Packers betting on post-hype Matt LaFleur as head coach

Green Bay Packers

A year ago, Matt LaFleur looked like a rising star in the coaching world. Now, after a middling year as Titans offensive coordinator, he becomes the first surprise head-coach hiring of the offseason.

Just a week into the new year, the Green Bay Packers became the first of the eight NFL teams without a head coach to fill their vacancy. On Monday, news surfaced that the Packers had offered the job to Matt LaFleur, the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator who beat out a cavalcade of bigger names for the position.

Though not an anonymous coach, LaFleur’s hiring comes as a surprise. The Packers, a premier franchise with stable leadership and future Hall of Fame quarterback Aaron Rodgers, appeared to have their pick of virtually any coach available. Their interview list included numerous well-regarded candidates, including New England Patriots coordinators Josh McDaniels and Brian Flores, Saints assistants Dan Campbell and Pete Carmichael Jr., and former Miami Dolphins headman Adam Gase.

And by most accounts, the Packers planned to go in a different direction as recently as Sunday. One report from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel indicated that McDaniels had a strong interview with Green Bay decision makers Mark Murphy and Brian Gutekunst. Another report from the same day explained that McDaniels indeed wanted the job and the Patriots had already begun preparations for his departure. Connecting the dots, the position looked like McDaniels’ to lose.

It remains unclear what exactly convinced the Packers to pivot towards LaFleur. Maybe Murphy and Gutekunst grew wary of waiting for candidates currently working for playoff teams. Perhaps they liked McDaniels but felt that after he could jilt them as he did to the Indianapolis Colts last offseason. LaFleur might simply have wowed Green Bay in his interview, the last of the 10 the team conducted.

But regardless of how the Packers eventually came to their decision, LaFleur represents an atypical, post-hype hire.

Back in early 2018, LaFleur looked like a fast riser in the coaching ranks. He had just come off his first year as the offensive coordinator for Sean McVay’s Los Angeles Rams. Though McVay reserved play-calling powers for himself, LaFleur helped direct an offense that finished dead last in DVOA the season prior to a No. 6 finish in the same metric. That success came directly on the heels of LaFleur’s work as the Atlanta Falcons’ quarterbacks coach where he guided Matt Ryan to the MVP award. LaFleur had also served as QB coach for Robert Griffin III during his Offensive Rookie of the Year-winning season.

But when LaFleur finally received the chance to run an offense of his own, the results halted the momentum he had built up over the previous half decade. The Titans struggled to find an identity throughout the 2018 season, finishing 22th in DVOA and an even more woeful 27th in scoring. Probably because of the poor showing, LaFleur didn’t receive a single interview for a head-coaching position from a team other than the Packers.

Of course, factors outside of LaFleur’s control affected the Titans’ performance. Pro Bowl tight end Delanie Walker missed essentially the entire season after severely dislocating his ankle. The offensive line continuously reshuffled its starters as injuries piled up, affecting both pass protection and the ground game. And, perhaps most significantly, quarterback Marcus Mariota suffered nerve damage in his throwing elbow during the first game of the year and never fully recovered. Even so, those issues don’t fully account for the middling offense LaFleur oversaw in Tennessee.

Perhaps LaFleur simply rose to his level of mediocrity this past season and the Packers’ decision to hire him will ultimately prove costly. However, LaFleur spent much of his career working under a coach who dealt with a similar road bump before developing into one of the league’s premier offensive minds: San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan.

Long before a 31-year-old McVay took the NFL by storm, Shanahan looked like the football’s next wunderkind. He became the youngest league’s youngest coordinator less than a month after his 29th birthday, running offense for the Houston Texans. A young LaFleur also worked on that staff as a quality-control assistant. When Shanahan moved to Washington to work for his father, two-time Super Bowl winner Mike Shanahan, he took LaFleur with him. Shanahan’s star continued to rise after coaching his star pupil, quarterback Robert Griffin III, to Offensive Rookie of the Year honors. While Washington would fire the entire staff a year later, Shanahan had plenty of offers.

Trying to escape his father’s shadow, Shanahan moved westward and became the offensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns. The decision backfired, and Shanahan asked out of his contract after just one season. He moved onto the Falcons, reuniting once again with LaFleur, only to struggle that first season. Ryan reportedly felt “overwhelmed” by Shanahan, who narrowly avoided receiving his pink slip at the end of the year. Shanahan’s once-promising career had come to a crossroads.

Of course, Shanahan rebounded in Atlanta the following season, leading the Falcons to a historic scoring season as well as Ryan’s aforementioned MVP award. That performance convinced the San Francisco 49ers to bring him on as head coach, the position he still holds today.

LaFleur’s career path doesn’t look exactly the same. He didn’t need a bounce-back season to obtain a head-coaching gig, nor has he called plays for an offense that reached the heights of the 2016 Falcons. Still, LaFleur shares many traits with his former colleague, and that could allow him to become another post-hype success story.

The Packers took a calculated risk. LaFleur doesn’t come with the pedigree or experience of the other candidates they considered. If that prevents him from develop a fruitful relationship with Rodgers, the team could endure an organization reset even larger than the one it has undergone over the past 12 months.

However, if LaFleur can channel what he learned from Shanahan and his other former colleagues, he has everything he needs in Green Bay to build a contender. The Packers simply have to hope they made the right bet.

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