PHOENIX – Three months of planning and preparation culminate next week when the Packers welcome back players for the start of the 2019 offseason program.
For new Head Coach Matt LaFleur, he’ll soon stand in front of his football team for the first time and begin laying the foundation for what he hopes to build in Green Bay.
Tasked with helping elevate the Packers back to contender status, LaFleur has pulled quite a few late nights inside his Lambeau Field office since his introduction as the 15th head coach in franchise history on Jan. 8.
With his kids finishing up the school year in Nashville, LaFleur has poured countless hours into building his offensive playbook and getting acquainted with the roster he’s inheriting.
“I’ve tried to put in and tried to maximize my days as much as possible,” said LaFleur at last week’s NFL Annual Meetings. “My family is still in Nashville. So that’s afforded me a little bit more opportunity to stay in the office and grind.”
That grind has been endless for LaFleur this offseason whether it’s been watching every snap quarterback Aaron Rodgers has played the past two years or figuring out how to utilize versatile fullback Danny Vitale to his fullest potential.
To a certain extent, none of this is new for LaFleur. He’s practiced in the art of assessing new players after having done it the last two offseasons as the offensive coordinator of the Los Angeles Rams (2017) and Tennessee Titans (2018).
In regards to preparing an offseason program, LaFleur has learned from some of the brightest coaches in the game dating back to his time working for Gary Kubiak in Houston and Mike Shanahan in Washington.
Four others LaFleur worked closely with – Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Dan Quinn and Mike Vrabel – are current head coaches in the NFL and been in the exact situation LaFleur finds himself now as a first-year coach getting ready to rally his team.
“As a coordinator, you just sit in your room and study X’s and O’s and deal with the offense. That changes a lot when you become a head coach,” Shanahan said. “You have to prioritize your time differently and how you prepare for a game and everything. But Matt knows football. He knows people. Those are two skills that are most important to a good head coach.”
McVay, the 33-year-old coaching wunderkind, was only 30 when the Rams made him the youngest head coach in NFL history on Jan. 12, 2017. He was nervous the first time he spoke to the team, but it was mostly born out of excitement.
In their first season together, McVay and LaFleur engineered one of the greatest offensive turnarounds in NFL history. The Rams more than doubled their scoring in 2017 – going from a league-worst 224 points (14.0 per game) in 2016 to 478 (29.9 per game).
There were a few adjustments made to the offense. They signed Pro Bowl left tackle Andrew Whitworth and drafted receiver Cooper Kupp in the third round, but the two biggest pieces, quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley, remained the same.
Looking back on it, LaFleur believes LA’s turnaround began from the moment McVay was hired. Every day, he preached the importance of teamwork, development and relentless accountability – from the coaching staff to the locker room.
“If the guys know what you’re all about and what your intentions are … I think they’re open to coaching,” LaFleur said. “One thing I certainly learned from watching Sean and how he operates is you better be able to own up to your own mistakes as a coach and show accountability, and show a little bit of vulnerability, as well. I think that relates to those guys.”
LaFleur also took a page out of McVay’s book when it came to handling the Packers’ defense. Whereas McVay hired Wade Phillips to run the Rams’ defense, LaFleur retained Mike Pettine as Green Bay’s defensive coordinator.
Shanahan, who calls the offensive plays in San Francisco, has taken a similar approach with the 49ers. His defensive coordinator, Robert Saleh, is one of LaFleur’s best friends and the man responsible for helping the Packers’ head coach land a spot on Kubiak’s coaching staff with the Texans in 2008.
Pettine’s return not only enables LaFleur to concentrate on installing his offense, but it also allows Pettine to take the next step with a defense that showed signs of progress last season.
As a first-time head coach, LaFleur also feels it helps to have a veteran coach on his staff with previous NFL head-coaching experience.
“It’s about maximizing your team to the best of your ability,” LaFleur said. “That’s where the attention lies mainly for me just because I’m going to be the play-caller. It’s not like I’m in a situation where I’m not calling the plays and you’re just the CEO. You’re fully involved with everything that goes on in that room.”
McVay, who led the Rams to an appearance in Super Bowl LIII, remains in constant contact with LaFleur. He jokes that’ll stop once the teams are scheduled to play each other, which would only happen should both teams make the playoffs next season.
His advice to LaFleur has been to just be himself – from his introductory speech to the day the Packers step onto Soldier Field for the season opener against Chicago on Sept. 5.
Meanwhile, Quinn and Shanahan believe LaFleur’s extensive work with Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan during his MVP season in 2016 has prepared him for coaching Rodgers and a Packers offense featuring several established Pro Bowlers.
“Coaching really good players like Matt, you better be on your details,” Quinn said. “They’re going to really challenge you and see where you can get to. Matt (LaFleur) nailed that piece. The experiences over the past few years definitely led him into the opportunity there. I’m really pumped for him.”
LaFleur said he has a “pretty good idea” of what he’s going to say the first time he addresses the team. There are a few housekeeping matters to attend to and new coaches to introduce.
Speaking at the coaches’ breakfast in Phoenix, LaFleur wasn’t about to give away any hints about topics he plans to cover other than his message will be “heartfelt.” While coaches can talk until they’re blue in the face about philosophies and vision, LaFleur has learned a personal touch is what matters most to players and coaches alike.
And he can’t wait to get started.
“It’s definitely a pretty special opportunity and one I’m looking forward to tackling, and try to be the best version of myself each and every day to lead this football team,” LaFleur said.