GREEN BAY – It’ll be difficult from the outside to get a read on exactly what Matt LaFleur’s offense and leadership style will look like until sometime this summer in training camp, if not Week 1 in September.
But judging by his comments when being introduced as the 15th head coach of the Green Bay Packers earlier this week, both critical pillars for LaFleur will be built with a similar framework – they’ll possess elements of what he’s gleaned from other successful coaches he’s worked with, but they’ll get his own stamp as well.
Starting with the offense, its roots for LaFleur go back to Mike and Kyle Shanahan with Washington, where LaFleur got his first position-coach job in the NFL. He then worked under Dan Quinn with the younger Shanahan in Atlanta and then Sean McVay in Los Angeles before fully taking over an offense of his own last year in Tennessee.
In a half-hour sit-down with reporters shortly after his introductory news conference concluded, LaFleur explained the offensive system has undergone a steady evolution based on the personnel groupings a team considers its strongest. The basic philosophy behind it all, though, is to avoid being predictable and to protect the quarterback, which is what he’ll focus on with Aaron Rodgers.
“We like to have plays – we like to say plays that start off looking the same but are different, plays that play off of plays,” LaFleur said. “It lessens the predictability of what you’re trying to do, and it keeps the defense more off-balance.”
If that’s the underlying approach, adaptability to personnel is the overt necessity.
Under McVay with the Rams in 2017, that meant using primarily three receivers, one running back and one tight end. Los Angeles was loaded at receiver and had a workhorse, game-breaking back in Todd Gurley, so multiple backs and multiple tight ends were a rarity. Offensive concepts were tweaked and expanded with that primary personnel group in mind.
Go back a few years to Atlanta, though, and many of the same concepts were being run, but with varied personnel groups – the Rams’ favorite, plus some with two backs or two tight ends, or occasionally even three tight ends.
“Really, when it comes down to it, a lot of the plays that we run are all similar,” LaFleur said. “We call them the same names. It’s just, how are we going to do it?”
LaFleur was challenged to a greater degree than expected last year in Tennessee, when early-season injuries to tight end Delanie Walker, left tackle Taylor Lewan and quarterback Marcus Mariota forced weekly adjustments. He began running an offense that hardly used the three-receiver set the Rams lived in the year prior, and eventually became a power running team behind Derrick Henry.
What does that mean for the Packers? LaFleur certainly has some preliminary ideas, but he’ll dive deeper into the personnel on hand once he gets his coaching staff assembled. Green Bay’s roster could undergo a lot of change this offseason as well, so he’ll be in communication with General Manager Brian Gutekunst as moves are made.
Where LaFleur’s own stamp comes into the picture is with new additions – concepts or variations not fundamental to the system but that can be adapted to the personnel on hand.
“I just think it's a constant pursuit to try to stay one step ahead of the game,” he said. “Because if you stay stagnant and you don't evolve, I think people catch up to you. You're constantly studying not only your tape, but around the league. There's a lot of good ideas out there.”
He emphasized he doesn’t take a “grab-bag” approach, because the more scattershot the ideas, the less reliable the execution. But if there’s something from another system that can fit, he’ll give it a try.
“It comes down to, I love watching football, whether it’s our team or somebody else,” LaFleur said. “I’m always going to try to see if we can implement something else that maybe a defense hasn’t seen from us.”
As for his leadership style, the building blocks again come from coaches he’s worked for and watched closely.
He talked about how Mike Shanahan set standards and held people to them, how Kyle Shanahan drilled down to the details, how Quinn “embraced brotherhood and bringing people together,” how McVay empowered everyone around him.
There’s no one way to lead, but what it comes down to for LaFleur is proving to players you can make them better and advance their careers. Then “they’ll do anything for you.”
“If you can show these players that you can help them, you earn trust,” he said. “And I'm not anticipating it to be Day 1. I've got to earn their trust, just like they've got to earn our trust. It's a two-way street.”
Allowing players to know and understand his personality helps bridge any gaps, and the only way to do that is to be genuine in front of them, not putting on some kind of act based on situations or circumstances. Anything fake or manipulative erodes or unravels any trust that’s been built.
“I think the only way to lead is you better be true to yourself,” he said. “These players, they’re extremely smart. You better be real, you better be honest. That’s exactly how I’m going to be with these guys.”