GREEN BAY — Matt LaFleur had a feeling he was in the running for the Green Bay head coaching job when he got a call from Aaron Rodgers.
The Packers interviewed 10 candidates for the position, including seven over the course of three days last weekend, a logistical nightmare that had the Packers president Mark Murphy, general manager Brian Gutekunst and executive vice president/director of football operations Russ Ball flying across the country, from New England to interview Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and defensive coordinator Brian Flores to New Orleans to interview Saints offensive assistants Dan Campbell and Pete Carmichael. Murphy said that none of the first nine candidates really stood out. Murphy got emotional when he singled out one candidate, interim head coach Joe Philbin, but none of the options had that the right feeling the Green Brass were searching for.
LaFleur was the 10th and final candidate, and after the interview, Murphy, Gutekunst and Ball looked at each other said, “That was good wasn’t it?”
LaFleur had been the most prepared candidate and impressed the Packers brass with his vision and quiet confidence. That’s when Gutekunst told the franchise quarterback to go ahead and reach out to LaFleur. Gutekunst would not speak to whether Rodgers had spoken to any of the other nine candidates during the interview process.
LaFleur’s first day on the job in Green Bay was an emotional one. He choked up in just his fourth sentence after being introduced as the Packers head coach. He pointed to his wife and parents, appropriately dressed in green and gold, who were seated along the side of the auditorium, and credited them for his success. His two sons sat quietly next to his wife. When he mentioned them by name, Luke and Ty, the youngest, Ty, immediately burst into silent tears. He spent the rest of his dad’s interview wiping his eyes.
Murphy said the interview process began with a meeting with Green Bay’s leadership council, a group of nine players that represent each position group. Rodgers, receiver Davante Adams, and defensive end Mike Daniels are among the players on the council. Murphy said the council talked about a sense of complacency that had settled in among certain players this past season. They wanted a coach who would hold players accountable.
“It’s been two long years here in Green Bay,” Murphy said. “We are ready to get back winning.”
LaFleur's most important task will be establishing a good relationship with Rodgers, and his own experience played the position in college will likely help him earn that respect. LeFleur played quarterback for three seasons at DII-Saginaw Valley State. He transferred there after playing one season of receiver at Western Michigan, a decision that may have shaped his coaching destiny.
“I love everything about being a quarterback,” LaFleur said. “The ball is in your hand at every play. You can have a huge impact on the game. It is a challenge. It is more or less about looking at the ten other guys in the huddle and knowing you are going to get the job done.”
Former head coach Mike McCarthy’s relationship with Rodgers became strained at the end of his tenure, and the two had their differences over play-calling. Rodgers had the authority to change plays and often did so, to the frustration of McCarthy, who struggled at times to get into a rhythm. Rodgers is a difficult player to coach because he is extremely smart and independent. LaFleur is 39 years old, just four years older than Rodgers, so there are questions about how he’ll be able to manage Rodgers and the type of relationship they will have.
LaFleur confirmed he will be Green Bay’s play-caller, and said that he is excited to work with Rodgers. He thinks they are both already on the same page. When it comes to coaching a veteran like Rodgers, LaFleur says he will lean on his experience coaching Matt Ryan in 2016, who was an eight-year veteran at the time. Ryan was named MVP that 2016 season.
LaFleur coached Rams quarterback Jared Goff in his sophomore season (2017) where he took a huge step in his development, and Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III in his rookie season (2012), when he was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The success of the young offensive gurus in head-coaching positions, like the Rams’ Sean McVay, and the rival Bears’ Matt Nagy, certainly paved the way for LaFleur, who has just 10 seasons of coaching experience and one season as a play-caller. When Nagy was hired last January, he was the same age as LeFleur and had only a few games of play-calling experience.
LaFleur comes to Green Bay from Tennessee, where he was offensive coordinator this past season on Titans head coach Mike Vrabel’s inaugural staff. Before that, he was offensive coordinator on McVay’s staff in Los Angeles. With McVay as head coach, LaFleur did not have the opportunity to call plays. He says he made the decision to leave a great situation in Los Angeles for the Titans job because he would have play-calling duties and knew that would better prepare him to be a head coach. The Titans finished 9-7 with a combination of Marcus Mariota and backup Blaine Gabbert at quarterback, and missed the playoffs.
“It would have been easy to stay in LA., you look at the season they are having there,” LaFleur says. “I took the risk because I knew I needed to get out of my comfort zone and grow as a coach. Football is not always easy, you need to navigate through some adversity. It certainly didn’t live up to the standards we’d have liked [in Tennessee.]”
Murphy and Gutekunst said the Titans' low-scoring offense didn’t concern them in the hiring process because LaFleur’s Tennessee offense suffered several key injuries to quarterback Marcus Mariota, and starting tight ends Delanie Walker and Jonnu Smith.
Introductory press conferences are always a celebration and this one signaled a stark contrast in the mood around Green Bay in recent months. Murphy couldn’t stop smiling, and jumped in several times to tell stories about LaFleur. He kicked off the press conference with a surprisingly revealing 10-minute monologue on the search process and how they landed on their guy. The Packers are confident they’ve landed their guy in LaFleur, who fits the popular mold of the young, offensive-guru type.
It’s good that LaFleur and Rodgers have already started talking, because the new head coach’s success or failure depends in Green Bay will be measured by one question: Can he get the most out of Rodgers’s last few seasons?