GREEN BAY — Matt LaFleur wasn’t even the Green Bay Packers head coach yet when his iPhone started buzzing Monday.
At the other end of the line wasn’t team president/CEO Mark Murphy or general manager Brian Gutekunst, formally offering him the job. (That call would come later.)
It wasn’t Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay, checking in on his close friend, or San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, calling to impart some last-minute words of advice. (Although McVay’s relationship with both of them had undoubtedly helped his candidacy.)
And it wasn’t Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel, seeking an update. (After all, LaFleur’s work as the Titans’ play-calling offensive coordinator was what had piqued the Packers’ interest in him.)
No, the call was from Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who’d gotten the word from Gutekunst that LaFleur was going to be his next coach.
“That’s kind of how I had an idea that maybe I was in the running for it,” LaFleur said with a smile during his introductory news conference Wednesday at Lambeau Field.
Gutekunst later explained how the call happened — “Once we kind of narrowed in that Matt was our guy, I had Aaron reach out to him,” Gutekunst said — but the call underscored what LaFleur surely already knew before he even interviewed on Sunday: While the job obviously entails much more than just coaching the quarterback, his relationship and connection with Rodgers is crucial.
Because more than anything else, LaFleur’s success or failure as the 15th coach in the Packers’ storied 100-year history will be decided by just how well his two-time NFL MVP plays after a down year — by his standards — in 2018, and how close of a partnership the two can forge together.
“Quite honestly, the way our team’s structured, we (need) somebody who’s going to be able to work with Aaron and help him play the very best he can play,” Murphy said. “(That) is going to really help us win.”
That process is already underway. After the Packers officially offered LaFleur the job on Monday, he and Rodgers spoke again. Asked how that second call went, LaFleur replied, “The conversation went great. I can tell he’s a passionate guy, and he wants to win. And I think that holds true for me as well. So, I think we’re in alignment there.
“This game is about winning. I know that he wants to add to his legacy, and the only way we’re going to accomplish that is to win a world championship.”
After nearly 13 seasons together, including 11 with Rodgers as the Packers’ starting quarterback and a 2010 season in which the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, it’s no secret that former head coach Mike McCarthy’s working relationship with Rodgers had frayed even before the team’s Dec. 2 decision to fire McCarthy with four games left to play.
While Rodgers seemed to be enjoying himself more during the final month with interim head coach Joe Philbin at the helm, his final numbers still wound up being decidedly un-Rodgers-like: Two interceptions but only 25 touchdown passes, the fewest he’s ever had during a full season; and unusually low marks in completion percentage (62.3 percent) and passer rating (97.6).
Certainly injuries — his own (a left knee injury in the opener, a concussion in the finale) and to others (wide receivers Randall Cobb and Geronimo Allison most notably) — played a role, but truth be told, the Packers’ 6-9-1 finish was largely because Rodgers wasn’t his usual self and McCarthy’s offense, which he himself described as being designed to make the quarterback successful, wasn’t able to.
It’ll be up to LaFleur to get Rodgers back to his MVP form, and LaFleur has some experience in that area. In 2016, he was the Atlanta Falcons’ quarterbacks coach when Matt Ryan won the NFL MVP and led the Falcons to a berth in Super Bowl LI.
But before that happened, LaFleur had to connect with Ryan. During a post-press conference session with beat writers, LaFleur recalled the first time he corrected Ryan after arriving along with Shanahan in 2015. During a practice early on, Ryan was throwing skinny post patterns and LaFleur observed that a few throws were “a little off.” He suggested to Ryan that he might not be in balance, and Ryan “didn’t like it too much.” Ryan’s next 10 throws were right on the money.
“And I’ll never forget, I just said, ‘Hey, I think I’m going to tick you off every day,’ ” LaFleur recounted. “Matt and I have a great relationship. He was incredible to work with. When you’re dealing with a quarterback, it is a partnership. He and I have stayed in contact to this day. I think we have a great respect to one another. I think I probably learned as much from him as he learned from me.”
LaFleur, who said he will serve as the offensive play-caller, also made it clear that he and Rodgers must be on the same page during games. Rodgers publicly criticized McCarthy’s game plan following a 22-0 win over the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 30.
“Anytime you’re the play-caller, you want that collaboration with your quarterback,” LaFleur said. “If there’s one thing I can say in regards to a guy like Aaron, if you give Aaron time and you are unpredictable, he’s going to excel, because we all know the talent he has. That’s how we’re going to build this thing.
“But anytime we go into a game, I certainly want to know his thoughts. Because I’ve always said if a player doesn’t have confidence in what you’re doing or a play, ‘Just tell me. We’ve got a lot of plays to pick from. We’ll cross that one out, and we’ll move on to the next one.’”
That’s exactly what the Packers did with their nine other candidates before getting to LaFleur.
‘No one stood out’
After firing McCarthy, Murphy convened a search committee that Gutekunst, director of football operations Russ Ball, chief operating officer Ed Policy, vice president of human resources Nicole Ledvina and vice president of communications Jason Wahlers. Then, Murphy consulted with the team’s nine-player leadership council while the committee built a candidate list and did background work on them, using the NFL’s Career Development Advisory Panel, which compiles a list of prospective head coaches for teams, and the league’s Fritz Pollard Alliance, which promotes diversity in hiring.
After nine interviews, Murphy said, “Quite honestly, no one really stood out. There were a lot of strong candidates, but there wasn’t one that just jumped out at us.”
Then came LaFleur, whom Murphy, Gutekunst and Ball met in Nashville. After interviewing him, the three men looked at each and agreed that LaFleur was the clear-cut leading candidate. After sleeping on it Sunday night, they reconvened Monday morning and were still in agreement — they had their man.
“I think we’ve got the perfect candidate to lead us to where we want to go,” Gutekunst said. “There’s one goal – always has been one goal – and that’s to win world championships. We’re excited to get started.”