Skip to main content

Creativity, connections have defined Jeff Hafley's coaching style

Assembly of the Packers’ defensive staff was years in the making

Defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley
Defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley

GREEN BAY – Ryan Downard admittedly didn't say a whole lot as a first-time NFL assistant serving in the Cleveland defensive backs room.

He was too busy listening.

Back in 2014, the future Packers defensive backs coach was the newbie on a stacked Browns coaching staff that included future NFL defensive coordinators Anthony Weaver (Houston, Miami), Aaron Glenn (Detroit) and Bobby Babich (Buffalo).

Then there was Jeff Hafley, a young and energetic DB coach whose energy and passion was only matched by his ability to teach and clearly present the defensive vision to his secondary.

As a young assistant in an entry-level NFL position, Downard was taking as many notes as the Browns' players themselves.

"I remember going home and telling my wife, 'That is what I need to get to,'" recalled Downard last week. "To be able to answer the questions so quickly and have reasons for why and to know what the offense is thinking."

Now a full decade later, Downard is back under the Hafley learning tree after the former Boston College head coach was hired in February to lead the Packers' defense into a new era.

Since his time in Cleveland, the 45-year-old Hafley has checked pretty much every box there is in the coaching realm. He coached the secondary in San Francisco and coordinated the defense at Ohio State and led Boston College's football program for four years.

Schematic creativity and strong communication skills not only played a role in Hafley's rapid ascent up the coaching ladder but also contributed to the relationships he built along the way – many of whom have now joined him on Green Bay's coaching staff.

Hafley pulled multiple levers while building his team. He retained Downard, Jason Rebrovich and Wendel Davis from the previous Packers' defensive staff, while bringing two assistants, Vince Oghobaase and Sean Duggan, with him from Boston College.

To round out his staff, Hafley tabbed veteran secondary coach Derrick Ansley as passing game coordinator and Anthony Campanile as linebackers coach/running game coordinator.

This is technically the first time Hafley has worked with the high-energy Campanile, but their relationship goes back more than a decade to when Hafley was leaving Rutgers to join Greg Schiano's coaching staff with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Before departing, Hafley put in a word with the new staff for Campanile, an up-and-coming coach at nearby Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J.

Campanile used that opening to gain a foothold at the college level before breaking into the NFL as a linebackers coach with the Miami Dolphins in 2020. After the Packers hired Hafley, it was a no-brainer for Campanile to follow his friend to Green Bay.

"I probably owe more to Jeff Hafley in terms of my professional development and opportunities in my professional life, more to him than anybody else," Campanile said. "It's really been something I've been looking forward to for a long time and I'm obviously at this point very, very happy I made that decision."

With the staff in place, Hafley began developing his plan for a talented Green Bay defense that returns most of its key playmakers and is set to welcome three Day 2 draft picks – safety Javon Bullard and linebackers Edgerrin Cooper and Ty'Ron Hopper.

A switch to a 4-3 base front dominated early offseason headlines, but perhaps the bigger story is the philosophical change Green Bay is undertaking up front. Instead of a read-and-react approach, the Packers' D-line will play a larger role in pressuring the quarterback.

It's an aggressive playstyle popularized in recent years by San Francisco, Houston and the New York Jets.

"We're going to look to create havoc in the backfield," said Rebrovich, who's commanding the D-line after coaching Green Bay's outside linebackers the past two years. "Every down, we're looking to penetrate and make something big happen."

With Campanile mentoring Quay Walker and the linebackers, Hafley, Ansley and Downard have been busy organizing the coverage plan. Hafley sees potential in the secondary, especially with All-Pro Jaire Alexander back to full health and free-agent signee Xavier McKinney leading a promising safety contingent.

After ranking 31st in the NFL with only seven interceptions in 2023, the Packers believe a penetrating front and ball-hawking back end is their ticket to becoming a tone-setting defense.

"For us … it's getting a feel for the players we have live (in practice)," Hafley said. "We've added some additions and then you get the draft picks and see what they have, and let's see who fits where and see how much we need and where we feel comfortable. I think we're in a great place right now, and that's a credit to the staff."

That same staff is quick to point to the difference Hafley has made since starting on the job three months ago. Walking down the coaches' hallway, Downward says it's not unusual to see Hafley watching film of individual periods and finding things his defenders can do differently with their technique and body mechanics.

Just like in 2014.

"I would like to be the type of coach that he is," Downard said. "It was great when I got the news that he was the one that was going to be leading the defense and it's been awesome to be working with him and be back in the same room with him."