Packers Offseason Report Card: Coaching

The Green Bay Packers in 2024 will sink or swim because of new defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, the biggest move made by coach Matt LaFleur this offseason.
New Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley (right) works with the team at minicamp.
New Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley (right) works with the team at minicamp. / Mark Hoffman/Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Last year at this time, Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur was about to be tossed into the pressure cooker.

From 2019 through 2021, he became the first coach in NFL history to lead a team to three consecutive 13-win seasons. Those teams featured Aaron Rodgers throwing passes to Davante Adams. Following the trade of Adams, the 2022 Packers crashed to 8-9 and missed the playoffs.

How would LaFleur respond following the trade of Rodgers? Had the Packers stumbled badly, it’s easy to see how LaFleur could have been made the scapegoat. After all, it was his job to get Jordan Love and the offense ready for the seismic shift at quarterback.

After a rocky start, the LaFleur-led Packers got hot down the stretch. They finished 9-8 and earned an unlikely playoff win at Dallas. Based on how the team finished 2023, they are legitimate Super Bowl contenders in 2024 with the 10th-shortest odds to win it all at FanDuel Sportsbook.

That puts a different type of pressure on LaFleur. A 9-8 record last year was a rousing success. A 9-8 record this year would be a failure.

“I just think you’ve got to do your best to ignore the outside noise and just get to work,” LaFleur said of the team managing heightened expectations. “And that’s where the confidence is built, is through the work and just going out there and competing together, coning close together. Just my advice to those guys is, you can’t worry about what everybody expects from you. It’s what we expect of each other.”

Having failed to meet expectations on defense, LaFleur fired defensive coordinator Joe Barry and replaced him with Jeff Hafley.

Assuming the offense remains strong, the team will sink or swim because of Hafley, a hire that doesn’t come without risk. Barry was hired after horrendous stints as the coordinator in Washington and Detroit. Hafley was hired following mediocre results as the head coach at Boston College. Of 130 teams in FBS in 2023, Boston College finished 70th in total defense, 83rd in scoring defense and 96th in yards allowed per play.

To be clear, that’s not all Hafley’s fault. He was the head coach and not the defensive coordinator – though it was his defensive vision. More than that, college football is divided between the haves and the have-nots. Even the world’s greatest scheme can’t overcome the baked-in talent disparity that rules that sport.

Still, there is no doubt selecting Hafley rather than an established coordinator or even an up-and-coming position coach was a significant roll of the dice by LaFleur.

For what it’s worth, the defensive players say they are thrilled about Hafley and the scheme he’s installed. That’s important – it beats the alternative, right? – but hope springs eternal, especially in the NFL in June. The schemes all look beautiful on the whiteboard, the defense hasn’t given up a touchdown and Hafley hasn’t had to make a game-deciding decision.

“Attack, attack, attack,” defensive end Rashan Gary said of the scheme. “Aggressive, and I’m loving it. Just pin your ears back and relax and play.”

Added fellow defensive end Preston Smith: “I think with this system, we’ve got a lot of talented guys on every level, and I feel like with the calls he’s making and from the progress I see in practice, that there’s going to be a lot of guys making a lot of plays this year, and Green Bay’s defense is going to be causing a lot of plays and helping the offense be in position.”

There are new coaches at linebacker (Anthony Campanile replaced Kirk Olivadotti) and cornerback (Derrick Ansley as defensive passing-game coordinator replaced Greg Williams), as well.

Campanile has brought a fiery dimension to the defense, while Ansley served as interim defensive coordinator for the Chargers last year after the firing of coach Brandon Staley.

“I just want to be as detailed as I can be and, really, at the end of the day, you want to make sure that you’re getting guys to where they want to go,” Campanile said. “Sometimes they’ve got to do the things they don’t want to do to be the player they want to be. So, you’ve got to be honest. In my opinion, as a coach. I don’t think anything gets better without honesty.”

With Jason Vrable promoted to offensive passing-game coordinator, Ryan Mahaffey was promoted to receivers coach from assistant offensive line coach. Vrable, though, will still a significant role with the receivers.

Mahaffey was a fullback/tight end at Northern Iowa. His college coaching resume includes receivers, tight ends and offensive coordinator.

“Sometimes in coaching, you don’t have a decision of what job you take or not, so some of that stuff has just happened organically over time,” he said of prior jobs. “I’ve been thankful to just kind of have a little bit of that background working with a couple different positions as I’m kind of stepping into this role now.”

Finally, former NFL quarterback Sean Mannion was added to the staff, presumably to be groomed to eventually replace venerable quarterbacks coach Tom Clements.

Final Grade: B-minus

Of course, the only real grade for this should be incomplete, but that’s a copout. If Hafley’s as good as the players hope and believe, this will move to an A. And if it turns out Hafley’s defenses were as porous as they were at Boston College, this will move to an F.

The college and professional games are miles apart due to the abundance of dual-threat quarterbacks and wider hashmarks. How will Hafley’s philosophy mesh with the professional game?

The expectations are high – and they should be. The defense is loaded with talent. The additions of safety Xavier McKinney in free agency and safety Javon Bullard and linebacker Edgerrin Cooper with second-round picks will give Hafley the type of athleticism that Barry could only have dreamed about.

There will be no excuses. Nor should there. The defense should be good. Really good. If it is, the Packers should be in the mix to win the Super Bowl. If it’s not, then it’s on LaFleur for botching another important hire.

More Green Bay Packers News

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Bill Huber

BILL HUBER

Bill Huber, who has covered the Green Bay Packers since 2008, is the publisher of Packer Central, a Sports Illustrated channel. E-mail: packwriter2002@yahoo.com History: Huber took over Packer Central in August 2019. Twitter: https://twitter.com/BillHuberNFL Background: Huber graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he played on the football team, in 1995. He worked in newspapers in Reedsburg, Wisconsin Dells and Shawano before working at The Green Bay News-Chronicle and Green Bay Press-Gazette from 1998 through 2008. With The News-Chronicle, he won several awards for his commentaries and page design. In 2008, he took over as editor of Packer Report Magazine, which was founded by Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Nitschke, and PackerReport.com. In 2019, he took over the new Sports Illustrated site Packer Central, which he has grown into one of the largest sites in the Sports Illustrated Media Group.