GREEN BAY, Wis. – In Saturday’s divisional playoff game between the Green Bay Packers and Los Angeles Rams at Lambeau Field, there will be three elite vs. elite matchups.
One, it’s MVP frontrunner Aaron Rodgers against the NFL’s best defense.
Two, it’s All-Pro receiver Davante Adams vs. All-Pro cornerback Jalen Ramsey.
Three, it’s Packers coach Matt LaFleur against his former boss and mentor, Rams coach Sean McVay.
“I love him like a brother,” LaFleur said on Tuesday.
LaFleur considers 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan to be like a brother, too. Last season, in his first season as Packers coach, LaFleur was given the equivalent of a wedgie in a 37-8 beating at the hands of Shanahan’s 49ers in Week 12. In the NFC Championship Game rematch, Shanahan stole the dessert off LaFleur’s plate in a 37-20 victory.
LaFleur learned well from big brother. The Packers rolled 34-17 over the 49ers in Week 9. Facing another former boss in Week 16, Green Bay crushed Mike Vrabel’s Titans 40-14.
LaFleur and McVay go way back. In 2010, venerable coach Mike Shanhan was named Washington’s coach. Shanahan appointed his son, Kyle, as offensive coordinator. After two years as an offensive assistant in Houston, LaFleur was named Washington’s quarterbacks coach. And McVay got his first big break, going from the United Football League to Washington as assistant tight ends coach.
“I’ll never forget when Coach Shanahan and Kyle were interviewing him,” LaFleur recalled. “My office kind of butted up to the offensive staff room, and I could kind of hear them through the wall and just the excitement and enthusiasm and energy he had in his voice.”
The two became close. LaFleur and his wife, Bre, happened to live across the street from the bachelor McVay.
“That was before I had met my fiancé and so I’d come third wheel it with them a lot,” McVay said in a Zoom call on Tuesday.
In 2014, McVay took over as Washington’s offensive coordinator under new coach Jay Gruden while LaFleur landed at Notre Dame as quarterbacks coach. When McVay got the Rams job in 2017, he brought LaFleur aboard as his offensive coordinator.
“Matt is one of my closest friends in life,” McVay said. “I think us getting a chance to work here together my first year, having that comfort level with one another, I always appreciated his ability to say, ‘I don’t care what you are.’ He always has the right approach as far as being honest. It wasn’t one of those tell you what you want to hear. He told me what I needed to hear, and it was good, even though sometimes we wanted to choke each other out. But I love him. He’s like my big brother and we’ve been close for a long time.”
Together, they drove the Rams to new heights. Under Jeff Fisher in 2016, the Rams finished 4-12 and scored the fewest points in the NFL. In 2017 under McVay, the Rams went 11-5 and led the league in scoring. They drove each other to new heights, too – though, sometimes, they drove each other crazy.
In 2018, LaFleur went to Tennessee for a chance to call plays. Now, in Year 2 in Green Bay, LaFleur’s scheme has been tailored to having Aaron Rodgers as his quarterback. McVay’s scheme has evolved, too, without the singular talents of running back Todd Gurley.
So, yes, there is inside knowledge to what each other is thinking. Sometimes, knowledge is power. Other times, knowledge can be dangerous.
“I don’t think you want to be naive to the fact that they know a couple things that you want to make sure that you’re aware of, but I also think you’ve got to be careful of not overthinking it,” McVay said.
“I think it can be a little bit blown out of proportion, but you don’t want to be blind to the fact that they do know a couple of foundational things that you don’t want to ignore. But I think it’s about the Rams versus the Packers this week. You see a lot of things that you’re familiar with, but you don’t know when they’re going to activate them, and that’s where you have to do a great job of playing in all three phases."
In 2018, with LaFleur in Tennessee, McVay and the Rams got to the Super Bowl. That could be the Packers’ destination in 2020, but he must do what he couldn’t do in 2019: beat a team coached by a friend and mentor.
“He’s a great friend of mine,” LaFleur said, “but the gloves will be off on Saturday.”