GREEN BAY – Coaches can scheme, plot and strategize for months during the offseason, but the inescapable reality is rarely do things go absolutely according to plan in the NFL.
Injuries happen and adjustments must be made on the fly. The team that adapts best to seismic shifts from July to January often is the one taking home the Lombardi Trophy in February.
A life spent around football taught Matt LaFleur these truths long before he assumed the role of offensive play-caller last year in Tennessee.
Yet, there was no way for the future Packers head coach to brace for what was to come in the Titans’ regular-season opener against Miami Dolphins this past September.
Already without right tackle Jack Conklin (offseason ACL surgery), quarterback Marcus Mariota injured his elbow early on a late hit from Dolphins defensive William Hayes. He tried to play through it, but finally left early in the second half.
Left tackle Taylor Lewan and tight end Delanie Walker, two cornerstones who had just signed extensions within days of one another in July, also exited in the second half of the game.
Lewan was diagnosed with a concussion that would sideline him for two weeks, while Walker suffered a nasty dislocated ankle that ended his season after a mere 39 offensive snaps.
The Titans ultimately suffered a narrow 23-20 loss to the Dolphins in what was the longest game in NFL history, seven hours and eight minutes, due to a series of weather delays.
Only one game into his new job, LaFleur suddenly had to reset with six days to prepare a game plan for the Houston Texans.
“There were things that happened there that I could have never prepared for,” LaFleur said. “Injuries are part of the game, but really, nobody cares. It’s about wins and losses. That Week 1 when you lose your quarterback, when you lose your left tackle, when you lose your Pro Bowl tight end, not to mention the fact the game was seven hours long.”
LaFleur’s job didn’t get any easier in the coming weeks. Lewan and Conklin were out, and Walker was placed on injured reserve. Mariota was active against Houston and Jacksonville in Week 3, but only as an emergency backup for Blaine Gabbert due to lingering numbness in his throwing hand.
After Gabbert and the Titans dug deep for a 20-17 win over the Texans, Mariota was forced back onto the field against the Jaguars when a concussion sidelined Gabbert in the first quarter.
With Mariota unable to throw deep routes, LaFleur morphed into a triage play-caller. He quickly assembled a makeshift plan built on the run. Paired with a stout defensive performance, Tennessee racked up 150 yards on the ground to pull out a 9-6 road victory.
“He literally could not throw more than 15 yards,” LaFleur said. “When Blaine got knocked out in that game, it presents a whole new set of challenges and totally changes your game plan. That happened in the first quarter. So you have to navigate around that and we were able to find a way to win that game.”
LaFleur credits his close friend, Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay, for setting the “blueprint” for how to approach adversity both tactically in games and professionally in the locker room.
LaFleur’s first year as an NFL play-caller was eye-opening and productive. After a slow start, former second-round pick Derrick Henry blossomed in Tennessee’s backfield to power the Titans’ seventh-ranked rushing offense during the second half.
The highlight of the stretch came during Tennessee’s second meeting with Jacksonville in Week 14 when Henry rushed for a franchise-record 238 yards and four touchdowns in a 30-9 rout of the Jaguars.
Mariota eventually was able to ditch the glove he’d been wearing on his throwing hand to improve his grip at the midseason mark before a stinger forced him out of the Titans’ win-to-get-in game with the Indianapolis Colts in Week 17.
The Colts advanced to the AFC playoffs with a 33-17 victory, but LaFleur was proud of how Tennessee stayed together and battled throughout the season to finish 9-7.
While adversity doesn’t feel great in the moment, the 2018 season taught LaFleur an important lesson on not only how to construct game plans in the face of injuries, but also what it takes to lead a locker room during those stretches.
After checking the last box in his NFL coaching resume, LaFleur plans to draw from those experiences in hopes of reigniting the Packers’ historically potent offense.
“I know that I would not be the coach I am today without having those experiences of this past season,” LaFleur said. “And just facing all the adversity that we went through.”