also it’s my responsibility to oversee special teams and defense as well. Being in L.A., being around Sean McVay and seeing how he did it, especially with the relationship I have with Sean, gave me a really good blueprint, I think, as to how I need to go about my business in order for us to become the team we need to become.”
Can he pull it off? LaFleur was known as a leader as a quarterback in college. He showed his mettle by correcting veteran Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan’s mechanics in their first day on the practice field together. He showed toughness and resourcefulness in dealing with injury-related adversity last season and finding a new approach — running the ball — that almost got the Titans into the playoffs.
“I know this, I’m going to lead, I’m going to be my own person,” LaFleur said. “The way I lead is going to be different than Kyle, it’s going to be different than Sean. I think the only way to lead is you better be true to yourself. These players, they’re extremely smart. You better be real, you better be honest. That’s exactly how I’m going to be with these guys.”
That’s a good place to start. Unfortunately, we won’t know how it ends for quite some time.