GREEN BAY – The bond shared between Matt LaFleur and Kyle Shanahan was forged over eight years and three NFL cities.
It began with Shanahan, then-offensive coordinator of the Houston Texans, taking LaFleur under his wing as an offensive quality control assistant in 2008, and saw the two work side-by-side in both Washington (2010-13) and Atlanta (2015-16).
They worked, schemed and even argued at times. More than anything, Shanahan and LaFleur developed a deep respect for one another during their climb up the NFL coaching hierarchy.
For the first time, the two close friends will match wits as head coaches this Sunday during a colossal collision between Shanahan’s 9-1 San Francisco 49ers and the Green Bay Packers, who are off to an 8-2 start under LaFleur.
While their shared history is a minor aside to a game with potentially huge NFC playoff implications, both LaFleur and Shanahan paused this week to reflect on the journey. Watching his friend’s success from afar, Shanahan hasn’t been shocked to see the Packers thrive in LaFleur’s first year.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Shanahan in a conference call Wednesday with Green Bay media. “He’s a good coach. He knows what he’s doing. It seems like he’s with some good people, some good coaches and a great organization. He has a really good quarterback.”
LaFleur was introduced to Shanahan in 2008 after then-Texans defensive quality control coach, Robert Saleh, recommended his friend and former Central Michigan roommate for an offensive QC job under Houston head coach Gary Kubiak and Shanahan.
The future Packers coach was an ideal fit, handling the run drawings for Texans assistant head coach Alex Gibbs and pass drawings for Shanahan. He became Shanahan’s “right-hand man,” sitting in on offensive and quarterback meetings.
LaFleur was held in such high regard after only two years in Houston that when Shanahan left to join his father, Mike, with the Washington Redskins in 2010, he gave LaFleur the title of quarterbacks coach in order to lure him away from the Texans.
Shanahan was hands-on at first but it took less than a year for him to feel confident in LaFleur leading that room. The two worked together for three more years in Washington and then reunited as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach again in 2015 with the Falcons.
Since then, LaFleur, Shanahan and Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay have been at the forefront of the offensive revolution making its way through the league.
After he was hired by Green Bay in January, LaFleur credited Shanahan as being one of his biggest coaching mentors despite their relatively close proximity in age. Over time, their offensive schemes have evolved but there still are fundamental similarities between the two both coaches acknowledge.
“There’s so many things that I learned from him,” said LaFleur of Shanahan after Wednesday’s practice. “He’s a guy that has a great vision for what he wants to get done, how to use players, how to adapt and put people in the right position. A lot of my football philosophy has been shaped by him.”
The ties between the 49ers and Packers don’t stop with the head coaches. Saleh, the former Texans assistant who helped LaFleur get his foot in the door, is now Shanahan’s defensive coordinator, while Packers offensive line coach Adam Stenavich was an assistant for Shanahan the past two years.
LaFleur’s brother, Mike, serves on Shanahan’s staff as the 49ers’ receivers coach and pass-game coordinator. In fact, Matt’s wife, BreAnne, left early for San Francisco with the couple’s two sons and is staying with Mike and his family.
The LaFleur connection created one slightly awkward interaction earlier this year when Shanahan blocked Matt from interviewing his brother for a position in Green Bay. Shanahan, with humor in his voice, said it wasn’t a tough decision.
“He does a hell of a job,” said Shanahan of Mike. “He’s a really talented guy, and we put a lot of work in together. I feel very fortunate to have him this year, and I plan on staying that way until he gets a head coach job.”
One joke Shanahan occasionally has dropped on Matt this season is how the Packers’ first-year head coach doesn’t know what it’s like to lose the way Shanahan did (the 49ers dropped eight straight to start his first season as head coach in 2017).
San Francisco has since turned a corner in Year 3 under Shanahan, now ranked second in the league in both scoring offense (29.5 points per game) and rushing offense (149.0 yards per game).
In Green Bay, LaFleur has married his offensive principles to Aaron Rodgers’ strengths. Through 10 games, the Packers are back in the top tier of the NFL in scoring offense (25.0 ppg), passing offense (253.9 ypg) and red-zone offense (68.6%).
Running back Aaron Jones (934 total yards and 14 TDs) has been one of the league’s breakout stars in 2019, while Rodgers is on pace for his highest yards per pass attempt (7.8) since his second MVP season in 2014.
“I know Matt implemented a number of his stuff but you can still see Aaron do the stuff he does great at,” Shanahan said. “When you have a scheme like you have with Matt to help him, I think Aaron is doing a hell of a job with it. I think he’s only going to get better as they work more together.”
Shanahan credits LaFleur for challenging him during their eight seasons together and making him a better coach. Shanahan is pulling hard for his longtime friend’s success – just not too hard.
After all, he and LaFleur share the same conference – and ultimately the same goal.
“I always thought and knew he'd be good, but it's really cool when you see him in that role,” Shanahan said. “To already see him there and see how comfortable he is and how natural he is at it, I've been very proud of him. He's been even better than I expected, he's deserved it and I know he's going to be doing this a long time.”