GREEN BAY — Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan are widely regarded as the NFL’s two smartest, most offensively-innovative young head coaches. In a game trending toward high-scoring, point-a-minute offenses, McVay, the Los Angeles Rams’ head coach, and Shanahan, the San Francisco 49ers’ head coach, are considered cutting edge.
In Matt LaFleur, the Green Bay Packers didn’t just find another up-and-coming coach with the potential to join them. They got a coach who worked with both of them and learned from both of them.
Now, the Packers are hoping their decision to hire LaFleur as the 100-year-old franchise’s 15th head coach – a call they made Monday, when they offered LaFleur the job and began finalizing a contract with him – will be just what the team, the offense and two-time NFL MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers need to get back to competing for Super Bowls after back-to-back playoff-less seasons and a 6-9-1 record in 2018.
Two sources told the State Journal Monday evening that the Packers had settled on LaFleur, the Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator, and informed the other candidates they had interviewed that they’d made their choice. ESPN was first to report that LaFleur was the pick. The team had not yet made a formal announcement as of Monday night, presumably waiting until all the contract details had been worked out.
“I feel very fortunate that I was around – in my opinion, and I know I’m probably a little bit biased here – two of the best play callers in the National Football League,” LaFleur told The (Nashville) Tennessean this summer, before the Titans’ preseason opener against the Packers at Lambeau Field on Aug. 9. “So it’s kind of a Catch-22. Because you kind of see those guys as the standard and you wonder, ‘Hey, that is the standard and I’ve got to hold myself up to that level.’ But you also learn so much from them.
“They have a great vision of what they want, and just really trying to see the game from an all-22 perspective, and how to attack defenses – and ultimately, what our job is as a coach: To just put our guys in position to make plays.”
LaFleur interviewed with team president/CEO Mark Murphy, general manager Brian Gutekunst and director of football operations Russ Ball on Sunday, the last of 10 candidates to sit down with the team’s brass during a whirlwind interview process after the club fired Mike McCarthy on Dec. 2, with four games left in his 13th year as head coach. Offensive coordinator Joe Philbin served as interim head coach for the final four games and interviewed for the job after the season as well.
A league source said the team is likely to bring back defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who came aboard a year ago after McCarthy fired longtime defensive coordinator Dom Capers. Pettine said late in the season he wasn’t interested in being a head coach again after two years as the Cleveland Browns’ head coach (2014-’15). Philbin could also remain in another role, one source said.
After firing McCarthy, Murphy insisted that the team wasn’t locked into a certain type of candidate, but of the 10 men the Packers interviewed, eight – including LaFleur – came from offensive backgrounds.
“I’m not going to say we’re looking for this or that attribute or trait,” Murphy said on Dec. 3. “I think we want to find the very best coach and a coach that can bring the Packers back to winning Super Bowls.”
The 39-year-old LaFleur first worked with both McVay and Shanahan in Washington, from 2010 through 2013: Shanahan served as the Redskins’ offensive coordinator under his father, head coach Mike Shanahan; LaFleur was the team’s quarterbacks coach; and McVay was an offensive quality control assistant and later the tight ends coach.
When the Redskins fired the elder Shanahan after the 2013 season, the three young coaches went their separate ways – McVay stayed on as the Redskins’ offensive coordinator under new coach Jay Gruden, LaFleur went to Notre Dame to coach quarterbacks for Brian Kelly, and the Kyle Shanahan spent the 2014 season as the Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator under Pettine.
LaFleur and Kyle Shanahan reconnected with the Atlanta Falcons in 2015 and spent two years together there, with Shanahan as offensive coordinator and LaFleur as quarterbacks coach. Under them. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan won the NFL MVP award in 2016 and the Falcons reached Super Bowl LI, beating the Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
LaFleur rejoined McVay last year in Los Angeles as offensive coordinator when McVay took over as the Rams’ head coach. He left to join the Titans as offensive coordinator this season under defensive-minded head coach Mike Vrabel, who allowed LaFleur to call the offensive plays – something he didn’t do under McVay.
“I’m real happy for Matt. He’s been ready for a long time,” Shanahan said at the NFL scouting combine in February after LaFleur joined the Titans’ staff. “He was with me for I think eight or nine years, so he’s been ready for a while. He went through that and now he’s on his own and he’s earned this opportunity. I think Tennessee got a great coordinator and he’ll do a hell of a job.”
McVay said he didn’t want to let LaFleur leave, but felt he owed his friend the opportunity to be a play-caller. The two men remain close and it’s thought that McVay gave the Packers a glowing recommendation of LaFleur.
“He’s a great person. I wouldn’t be fortunate enough to be in the role that I’m in if I didn’t have people that were willing to invest and allow you take steps in your career,” McVay said at the combine. “(And) play-calling is one of those steps if you continue to want to try and achieve becoming a head coach at some point. I think it was an opportunity that he’s ready for.
“We always enjoy just talking ball. But he’s ready for this opportunity (and) he’ll do a great job leading. … Now I’ll be able to call him and bust his chops like he did for me after some of those bad play calls I made.”
LaFleur was the last of the 10 candidates to interview for the job. The others were ex-Indianapolis Colts and Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell; ex-Colts head coach Chuck Pagano; Philbin; New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels; Patriots linebackers coach/defensive play-caller Brian Flores; New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael Jr., Saints assistant head coach/tight ends coach Dan Campbell; Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Todd Monken; and ex-Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase.
The Titans didn’t put up huge offensive numbers this season, finishing 25th in total offense (312.4 yards per game) and 27th in scoring (19.4 points per game). Of course, when the Packers hired McCarthy in 2006, he was coming off a year as San Francisco’s offensive coordinator in which the 49ers finished dead last in total offense (224.2 yards per game) and 30th in scoring (14.9 points per game).
All McCarthy did was lead the 2010 team to the Super Bowl XLV title, coach the Packers to four NFC Championship Games and nine playoff berths, and go 135-85-2, including his 10-8 record in nine trips to the postseason. The only coach in Packers history with more victories? The guy the stadium is named for, Earl “Curly” Lambeau.
“The first thing Matt said to me is that he doesn’t have an ego. That’s obviously the easiest thing to say and the hardest thing to do, and I think I’ve really seen that out of him,” Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan told The Tennessean in August. “He’s willing to adapt and learn, which is really important for anybody, in football or outside of football.
“Talking to him, you know he’s got a great football mind.”