Before the official questions came flying at him during a post-practice Zoom session Tuesday afternoon, Matt LaFleur was asked how he was doing. The Green Bay Packers coach didn’t hesitate before answering.
“Doing great,” he said.
Is he, though? LaFleur’s best player — reigning NFL Most Valuable Player Aaron Rodgers — chose to skip the team’s mandatory minicamp. That was hardly a surprise, yet it was another notable event in the stalemate between the stubborn veteran quarterback and the team’s front office.
LaFleur has displayed various emotions throughout an ordeal that officially has been going on for less than six weeks — at least publicly — but already feels much longer than that. When the news broke in late April that Rodgers wanted out of the organization, LaFleur seemed like a man in denial. “I can’t even fathom (him) not being in Green Bay,” he said.
Less than two weeks later, during a two-day rookie minicamp, LaFleur was practically begging Rodgers to end the impasse. “We want him back in the worst way,” LaFleur said.
There were none of those revealing quotes Tuesday, only a man doing his best to stay positive.
When asked if he’d spoken to Rodgers recently and whether LaFleur had a sense if this all was going to work out somehow, he admitted he was “naturally optimistic.” On two occasions, he alluded to what’s being done behind the scenes by himself and others to “remedy the situation.”
Whether you’re Team Rodgers or Team Packers Management — a group that includes team president Mark Murphy, general manager Brian Gutekunst and executive vice president/director of football operations Russ Ball — it’s clear sides are being taken by Packers Nation. Murphy admitted as much Saturday in his monthly column on the team website, saying “the situation we face with Aaron Rodgers has divided our fan base.”
It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for those stuck in the middle, a group that includes Rodgers’ teammates, LaFleur and the other coaches.
As All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari said Tuesday, “The show must go on,” and LaFleur and the Packers continued going about their business.
It’s LaFleur’s job to get this team ready for the 2021 season, franchise quarterback or no franchise quarterback, and that means having a backup plan ready. The bad news: Reports from practice — I wasn’t there — indicate 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love is nowhere near being ready to be a starting-caliber NFL quarterback.
Love has shown signs of improvement but he’s still in the early stages of his development and had nowhere to go but up. Gutekunst wasn’t underselling the situation in April when he said Love has “got a long ways to go.” The lack of an offseason program and a condensed training camp last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic was a worst-case scenario for any young player, particularly one playing the most important position in the sport.
The Packers signed veteran Blake Bortles last month, but LaFleur clearly wants to use this minicamp as a growth opportunity for Love. “He needs every rep he can get right now,” LaFleur said.
How Love feels about being in the middle of this ordeal is unclear — the Packers haven’t made him available to reporters — but it has to be a distraction to the former Utah State standout and his teammates.
LaFleur addressed that issue with his team prior to minicamp. While he wouldn’t reveal the details of that conversation — “I’m going to keep the family business in house,” LaFleur said — star wide receiver Davante Adams provided the Cliffs Notes version of that message.
“He’s not really dwelling on it, he’s kind of made mention, just to address the elephant in the room and just let everybody know, ‘Control what you can control,’ ” Adams said.
“It’s kind of the same mentality that I’ve had the whole time, just echoing that to everybody just so it’s not weird that we’re not talking (about it). We’re obviously missing a person in minicamp that’s essential to this football team. So you’ve have to kind of say something about it, just acknowledge it and keep it moving.”
Adams gave LaFleur a ringing endorsement, saying he’s done a good job handling this offseason commotion. He ended that answer with something that very well could have come out of LaFleur’s mouth, saying the Packers need to “just be prepared for the worst, but pray for the best.”
That’s about the only thing LaFleur, who has a 28-8 overall record with trips to the NFC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons leading the team, can do right now: Develop Love as best he can while holding out hope the situation involving Rodgers gets resolved before the start of the 2021 season.
He put on a brave front Tuesday, but check back in three months. LaFleur may not be doing so great by that point.
Best of the beat: Take a look back at 5 of Jim Polzin's favorite stories from his sports reporting career
I was helping out on the UW football beat late in the summer of 2010 when our Packers writer left for another job. Most of training camp was done, the season opener was a couple weeks away, and I had a 4-year-old and 7-month-old at home.
But who turns down the chance to cover the Packers? I had no idea at the time that the season would stretch into February, but a wild ride ended with Aaron Rodgers and Co. beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV. That night, including writing this game story, is a blur.
BO RYAN'S TOUGH LOVE
It was hard to choose a story from a magical stretch that included back-to-back trips to the Final Four for the UW men’s basketball program. I did plenty of stories on Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker and others during that stretch, but this one on that group’s leader stood out because it gave some insight into Bo Ryan’s coaching style.
This story ruffled some feathers inside the program, though that wasn’t my intention. I just wanted to give readers a look at how Ryan went about getting the best out of his players.
I wrote a lot about Nigel Hayes over his four seasons with the Badgers because he was such a fascinating guy on and off the court. For one story his junior season, I spent a morning with him, talking over breakfast and sitting through one of his business classes.
This one was about his relationship with his stepfather, Albert Davis Sr. I don’t even remember what made me think of doing this story or how I pitched it to him, but I do remember sitting in folding chairs in a hallway at the Kohl Center and being amazed at how much he was willing to share. It turned out to be a fun story to tell.
HAPP'S HARD WORK
Ethan Happ’s name is all over the UW men’s basketball record book. He scored a lot of points, grabbed a lot of rebounds, dished out a lot of assists, made a lot of steals and blocked a lot of shots. He also missed a lot of free throws.
I got a ton of messages, either via email or social media, asking why Happ didn’t spend more time working on his shot. I knew his work ethic wasn’t the issue because I spent a lot of time waiting to interview him after practices as he worked on shooting with coaches or teammates or student-managers. Still, I had no idea just how much time he spent working on his shot away from practice until I began the process of reporting this story.
“I’ve never been around someone who’s been more dedicated than Ethan. Even if the results aren’t necessarily all there yet, the results are going to come.” - UW basketball manager Alex Hayden
GARD ERA BEGINS
One moment I’ll never forget is when Bo Ryan walked into the Kohl Center media room late on the night of Dec. 15, 2015, and the person moderating his postgame news conference said Ryan would open with a statement.
Ryan never opened with a statement, always choosing to go straight to questions. In that split-second before Ryan started talking, I knew: He was retiring. And so began a crazy night and crazy week that included wrapping up Ryan’s time at UW and moving on to the Greg Gard era.
Fans certainly knew who Gard was at that point because he’d been Ryan’s longtime assistant. But I wanted to talk to as many people as I could for a thorough story on the guy taking over the program after his legendary mentor’s departure.
Gard will make his debut as UW's interim coach on Wednesday night when the Badgers (7-5) face UW-Green Bay (6-4) at the Kohl Center.
Contact Jim Polzin at email@example.com or 608-252-6473.