The Green Bay Packers couldn’t hire Sean McVay.
So they’re doing the next best thing, or at least they hope so.
The NFL’s hiring season for head coaches got underway Monday on the heels of a relatively busy firing season. The Packers, after ousting former Super Bowl winner Mike McCarthy as their coach in early December and finishing the season with Joe Philbin filling in, decided to hire Matt LaFleur, according to a person familiar with the situation.
LaFleur, who was the offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans in 2018, is a coaching protege of McVay, the wunderkind head coach of the Los Angeles Rams, and Kyle Shanahan, the San Francisco 49ers’ head coach.
His task in Green Bay will be to revive the sagging fortunes of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the Packers after they went 6-9-1 this season and missed the playoffs. Rodgers and McCarthy won a Super Bowl together, and Rodgers became a two-time league MVP under McCarthy. But their relationship seemed run its course, and McCarthy was let go. Now, LaFleur is being brought in to fix both the coach-quarterback bond and the Packers’ offensive approach.
This is the way of today’s NFL: Find a great young offensive mind, make him your head coach and put him in charge of getting the most out of your quarterback.
When the Rams hired McVay, then the offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins, before last season, it shocked many around the league. McVay was just shy of his 31st birthday, and while he was a wise-beyond-his-years football lifer and an up-and-coming coach, few had considered him ready for a head coaching assignment.
But the Rams were right. In Year 1 in L.A., McVay transformed Jared Goff into an honest-to-goodness franchise quarterback as a second-year pro, he elevated tailback Todd Gurley to being a league MVP candidate, and he took the Rams to the playoffs. There was no drop-off this season: The Rams were a dominant team in an offense-first season and are the No. 2 seed in these NFC playoffs.
McVay’s rapid success in L.A. paved the way for the Chicago Bears to hire Matt Nagy last offseason as their head coach. Nagy did a pretty good McVay impression this season in Chicago, accelerating the development of second-year quarterback Mitchell Trubisky and leading the Bears to the NFC North title.
Now it’s LaFleur’s turn. His task in Green Bay will be different in that he is being paired with a quarterback who already has established himself as an all-time great and not with a player who is seeking to establish himself. LaFleur, at age 39, is only four years older than his new star pupil. He would be wise to approach his relationship with Rodgers as a collaboration.
But Rodgers would be wise to be open to any new ideas that LaFleur might have to offer. Things had gotten stale in Green Bay, not only between Rodgers and McCarthy. The Green Bay offense was predictable and bit stodgy compared to the new-school offensive systems being implemented around the league.
LaFleur had very good teachers. He was the Redskins’ quarterbacks coach when Kyle Shanahan was the team’s offensive coordinator and McVay was its tight ends coach. He worked with Shanahan again in Atlanta and was McVay’s offensive coordinator for a season in Los Angeles in 2017 before heading to Tennessee to be more fully in charge of an offense this season. Now he is fully in charge of an entire team with a Hall of Fame-bound quarterback who, with another Super Bowl victory or two, could move up to the very highest levels of the best-ever competition.
Rodgers, by the numbers, had a typically great 2018 season. He threw only two interceptions to go with 25 touchdown passes. He threw for over 4,400 yards and had a passer rating of 97.6. He played through the knee injury that he suffered during a memorable opening night triumph over the Bears when he was taken from the field on a cart but returned to orchestrate an unlikely comeback.
Even so, it was not vintage Rodgers. He was not able to hide the Packers’ deficiencies in other areas, as he’d been able to do so often in the past. There were whispers around the league about his play being just a little bit off.
The end of Rodgers’s career is not at hand. But it is in sight, even if off in the distance. McCarthy was fired in part, it seemed, because of a nagging sense that he should have been able to bring more than one Lombardi Trophy back to Green Bay with Rodgers as his quarterback.
Now the task of getting Rodgers a second Super Bowl win falls to LaFleur.
He and Rodgers must realize that they need each other, and they must find a way to get the best out of one another.
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