New Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur has a big job ahead of him.
He takes over a unit which ranked last in the NFL in total offense last season. However, one wouldn’t know about the tough challenge ahead for the 34-year old from his introductory press conference this week. The Kyle Shanahan disciple is confident his personnel and his scheme can transform the Jets offense into a well-oiled machine.
A key element of the West Coast offense is its adaptability.
“What’s cool and unique about this offense is yes it’s the West Coast system and we’re trying to run the outside zone and do the play action stuff off it, but we fit it to our players, and that’s something I’ve learned from all the guys I’ve been around,” said LaFleur Thursday.
The structure uses players’ strengths to unleash their full potential, exemplified by the success of many unheralded players with the San Francisco 49ers, where LaFleur previously served as the passing game coordinator.
When asked about how he would adjust his offense for second overall pick Zach Wilson, LaFleur downplayed the necessary changes, emphasizing Wilson’s experience under center in college.
Wilson’s exposure to pro-style sets stands in stark contrast to other rookie quarterbacks beginning their careers in the outside zone scheme, like Johnny Manziel in 2014, who LaFleur worked with while serving as an intern with the Cleveland Browns. This will allow Wilson to adjust far more quickly to the offense.
Throughout the press conference, Gang Green’s new offensive play-caller had high praise for his quarterback. He has been particularly impressed with Wilson’s work habits, calling him a “film junkie” to a level he has rarely seen in his time coaching.
“He’s the one that wants to watch the film," LaFleur said. "It’s unique. It’s cool to watch him be able to sit there and stay focused and process all the info we’re trying to give him."
Upon hearing of Wilson’s tendencies, LaFleur’s brother warned him to make sure he doesn’t overwork Wilson.
His brother is of course Matt LaFleur, head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Eight years older than Mike, Matt played a major role in his younger sibling’s philosophy and passion for coaching. Mike remembers fondly as a teenager growing up in Mount Pleasant, Michigan watching Matt work as a graduate assistant coach at Central Michigan.
His older brother lived just down the road from their parents’ home, with another coach by the name of Robert Saleh. LaFleur forged strong relationships with the two of them from a young age.
“Matt [LaFleur] and Saleh lived in an apartment down the street with no cable or anything like that," he said. "They were trying to save as much as they could because they were graduate assistants, and they knew my parents were right down the street. They would come eat our food and watch all the TV I was trying to watch, and use our pool, so I got to know Saleh at a pretty early age."
LaFleur always admired the pair’s tremendous work ethic, so much so that it inspired him as he worked his way up the ladder. He started as an assistant at Division-III Elmhurst College in 2010, his alma mater, before moving to Division-II Saint Joseph’s, eventually becoming the offensive coordinator at Davidson in 2013.
LaFleur believes he learned the most about coaching in those first three seasons, setting a foundation for a lifelong career in football. After working for the Browns in 2014, LaFleur rediscovered Saleh and his brother’s relentless determination as a member of the same coaching staff. He worked with Matt in Atlanta in 2015 and 2016, serving with Kyle Shanahan for the first time as the Falcons reached the Super Bowl.
Then, following Shanahan to the Niners, he established a professional relationship with Saleh for the first time. The two grew very close, and led to Saleh offering him the OC job when he was hired to coach the Jets.
“I’ve always looked at him as a really close friend, but then obviously getting to work with him in San Francisco, my respect for him as a worker grew," said LaFleur. "He’s very smart, and he’s an incredible worker, and he’s very good with the players. When he had the opportunity and he asked me, it was a no brainer because of the respect I have for him."
A major component of the wide zone offense LaFleur and Saleh will look to bring to New York is the strong rushing attack it is designed to produce. As the 49ers have shown, a consistent running game can produce a title contender.
Asked about the necessary traits for a ball carrier in the wide zone scheme, considering how undrafted players like Raheem Mostert have thrived in the system, LaFleur was quick to note that a wide range of running backs with various body types can succeed in the system. It doesn’t necessarily require the most elusive runners, but they must be able to hit the hole with explosiveness.
“There’s definitely an element of being able to put your foot in the ground and go North and South," he said. "You don’t even need to be the loosest guy in the hips and be able to dance around and all that. You gotta be able to press it, put your foot in the ground and go."
LaFleur will also look to implement the consistent short-passing game that is fundamental to the West Coast offense. He expressed his excitement to work with receivers Corey Davis and Denzel Mims in his media appearance, believing they are excellent fits in the offense. With their ability to get open on short routes, the two receivers will make Wilson’s life as a signal-caller much easier.
After two years agonizing over the playcalling of Adam Gase, it has to be a refreshing sight for Jets fans to see major changes being made to the playbook. LaFleur has a tall task ahead of him, but if anyone is capable of quickly revitalizing Gang Green’s offensive attack, it’s him.
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