The McVay effect was particularly pronounced this past offseason. Two of his proteges — if one can have proteges at 33 — landed head coaching jobs: Matt LaFleur with the Green Bay Packers and Zac Taylor with the Cincinnati Bengals. The Arizona Cardinals also opted for a young, potential offensive genius, going to the college ranks to get Kliff Kingsbury.
For LaFleur, Taylor and Kingsbury, now comes the complicated part: getting results in an impatient league. LaFleur has inherited relatively favorable circumstances in Green Bay by getting to work with Hall of Fame-bound quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The season could be more trying for Taylor and Kingsbury.
“Any time you have Aaron Rodgers, you have the wherewithal to win immediately and the expectation that you will win immediately,” said a front-office executive with another team. “Those other two situations, I would view them as longer-term projects.”
LaFleur, 39, coached with McVay when they were Washington Redskins assistants, and he was McVay’s offensive coordinator for a season with the Rams. He arrives in Green Bay with the Packers coming off two straight non-playoff seasons after eight consecutive postseason appearances and a Super Bowl win under Mike McCarthy.
The relationship between LaFleur and Rodgers has been scrutinized, with speculation about a rocky transition arising after each public expression of disagreement about, say, the value of joint training camp practices. There also have been questions about whether Rodgers will have full latitude to change play-calls at the line of scrimmage.
Still, the Green Bay attack had become stale near the end of McCarthy’s tenure, and LaFleur’s arrival gives Rodgers a chance to play in an offense that is more up to date by NFL standards.
Rodgers’s passer rating dipped below 100 each of the past two seasons. If he gets back to being the virtually incomparable playmaker who had a passer rating above 100 seven times in eight seasons between 2009 and 2016, that probably would mask any of the Packers’ deficiencies and get them back into the playoff mix. For now, Rodgers’s debut in LaFleur’s offense has been on hold; the quarterback was held out of the first preseason game and scratched from last week’s matchup in Baltimore with back tightness.
He could play Thursday against the Oakland Raiders in Winnipeg, but LaFleur said it wouldn’t be out of the question for Rodgers to sit out the entire preseason.
“I think we’d like to see him,” LaFleur said after the Baltimore game. “But you’re talking about a veteran quarterback that’s played a lot of football. I don’t think it’s a necessity.”
Taylor, 36, was McVay’s quarterbacks coach with the Rams before the Bengals hired him in February to replace Marvin Lewis. The Bengals went from laughingstock to contender in 16 seasons under Lewis, making five straight playoff appearances from 2011 to 2015. But they never managed a postseason victory in seven tries, and they’re coming off three straight losing seasons.
Taylor’s tenure in Cincinnati may be the best barometer for how wise it is for teams to look for coaches with ties to McVay. Taylor was 35 when the Bengals hired him, and he had never been even an offensive coordinator in the NFL on more than an interim basis. Other than his association with McVay, his credentials did not indicate he was ready to be a head coach.
Over the shorter term, though, he has bigger issues. The Bengals are a preseason afterthought in the AFC North, behind the talk-of-the-league Cleveland Browns and traditional powers in the Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. After the Bengals beat the Redskins last week in a penalty-filled preseason game, Taylor said: “I told those guys we’ve got to raise our standards in every area … because this week wasn’t quite good enough. We’ve got a lot to improve on.”
Taylor could have a quarterback decision to make at some point. Andy Dalton is coming off two straight seasons with a sub-90 passer rating, and the Bengals used a fourth-round draft pick on North Carolina State product Ryan Finley. Hall of Famer quarterback Kurt Warner, an analyst for the NFL Network, wrote on Twitter last week that Finley has been the league’s most impressive rookie QB, even more so than the first-round picks (the Cardinals’ Kyler Murray, the New York Giants’ Daniel Jones and the Redskins’ Dwayne Haskins).
Getting Murray to fulfill his considerable promise is Kingsbury’s job in Arizona. Never mind that the 40-year-old had never coached in the NFL before being hired by the Cardinals in January. Never mind that he was fired in November by Texas Tech after going 35-40 in six seasons and just had been hired by Southern California as offensive coordinator. Offensive concepts have trickled up from the college ranks to the NFL, and the Cardinals wanted Kingsbury’s version of the Air Raid in Arizona.
When Arizona used the top pick on Murray, the breathtaking but undersized Heisman Trophy winner from Oklahoma, and traded 2018 top-10 selection Josh Rosen, the Cardinals became the NFL’s most intriguing offensive experiment since Steve Spurrier’s failed stay with the Redskins in 2002 and 2003. Kingsbury and Murray will try to revitalize a team that went 3-13 last season.
“It’s the perfect quarterback for that offense, and that offense is the way the league has gone the last few years,” the NFL front-office executive said. “I just think there’s more to being a head coach in this league than drawing up an offense, and I wonder about the quality of the team you’re putting around that young quarterback.”
There have been preseason glimpses of Murray’s considerable ability. But there also have been glitches, including false-start penalties that prompted a conversation between the Cardinals and the NFL’s officiating department about Murray’s presnap hand movements. And the real offense won’t be unveiled until the regular season, Kingsbury noted.
“That’s what’s tough about preseason — you’re trying to keep it vanilla,” he said after last week’s preseason loss to the Raiders. “And [Murray] doesn’t have a chance to keep going and get himself in a rhythm.”