Kyle Shanahan helped open Matt LaFleur’s eyes to the NFL

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INDIANAPOLIS – Matt LaFleur was feeling pretty good about himself after landing his first NFL job as an offensive quality control coach with the Houston Texans in 2008.

Only 30 years old at the time, the future Packers head coach was rising quickly through the coaching ranks following his stint as the offensive coordinator at Ashland (Ohio) University.

Introduced to then-Texans coach Gary Kubiak through a close friend, Robert Saleh, LaFleur felt poised and ready to capitalize on his opportunity of a lifetime and take the NFL by storm.

And then he met Kyle Shanahan.

“I was coming from a Division II school and certainly thought I knew a little bit more about football than I really did,” LaFleur said. “I didn’t realize how much I had to learn until I was around Kyle.”

Shanahan, Houston’s offensive coordinator at the time, was one month younger than LaFleur but light years ahead of the curve, having grown up as the son of two-time, Super Bowl-winning head coach Mike Shanahan.

Detailed and driven, Shanahan was as open as he was knowledgeable. The two seasons LaFleur spent in Houston were an introduction to not only what it took to effectively run an NFL offense, but also how to manage players and personalities.

The Shanahan-LaFleur partnership continued in 2010 when Mike returned from a year layoff as the new head coach in Washington. With Kyle naturally being tabbed as offensive coordinator, LaFleur was brought in as the quarterbacks coach for rookies Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins.

Rounding out Shanahan’s coaching staff was a young, energetic assistant tight ends coach, Sean McVay, who had most recently served as an assistant coach with the Florida Tuskers in the ill-fated United Football League.

Unbeknownst to anyone at the time, Shanahan, McVay and LaFleur would all become NFL head coaches within the decade.

“It was very normal for us,” said Shanahan, now the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. “We had a bunch of guys there who grew to like each other, but were very eager in the same way. We kind of came from some different spots, but it was a fun time because we all developed a friendship.”

The Mike Shanahan era in Washington lasted four seasons and each day was an education in coaching for LaFleur, who oversaw Griffin III’s NFL offensive rookie of the year season in 2012.

The partnership lasted until 2014 when Jay Gruden replaced Shanahan as head coach. In a strange twist, Gruden’s hire reunited McVay with his former head coach with the Tuskers.

With McVay staying in Washington as offensive coordinator, Kyle Shanahan moved into the same role with Cleveland, while LaFleur was hired to coach quarterbacks at Notre Dame.

Shanahan and LaFleur stayed in constant contact during that season apart, bouncing ideas of each other, until they were reunited the following year in Atlanta on Dan Quinn’s staff.

That was a breakthrough job for both Shanahan and LaFleur. Shanahan parlayed Atlanta’s run to Super Bowl LI into his first head-coaching opportunity with the 49ers.

Meanwhile, LaFleur’s work with MVP quarterback Matt Ryan opened the door to becoming an offensive coordinator in Los Angeles under McVay, who became the youngest head coach in modern NFL history at 31 years old in 2017.

As much attention as an association with McVay draws for NFL coaches, LaFleur credits his time with Kyle Shanahan for forging his offensive philosophy and coaching style – even if Shanahan doesn’t want it.

“It’s my dad who hired all of us in Washington, so if there's a tree, I'd definitely give that to him,” Shanahan said. “I'm real happy for Matt and obviously for Sean. We all started working together at a pretty young age. We're all good friends. I'm glad all those guys got good opportunities. I'm real pumped for Matt this year. He'll do a hell of a job and they made a great choice.”

As he begins to build his program in Green Bay, LaFleur said he has sought out both Shanahan and McVay for advice over the past few months. Once the calendar turns to July, however, all three will be competing for the same end goal.

With the Packers scheduled to travel to San Francisco next season, LaFleur not only is looking forward to matching wits with Shanahan, but also his younger brother, Mike, the 49ers’ pass-game coordinator.

Now two months into the job, LaFleur hasn’t lingered much on his fast-paced journey to becoming a head coach. At the same time, there is something special about looking around this week’s NFL Scouting Combine and seeing the mark he and his coaching colleagues are making on the NFL landscape.

“It’s kind of surreal,” LaFleur said. “Not that we have a lot of time to sit back and reflect, but it is pretty cool to see some of your closest friends in life, and you’re all kind of living your dream. It’s going to be even more fun when we can compete against each other on Sunday. It’s a really cool experience.”

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