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As new era dawns, Matt LaFleur on 'one-track mindset'

Rivalry game against defending NFC North champs is all the Packers’ 15th head coach has thought about this week

Bears coach Matt Nagy and Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur
Bears coach Matt Nagy and Packers Head Coach Matt LaFleur

GREEN BAY – Walking out of the Soldier Field tunnel on Thursday night to coach his first game for the Green Bay Packers, and his first as a head coach in the NFL, will be a big moment for Matt LaFleur.

But whatever emotions are going to hit him have been the furthest thing from his mind. He hasn't given the personal magnitude of the moment a scintilla of thought.

"Not at all," LaFleur said earlier this week. "We've got a big task right in front of our face. We are focused on our process and that's the only thing I'm focused on right now."

That alone says a lot about LaFleur. From the day he was hired to coach the Packers, he's been described as a grinder, and a grinder doesn't get distracted, especially by any personal emotions that won't help get the job done.

It's how a coach goes from a low-level offensive assistant in the NFL to a head man in 11 years. There was no time to wallow in Atlanta's heartbreaking Super Bowl defeat when the next step in his career, as offensive coordinator for the up-and-coming Los Angeles Rams, was on the horizon.

So there's also no time to think about any butterflies in the stomach or fond reflections on his journey when last year's top defense in the league is looking to lay waste to the offense he's been building with quarterback Aaron Rodgers for the last several months.

"I don't know how you don't do it, to be honest with you," LaFleur said of blocking out the personal, first-game context. "It's a tremendous challenge. We're getting ready for the division champs. It's a one-track mindset."

An interesting parallel to this opening Packers-Bears matchup is LaFleur's counterpart, Matt Nagy, was in exactly the same shoes a year ago – first-time head coach, first game against an archrival, on the road, in prime time.

Reflecting briefly on last year's Week 1 showdown, in which the Packers rallied from a 20-point deficit to steal a 24-23 victory, Nagy viewed it as almost a rite of passage for him and his team.

"First of all, it's amazing how fast it goes," Nagy said. "It's a blur. You really don't know what to expect until it occurs. What a great 'welcome to the NFL' moment that I'll never forget in losing that game like that. But you learn from it, and that's what we did as a team. We used that as a tool to make us better."

Any coach would rather learn and build from a victory in his first game, of course, but unfortunately history is not on Green Bay's side. Only two of the Packers' last eight new head coaches won their opener, and one of the victors was Ray Rhodes, who lasted just one season in 1999.

Rodgers reminisced about some more recent, and positive, history this week in discussing his Packers-Bears games at Soldier Field. From the NFC Championship in 2010 to fourth-and-8 from the 48 in 2013 to the start of R-E-L-A-X in 2014 to James Jones' triumphant return in 2015 to the last-minute 60-yard bomb to Jordy Nelson in 2016, he owns a series of great memories he'd love to add to in his new head coach's debut.

The fact that the NFL is kicking off its 100th season with the league's oldest rivalry is only brightening the spotlight on the new era beginning in Green Bay.

"It's one of the special ones in the history of professional sports," Rodgers said. He was referring specifically to the rivalry. The line also applies to this franchise.

LaFleur is just the 15th head coach of the Packers, over 101 seasons, and the first new one in 13 years. New eras don't begin every day around here.

LaFleur will let it soak in at some point, even if he won't reveal his feelings publicly. His defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who became a head coach in Cleveland in 2014, figures "inside it'll be boiling a little bit" for LaFleur, but he's already seen in his boss's consistent approach that being confident in his preparation is how LaFleur will be confident in the pending results.

"That's the only way I know how to prepare. It is literally one day at a time," LaFleur said. "You put your best foot forward each and every day, and you go into a game with a calm mind."

Is there any other way to go into a first game? For LaFleur, not at all.

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