Matt LaFleur wins games at a higher clip than any pro football coach in history. I’m walking around a vast, carpeted locker room in Lambeau Field in early August trying to find out why, and generally succeeding: Players are explaining in detail his widely praised management style and describing his football mind, which blends the concepts he’s loved for years with those embraced by his quarterback into the best playbook in the NFL. But right now, Aaron Rodgers needs me to understand something: that he trolls LaFleur constantly. Daily. Hourly.
So this story I’m asking the QB to confirm—that he and other guests at David Bakhtiari’s wedding in March made jokes to LaFleur about Rodgers retiring, before Rodgers had actually made a decision—just flows with all the rest. “Highly possible,” Rodgers said with a sly grin, one that you’ve probably seen hundreds of times on crisp autumn afternoons while he’s throwing some overwhelmed NFC defense in a trash can. “To Matt this may have been meaningful, but it doesn’t even stick in my brain. Because I troll Matt all the time.”
This, I assure you, is part of the story. It might be the story—why this all works. LaFleur and Rodgers operate as part millennial Vince Lombardi–Bart Starr and part bickering old married couple—if the old married couple won 80 percent of their football games and designed an offense that combined classic Shanahan-McVay principles with Rodgers’s ability to lay waste to entire Midwestern cities. There was “a dance,” Rodgers explains—he uses that word often in our talk—after LaFleur got hired in 2019, when the two did not know they could just say whatever they wanted to each other directly, sometimes brutally. “I didn’t understand exactly how to talk to him, and he didn’t exactly understand how to talk to me,” Rodgers says. So if LaFleur was mad about something Rodgers said or did, he would take it out on the backup quarterbacks. If Rodgers was ticked off at LaFleur, he’d get frustrated and stew.
This period ended organically—a meeting here, a play there, a series of expansive Zoom calls before the 2020 season. “So now I can say, ‘Matt, every freaking play in this practice has motion on it. Can we take some motion off to get some tempo practice?’ And he can say yes without being sensitive,” Rodgers says. Then, Rodgers explains, LaFleur can make fun of the tempo plays Rodgers asked for, or correct him. “And I get to say, ‘You’re right. You’re exactly right.’
“So, it’s a dance of, how do we show up for each other? Take the emotion out of it, and be able to have an honest conversation without being triggered or sensitive by what was said. Knowing that we both come to it just wanting to do what’s best for the team and with love and respect for each other.”
In three seasons together, LaFleur and Rodgers have won 13 games three times and reached the NFC championship game twice. In two of those seasons, Rodgers won the league MVP award—but LaFleur has never been within 20 votes of Coach of the Year. Last year he lost to Mike Vrabel by 28 votes, and the prior two years he didn’t even finish second. Once he hits 50 total games coached, which will happen Week 1 of this season, he can take his rightful place atop the all-time winning percentage list for coaches, a spot currently occupied by Guy Chamberlin, last seen coaching the 1927 Chicago Cardinals and retiring in his mid-30s to become a farmer. LaFleur has already broken former 49ers coach George Seifert’s record for most wins in his first three seasons with 39. He broke Don Shula’s record in the Super Bowl era for best winning percentage in his first 40 games. He is, entering his fourth year, the longest-tenured head coach in his division, no doubt a byproduct of his rivals’ inability to reliably beat him. He has not won or made a Super Bowl—something we talk about at length—but he is without a doubt one of the top coaches in the sport. His players paint him as sort of a Gregg Popovich– or Steve Kerr–type personality manager, if either man had an unbelievable skin care regimen.
The argument LaFleur suffers from is that he’s a beneficiary of Rodgers’s talent. And of course he is. But that obscures the fact that if it were so easy to win 13 games, LaFleur’s predecessor Mike McCarthy would have done it at least once in any of his last seven years at the helm. He did not. As LaFleur and I talk, we walk down Oneida Street in Green Bay and a stunned man stops pushing a stroller and waits for the coach to walk past. He asks for an autograph for his kid (the kid, it should be noted, is very young and does not care at all). LaFleur takes his hat and starts to sign the bill before the man asks him to sign the front. “Best coach in the league,” the man says to me. I’m in Green Bay to find out why more people don’t say that.
I put it to nearly everyone I spoke with for this story: Why doesn’t LaFleur get as many plaudits as he should? The most common answer is obvious. “Aaron is a great player,” said Mark Murphy, the team’s president and CEO. “So I think a lot of people say, ‘Oh OK, you’ve got a Hall of Fame quarterback.’ But Matt’s a big reason that the Hall of Fame quarterback won the MVP the last two years.”
“A lot of people want to discredit him because he has a Hall of Fame quarterback, but the reality is he’s done a phenomenal job capturing a really cool locker room in terms of star players and talent and getting them all to play at a very high level,” said Jets coach Robert Saleh, a longtime friend and former coworker of LaFleur’s. “That’s artwork to me.”
“His success,” said Bengals coach Zac Taylor, who was on the 2017 Rams staff with LaFleur, “it is so hard to do in this league. To win consistently the way he has is not appreciated enough.”
His quarterback, though, has a different take: “It’s because he just won the lottery, man. He’s so freaking good-looking,” Rodgers said, in a dead serious tone. “He’s got great eyebrows, he dresses nice, and they just get distracted by all the things he brings to the table and they don’t give him credit. They give credit to worse-looking guys, guys with terrible eyebrows and terrible hairlines, and he’s blessed. Great hairline, great smile, and he dresses sharp.”
The wedding story starts where all LaFleur stories do: with the coach trying to give everyone space to be themselves. This, a handful of Packers told me, is the backbone of the team. Tight end Marcedes Lewis said if he didn’t have LaFleur as his coach, he might not be in the league—and not necessarily because LaFleur uses his skill set perfectly (though he does, letting Lewis be a dominant blocker and catch passes off those blocks). It’s because when you’ve played for 16 years and saved your money, as Lewis has, it’s a matter of just wanting to continue. “Matt is a big part of that puzzle of why to get up every morning,” Lewis said.
De’Vondre Campbell, a linebacker who broke out for the Packers last season, said that something as simple as LaFleur letting players sleep in their own bed the night before a home game—something Campbell has never seen at the NFL level—gives him freedom he’s never experienced in the league. “You want to earn that trust, and then you want to keep it,” Campbell said. (As I talked to Campbell in a Lambeau hallway, LaFleur happened to walk by, and when he heard Campbell saying nice things about him, he stuck his fingers in his ears and gave a loud “la-la-la” to drown out the compliments.)
LaFleur gave that same freedom to Rodgers after last season, when the quarterback was unsure whether he wanted to keep playing. “I said, ‘Listen, I’m not going to wear you out,’” LaFleur says. “I said, ‘You know how I feel,’ but I was going to let him have his space and make whatever decision he thought was best for him.
“I wanted him to do what made him happy, because I think too many times we forget these players are people, first and foremost. Nobody wants any of these guys to be miserable when they’re coming to work. I want them to be happy, I want them to enjoy being here. I want them to feel part of a team. Ultimately, it was his decision.”
That was the backdrop to the March wedding. Rodgers “was messing around with me quite a bit,” LaFleur says. “There were some remarks where I’m like, ‘Is he just messing with me? Is he trying to get under my skin to rile me up?’ I tried to play a poker face as best I could, but internally, my heart might have skipped a beat or two.” LaFleur said the jokes came from multiple guests at the wedding. And he was still so spooked when he returned to Green Bay that he talked to offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich about it. “I just kept saying, ‘I don’t know, man,’ and he said, ‘No we’re good.’ Then I’d just keep saying, ‘You sure?’ and he’d say, ‘We’re good.’” It went on like this. But this only hardened LaFleur’s resolve to not say anything. “I didn’t know, I didn’t want to ask [Rodgers], I didn’t want to push it and make it go the other way.” Rodgers signed a new contract a few days later. Five months after that, he’s back making fun of his coach’s hair.
One of the most obvious and clichéd observations about pro football is also the most true: The head-coach-quarterback relationship is the most important part of the franchise. A good relationship—one where each person erases the other’s mistakes and both make each other better—can win you a Super Bowl. A relationship that falters, even for one series in one game, can alter the course of the franchise forever. Patrick Mahomes–Andy Reid, Bill Belichick–Tom Brady, Sean McVay–Matthew Stafford: All three of these partnerships are drastically different, but you cannot tell the story of one man without the other. That is what is unfolding in Green Bay.
There’s a play called “strike” in the Packers playbook. McVay, LaFleur’s former boss in Los Angeles, uses it too. And so does Kyle Shanahan, who LaFleur worked for in Houston, Washington, and Atlanta—though Shanahan calls it “drift.” It can be, LaFleur said, an uncomfortable play for the quarterback: a quick-hitting, five-step pass (or six steps if you’re moving to the left) from under center. You’re not facing the defense, turned toward the running back on the fake for most of the play. And you have let the ball rip as soon as you plant your back foot, giving the quarterback just a split second to read the defense. The play takes a lot of trust, and it’s virtually a blind throw, a favorite of nearly everyone in LaFleur’s coaching circle. But it was not a favorite of Aaron Rodgers at the start. “I hadn’t really ever hit it, so I had no reference point to be able to throw that with confidence,” Rodgers said. But they worked on it. Rodgers is a “rep guy” who likes to practice a concept over and over to see if he feels comfortable. He watched Ryan Tannehill throw it as well as anyone in the league. “I really like it now,” Rodgers said.
“And he is so damn good at it, man. I mean, he is so efficient at it, ” LaFleur said. That exchange of ideas, LaFleur said, is what he’s after. That is the most satisfying part of the entire operation: “When there’s a [play] that he’s kind of on the fence about, and then he starts to really, truly like it.”
“I just have such a belief in him,” LaFleur continues. “There’s nothing he cannot do. If I see any other quarterback do something, I say, ‘We can do that.’ I just tell our staff, the only thing that limits us is our own imagination.”
Sometimes these lessons go the other way. Take for instance, LaFleur’s first year. Despite being from Michigan, he hated the cold (he cops to being soft), and Green Bay is a rough spot to feel that way. He’d put on a ludicrous amount of layers before winter games and he kept talking about the cold while addressing the team late in the season. “Aaron set me straight,” LaFleur said.
“It’s a mindset. I always felt like it was a belief that you could really lock in an advantage,” Rodgers says now of that interaction. “Whether it’s real or not doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter to your brain, doesn’t matter to your body if you believe it, that becomes the reality. We practice in this. We live in this. I promise you [the other team is] colder than we are. It’s important to really think about how we talk because our words are spells. And we need to make sure that we’re manifesting through our words the reality we want to achieve.” LaFleur is fine with the cold now.
The story of this era of Packers football is about the merging of two of the most monumental forces in modern football: Rodgers’s talent and the Shanahan-McVay playbook, whose variations have revolutionized a handful of teams, including both Super Bowl participants last year and three of the four conference finalists. That scheme, which is heavy on play-action, zone runs, and motion, has made winners out of less-talented passers like Jared Goff and Jimmy Garoppolo. In the hands of Aaron Rodgers, it is apocalyptic for NFL defenses. But Rodgers did not love all of the motion in the offense. It’s still tricky for him, he said. The West Coast offense, what he was used to, is very “guy for a guy” when it comes to protection. He’d rather use his cadence at the line to get defenses to show him hints at what they are doing. But he loves the eye discipline that LaFleur’s motions and shifts demand. “He’s got the green light on the field,” LaFleur said. “I have 100 percent trust with him. We have a lot of conversations during the week—that’s why I never want to miss a meeting. I want him to hear why I like something or why he might not like something, because if he’s not comfortable I’m not going to call it.”
Matt Ryan, who LaFleur worked with as quarterbacks coach in Atlanta in 2015 and during Ryan’s MVP season in 2016, remembers how much translating went into learning the offense, how different the terminology was and how much trust it took. And, of course, how often each would pound the table for a particular concept. “The best coaches push you to do things that you’re uncomfortable with,” Ryan says. “It’s not easy. They ask you to do a lot of things with your back to the defense. But the results are good.”
LaFleur has blended this offense with the best plays from McCarthy’s playbook, at Rodgers’s request, the result of an exhaustive and collaborative effort to make the quarterback feel as comfortable as possible. McVay has been impressed from afar by LaFleur’s ability to “mesh and mold his core beliefs while also making sure Aaron had ownership.” McVay said that seeing the LaFleur offense evolve to incorporate Rodgers’s tendencies and personnel advantages has been “powerful.”
“The identity of a Green Bay offense under his leadership is some of the things Aaron has done at such a high level that are maybe a little different from what some of our backgrounds involved,” McVay said. “And then being able to continually sell Aaron on the things that have been helpful to him playing at as high a level as anybody, arguably, in the history of the game over the last few years.”
Mike McDaniel, a former LaFleur colleague and now the Dolphins head coach, said a lot of football coaches “copy-paste” at whatever stop they make, but said LaFleur definitely did not do that. “Aaron audibles a lot. That’s not, by nature, the system we started on,” McDaniel said. “That can create conflict in a lot of situations, but not for them. They have this really cool working relationship that’s two competitors who can really find a common ground to get things done. You can tell Aaron respects Matt because there’s some stuff I’ve never seen him do, and the offense is different from when Matt started.”
There’s also one more evolution that’s taken place. “It wasn’t until probably about the last year that [Matt] was having somebody cut his own hair other than himself,” McVay said. LaFleur has said he learned to cut his own hair during college. “Now he’s all swaggy. He’s getting all this credibility for being a handsome, good-looking coach. And until he started getting all that positive deal about what a hot coach he was, now he’s finally letting somebody else cut his hair.” LaFleur has confirmed this bombshell.
The more you talk to the core of the LaFleur-Shanahan-McVay tree, the more you realize that you’re in the middle of what feels like the world’s most chaotic group chat between football geniuses. Each guy wants to talk shit about the one I spoke to previously. It is a web of inside jokes and roasts that hasn’t ended despite their respective rises up the ranks. The league reflects their image now and they are having a great time with it. But when I asked McDaniel my last question—What’s one thing I wouldn’t know about LaFleur?—he got far more serious.
“He is, and I mean this with all sincerity, out of all the people that I’ve known in life, in this profession or not, the most trustworthy human being I’ve ever met,” McDaniel said. “There’s no question in my mind I could trust him with anything. He will do something even if it’s worse for him. He will choose integrity over outcome or a game. You could trust him with your life or your family.” He said that if he was going through something and had to call one person who he knows would drop everything, it would be LaFleur. He guesses that if he called him 20 minutes before a Packers game and he’s got a problem, LaFleur might skip the pregame speech.
McDaniel explained that in 2009, the Texans let him go after he overslept for a handful of meetings. He went on to coach in the minor league UFL for two seasons with the Sacramento Mountain Lions before Shanahan brought him back on staff in Washington in 2011, a year after LaFleur, Shanahan, and McVay were hired there. “Matt never told me this, I didn’t find it out until years later,” McDaniel said. “The guy that went to Kyle and said, ‘Hey, I really believe in this dude and we need him back,’ was Matt. And at that stage, 99 percent of coaches wouldn’t have had that security. [Adding] another young coach on staff, he wasn’t threatened by me joining the party. That was the furthest thing from his mind. He didn’t care how it affected him, he just wanted to do what he thought was right.”
In the beginning, there was Bill Walsh College Football. There was also 10-Yard Fight, an obscure video game LaFleur loved as a kid, Tecmo Bowl, and, according to his brother, a lot of EA Sports’ NCAA Football. “He was really good,” said Mike LaFleur, Matt’s brother and the offensive coordinator of the Jets. “He was one of the best NCAA players I’ve ever faced.”
The two would play for hours, alternating between playing as Central Michigan, where their father, Denny, was an assistant, or Florida State or Notre Dame. This is not just a fun anecdote, though: This is where Matt LaFleur first learned football. “I definitely spent my time on the sticks,” he says. “I wasted a lot of my life playing.” I explain that I don’t think it was a waste, as we’re sitting on a training table in the massive indoor practice facility of the team he’s led to 39 wins in three years. “Well, I don’t know how productive it really is. I’m going through that with my own kids right now.”
As a kid, LaFleur’s mom took him to Central Michigan practices, but he said he didn’t soak it in as much as he could have. “I didn’t really take advantage of that,” he said.” I didn’t spend time watching tape with [my dad] or anything like that. I hope my kids want to—if this is what they want to do. Not saying they’re gonna learn anything, but I didn’t take advantage of that time.”
So when did he learn ball?
“I didn’t learn ball ball until I got to the National Football League,” he said. “I get hired by the Texans, I’m 28 years old, our offensive coordinator was my age and I was thinking, ‘This kid can’t know that much more than me.’ And I was blown away. I was like ‘Holy shit, I’ve got a lot to learn.’”
Now, there’s some dispute about how much LaFleur actually knew at that time. “He did know ball,” said McDaniel, who was on that 2008 Texans staff. “He was just very humble and such a perfectionist at that point in his career that it made him really mad when he didn’t know things.” The pro game, McDaniel said, was a specific world compared to other levels of football, and the other staff members in Houston were deeply rooted in it. “He didn’t know everything, and that really bothered him,” McDaniel said. That quickly changed.
The offensive coordinator of that Texans team certainly knew a hell of a lot about football. His name was Kyle Shanahan, and he’d been promoted from quarterbacks coach under Gary Kubiak. He replaced Mike Sherman, who departed for Texas A&M and took with him a Texans quality control coach, which created an opening on staff. Robert Saleh, a defensive quality control coach for Houston and LaFleur’s former roommate when they were both young assistant coaches at Central Michigan, pitched Shanahan and Kubiak on LaFleur. “There wasn’t anything other than, ‘This guy will work his butt off,’” Saleh says now. “It’s not about credentials at that point. It’s about whether you’re willing to put in the grind and work your tail off to accomplish what they need.”
The credentials, or the journey to get the credentials, though, are important. LaFleur was a former undersized midwestern quarterback and the son of a MAC coach. “From MACtion, I learned you better have a quarterback,” he said. And from being in a football family (both his father and grandfather were coaches), he learned not to care what anyone else said—about him or his team. “A lot of people said, ‘Oh a 5-foot-10 quarterback can’t play college ball,’ so I got used to drowning stuff out.” LaFleur tells the story of the time, famous in his family, when his grandmother answered the phone after his grandfather—a Kalamazoo, Michigan, high school coach—lost a game. “Is this where that bald-headed son of a bitch Bob Barringer lives?” the caller demanded to know. LaFleur starts an impression of a midwestern grandma: “Why yes it is,” and of course, the caller was disarmed. “That’s kind of how my family rolls,” LeFleur says.
LaFleur draws a line from those experiences to now, when he has to drown out noise on a weekly basis. On the day I was at practice, a reporter asked LaFleur whether he was worried about Rodgers being suspended for admitting to using ayahuasca on a podcast. The reporter did not check to see whether the drug was banned by the NFL. (It’s not.) And LaFleur moved past the question almost impossibly quickly. But even more drastic press conferences than that have taken place during his Packers tenure.
Green Bay has been the center of the media circus a handful of times over the past two years: Rodgers’s will-he-or-won’t-he controversies about retirement and trade demands, or his positive COVID test last season which led to the revelation that Rodgers was not vaccinated. Those in the building remain impressed with LaFleur’s ability to never let anything affect the locker room, no matter the media firestorm. “He has a calmness to him,” Murphy said. “Players feed off their coaches. Matt will get excited, but he’s able to assess situations and not get too carried away. It goes back to his communication and the relationships he built.”
After playing at Saginaw Valley State in University Center, Michigan, where he rewrote SVSU record books and led them to the Division II playoffs, LaFleur went to the Indoor Football League—a league for people who say, “You keep playing until you can’t,” said Dan Ragsdale, who was both a quarterback and offensive coordinator for the IFL’s Billings Outlaws in 2004. In the IFL, teams traveled to games via 15- or 20-hour bus rides, and afterward, Ragsdale said, bruised and bloodied players would pile onto the bus and beg the driver to stop for beer and some sandwiches for the long postgame drive. “I’m sure he’s not gonna sit there saying, ‘When I was with the Omaha Beef in 2003, I hit my fifth step like this’ but there’s something to be said for a guy who understands the position,” Ragsdale said of LaFleur. “He found a way to relate to godlike Aaron Rodgers.”
LaFleur started in the coaching ranks as an offensive assistant at his alma mater in 2003, moved to Central Michigan in 2004, and eventually became offensive coordinator at Ashland University in 2007, the first place he ever called plays. He ran a basic pro-style offense there that was successful, if not wildly creative. “It was clear he was a different cat,” his Ashland quarterback, Bill Cundiff, says now, mentioning the level of detail in the offense and the instant success the team experienced—even if that pro-style, dropback system bore little resemblance to what LaFleur runs now.
But, as Saleh said, LaFleur’s strength at that time was work ethic, not scheme. And in Houston the following year, LaFleur’s first task was to draw the run plays for legendary offensive line coach Alex Gibbs. LaFleur would desperately try to get ahead on his duties—everyone with him in those days agreed he was a perfectionist—and then after hours and hours of work, Gibbs would ask him to change it. “It was like he was running on a hamster wheel,” McDaniel said. “He was completely infuriated but he never let anyone know. He had no problem running on two hours of sleep. He really didn’t like the feeling of not knowing everything, so he made it his job to know everything.”
McDaniel immediately noticed that LaFleur was a quarterback specialist who was obsessed with learning run blocking and line play. He also saw that LaFleur was humble enough to ask any question and bold enough to push for answers. “A lot of people would be like ‘yes, sir’—and he was very very respectful, but he would ask why,” McDaniel said. This only grew with time: LaFleur wanted to have direct conversations because he felt it was the only way to get the answers to his endless football curiosity. “He’s not confrontational, but he’s not afraid of conflict,” McDaniel said. “He is a bottom-line guy. So he’s like, ‘Whatever, I’m not gonna concern myself with the trivial nature of getting mad.’ He just wants to know the answer.”
Stenavich, the Packers offensive coordinator, said, “I think a lot of people kind of get thrown off, because he’s very direct. And they take it like being attacked or something but he’s just asking questions and being thorough.” Stenavich said they recently changed the rules of a protection scheme not because LaFleur was angry, but because he just kept interrogating why they did it that way. The flip side of that is that LaFleur empowers his assistants and wants input, Stenavich said, and lets assistants address the room in ways other coaches might not.
“I think most coaches, a lot of coaches tend to stay away from the truth and I think Matt has figured out the way to do it is to go straight at it,” Saleh said.
This part was all LaFleur, his personality, his upbringing and perspective. The football acumen he carries with him is pure Shanahan. “It all starts with Kyle,” Mike LaFleur said. “He creates an environment where he gets all the fluff out of the way and all that matters is studying the tape and getting the most out of players every single day.”
Talk to any former Shanahan assistant and you’ll get the same response. Mike LaFleur said he and McDaniel spoke recently and both said they didn’t even realize how much they’d learned until they left Shanahan. Things become second nature to a Shanahan assistant that aren’t second nature to other coaches, Mike LaFleur said.
Under Shanahan, Matt LaFleur learned about “the illusion of complexity.” This was drilled into him further by McVay, who taught him the nuances of knowing how teams study tape and using it against them: Plays that start out looking the same that aren’t. Motion, fakes. Teams are going to practice what they’ve seen on tape, so take what they’ve practiced and run the counter to it. He also learned how everything ties together: Sometimes, he said, you’ll trade in a 3-yard pass in order to set up an explosive pass. Go to where you feel you can get a big pass play.
Much of that Houston staff departed for Washington in 2010 to work under Mike Shanahan. That now-famous Washington staff included both Shanahans (Kyle as offensive coordinator), LaFleur (quarterbacks coach), McVay (tight ends coach) and McDaniel (offensive assistant turned wide receivers coach). “I was learning from him, not the other way around,” McVay said of LaFleur. “Kyle and Matt were huge mentors of mine. Our football philosophies kind of developed together.”
Mike Shanahan told me what was unusual about the group was not just how late they stayed, after arriving before 6 a.m. to work out, but also that they wanted to understand every single position. “I think Mike Tomlin has said this, and I thought it was a great way of articulating it, but there was almost a youthful arrogance and blissfulness that allowed us to, regardless of the results, put our heads down and work and be [feel] really fortunate to be in the roles we had,” said McVay.
McDaniel said that with everyone in their 20s or early 30s, with no kids, coaches worked 20-hour days just to get Kyle Shanahan’s workplace affection. “You wanted to be the guy that found the play no one else had seen, you wanted to be the guy who watched the most tape, you wanted to be the guy who understood coverages the best,” McDaniel said.
After four years in Washington, a brief stop at Notre Dame, and a move to Atlanta with Kyle Shanahan, LaFleur was a no-brainer hire to be McVay’s first offensive coordinator in Los Angeles in 2017. McVay said he looks for a handful of things in an assistant: character, capacity to learn, communication skills, and knowledge of the game from an “all-22” perspective—meaning every position. “One of the best things you can say about Matt is that the guys he’s worked with usually play their best ball when he’s with them,” McVay said. “And that says as much as you need to know.”
A year later, after a play-calling stint with the Titans, LaFleur popped up on the Packers’ radar. “The interview was four hours and it felt like 15 minutes,” Murphy said. The Shanahan-McVay origins are what drew the Packers’ interest in LaFleur after firing McCarthy, knowing that maximizing the quarterback was going to be the most important piece of the puzzle. But Murphy said he felt LaFleur might have known more about the organization that he did in the interview—not just roster or schemes, but history, too. Five coaches in the 2019 hiring cycle have already departed their teams. LaFleur, barring a Bengals dynasty for Taylor or a surprising uptick for Kliff Kingsbury in Arizona, is almost certainly going to end up being the best hire of the group.
The Packers enter this season with the second-best odds to win the NFC behind only the Buccaneers. But they face two major questions: How can they account for their lack of playoff success over the past three years, and how will they attempt to replace a superstar wideout?
LaFleur has won two playoff games as a head coach but has yet to lead his team to a Super Bowl—this despite earning a first-round playoff bye in each of his three seasons. I asked Rodgers if there’s anything he’d like to do differently if they make the playoff this season. Different late-season rest regiment, play-calling, practice tweaks, anything? “No,” he said. Others shared the sentiment.
LaFleur starts here: “When you get to that point [the bye], there’s very few teams left and it’s gonna be difficult. I think the ball can bounce either way—I don’t want this to come off sounding like an excuse, because it is what it is. Bottom line, you gotta find a way to win.” He said he wonders often what could be done differently. “I do think there’s something to just momentum, and obviously coming out of those byes I would say maybe we haven’t kept the momentum going, at least last year.” He starts to run through the teams that beat the Packers: “A pretty darn good 49er team” in the 2019 season, “the Super Bowl champion two years ago, Tampa Bay. Certainly we made our fair share of mistakes because they made plays and we didn’t.” And then last year against the 49ers in the divisional round: “Obviously our defense balled out and we didn’t play up to our standard offensively or on special teams.”
LaFleur said he’s talked often with McVay about the playoffs. “He always says, ‘Man, the NFL playoffs is the closest thing to March Madness, it’s going to be super competitive and there’s always lessons you can take from your triumphs and defeats—probably more so when you come up short.’”
McVay’s viewpoint on playoff mentality is simple: “The best team doesn’t always win. But the team that plays the best in that three-hour window wins,” he told me. This means, he said, one of the few things you can control is giving players “as much confidence and as much clarity going into the game” as possible.
Now, here’s the hard part: On March 18, the Packers traded away All-Pro receiver Davante Adams for a first- and second-round pick. Adams is an impossible player to replace, someone capable of lining up in the slot or out wide, and catching passes all over the field—last season he had double-digit receptions behind the line of scrimmage, within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage, 10-19 yards deep, and then 20-plus yards deep; and according to Pro Football Focus, over the past two seasons, when Adams was in single coverage, passes to him registered a 129.6 passer rating.
But the Packers do have to find a way to replace his production. “Arguably one of the best receivers of all time, especially when it comes to route running,” Packers receiver Allen Lazard said of Adams. “Obviously I would rather have him on my team than someone else’s, but we know that in this industry, nothing is forever.”
So, what happens to the offense now?
“Well, I’ll be honest with you,” LaFleur begins. “Right now, I don’t know. We’re still trying to figure everything out.” We’re talking in the middle of training camp, after all. “There’s a lot of unknowns that need to be answered, and until we figure out all of that, I don’t really know. I know a lot’s been speculated, ‘Oh, they’re gonna lean more on the run game.’ Well, maybe. But what if you’re playing against a defense that says ‘all right’ and is gonna load up the box? And they’re gonna make you throw the football? What are you just going to bang your head against the wall? No, you’re gonna find a way to solve the problem.”
No one really knows how Adams will be replaced, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A group of young receivers—led by fourth-round pick Romeo Doubs or second-round pick Christian Watson, who has been banged up—will have opportunities to show something this year. And the team has playmakers in other offensive positions, like running backs Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon. (McVay noted that the team’s two-back sets are impressive.)
“I still feel like there’s still the opportunity for the same amount of yards and touchdowns. It’s just gonna get distributed among the guys that we have here,” Rodgers said. He mentioned Lazard getting more opportunities, a healthy Randall Cobb being a factor, and big years from tight ends who might step up, along with backs catching more balls. “Davante demanded so much of the ball because he was always open and if you’ve got a guy who is always open, you gotta give him the ball,” Rodgers said. “So he was no. 1 in the progression in 80 percent of concepts, and it’s not going to be like that this year. It’s going to be different guys at different times. It’s going to be more of a group effort.”
The group effort means personnel and schemes. And the onus will be on coaches to figure out how to help these players find success. The good news is that the offense is built for just that. So, too, is the quarterback-coach relationship.
There’s almost a rom-com-y feel to how Rodgers and LaFleur talk about following each others’ careers long before they joined up. Rodgers remembers first being wowed by the McVay offense, and the stress it put on defenses, in 2018 when the Rams played the Vikings on a Thursday night. LaFleur was the Titans offensive coordinator by then, but Rodgers recalled how much he loved those concepts when LaFleur’s staff first came in.
LaFleur remembers sitting in Washington and seeing the natural throwing motion and athleticism of Rodgers and realizing that there’s nothing he can’t do. “His ability to throw on the move. We always thought he’d be a perfect fit for the scheme. I don’t want to discredit the fact that he’s a perfect fit for any scheme, but we would literally talk about that amongst each other,” LaFleur said. “Could you imagine if we could ever find a guy like that?” He is so good, in fact, that LaFleur fights the urge to let him pass on every play. He said he needs to remind himself constantly that for all the facts of the game to work together, you can’t just pass on every play. “Staying disciplined on that is a constant challenge for me,” LaFleur said.
“I liked to be coached. I like practical coaching that makes sense and honest, direct conversation. I don’t need a lot of fluff or convolution. Let’s find what the issue actually is and get to the root of what we’re talking about. Let’s have an open dialogue and conversation and get better. I want to be held accountable,” Rodgers says. He mentions Tom Clements—who just returned as the Packers quarterbacks coach and who coached him earlier in his career—and former quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt, now the offensive coordinator in Cleveland, as people who’ve given him extremely granular tasks to improve on each day. “I am not trying to compete with anybody else in the league. I am competing with myself every single day, competing with what I was yesterday. What I put on film yesterday and what I want to put on film today.”
LaFleur has the same job: Make Rodgers’s tape look better than it used to be, an increasingly high bar. That’s not just because he has to problem-solve an offense without one of the best receivers in football, but because he is entering Year 4 with one of the best quarterbacks of all time and they have yet to make a Super Bowl appearance. Even so, he does not feel a ton of pressure. As we walk through the tunnels of Lambeau Field, he explains that, like everyone, he cares what people think of him, but he tries hard to only value the opinion of his family, coaches, and players. He gets reflective. “It’s so cool,” he said, “to see your entire friend group rise up in your profession with you.
“I really sit back and think, here we are, with the Green Bay Packers of the National Football League. It’s pretty cool. I thought my dad had the coolest job in the world when he was DBs coach at Central Michigan.”
LaFleur has not indicated, at any point, that he wants acknowledgment for what the Packers have achieved with him at the helm. But I feel like I have to get him on the record: Why doesn’t he get enough credit?
“That shit doesn’t bother me,” LaFleur said. “It’s not about me, it’s about everybody else. This thing doesn’t operate with just one dude. You can lay out a vision and certainly you’ve got to make some decisions, but it takes everyone.” He mentions a handful of executives, then points to the locker room. “Most importantly, it takes these guys. They’re always the most important. I want to do right by our guys, or at least be open enough to listen to their concerns and then ultimately do what’s in the best interest of everybody.”
He walks down the air-conditioned hallway back to his office. A new season—and the Wisconsin cold—is coming. He’s ready.