Matt LaFleur is a really good NFL head coach.
We’re a long way from LaFleur being an “uninspired” hire. In hindsight, it’s hilarious how many people thought the Cleveland Browns’ decision to hire Freddie Kitchens was more promising than Green Bay enlisting LaFleur. Actually, it was hilarious then, too.
LaFleur was at the helm for back-to-back-to-back 13-win seasons and three first-week playoff byes. He’s led the Packers to two NFC title games and finished the regular season as the NFC’s top seed two years in a row. Also, he’s, like, really handsome. That’s the kind of guy you want running your team.
Yet somehow, he’s still underrated. Despite being the best head coach of all time statically and having the best regular-season team over the past three years, LaFleur has yet to win Coach of the Year. Playoffs don’t count for those. PFF recently released their head coach rankings going into 2022. LaFleur placed sixth. He was below some all-time greats but also behind Kliff Kingsbury and Pete Carroll, who has not been good in years. (Also, they placed Mike McCarthy above Sean McVay.)
I disagree with PFF. Therefore, I ignore their assessment. LaFleur is an outstanding coach, yet he’s still underrated. But LaFleur will face some of his biggest challenges going into Year 4, and the results of some of his most important decisions will be on display. Next season will show us who Matt LaFleur really is.
The reality is that LaFleur’s success gets overshadowed because his starting quarterback is a future Hall of Famer and one of the best to throw the pigskin. Rodgers has earned back-to-back MVPs. Mathematically, that’s two of the three years he’s had LaFleur as a head coach.
It doesn’t matter that Rodgers’ production was steadily declining since 2015 or that he was viewed as washed up before LaFleur’s hiring. It doesn’t matter that LaFleur got Rodgers to buy into his offensive scheme and culture. It’s certainly not relevant that many of the people saying LaFleur is only good because of Rodgers also said Cleveland’s head coaching job was way more attractive than Green Bay’s.
Jokes aside, having an elite quarterback is a tremendous boon to a first-time head coach. But the Rodgers of the last three seasons isn’t the Rodgers from the late Mike McCarthy era. Were it not for LaFleur, there’s a good chance Rodgers might not even be in Green Bay right now. The culture LaFleur has built, and the relationship he’s formed with his players is a forgotten part of his legacy.
He will have to keep building that trust with Rodgers in Year 4. LaFleur may have the best QB in the league, but he no longer has a proven WR1 as a safety net. With Davante Adams in Vegas, he will have to update his weekly game plans meaningfully. LaFleur is undefeated in games without Adams, but he’s never had to go a full season without arguably the best receiver in the game.
LaFleur probably schemed his best game as an offensive play-caller last season against the then-undefeated Arizona Cardinals when he was down Adams, MVS, and Allen Lazard. Can he do it again as his ragtag group of pass-catchers tries to make up Adams’ lost production?
Rodgers will need to rely on the run game and trust in his new receiving core, and that starts with LaFleur’s scheme. We saw the pre-snap motion and play-action plays decline from 2020 to 2021, and the offense relied heavily on Adams. The scheme will have to evolve this year.
In addition to Adams’ departure, LaFleur revamped his coaching staff. How his hires work out will also partly define his legacy.
The jovial Nathaniel Hackett left Green Bay to coach the Denver Broncos, and LaFleur chose to hire from within. Hackett wanted newly elevated Adam Stenavich for his staff, so LaFleur offered the former offensive line coach a promotion. Will Stenavich help evolve the offense, or would an outside hire have brought fresh insight to get the offense over the hump? That’ll be the question on everyone’s mind as we see how this offense unfolds.
On the defensive side, LaFleur originally suggested and/or agreed to keep Mike Pettine on staff. When that didn’t work out, he hired Joe Barry from the Los Angeles Rams. Barry, who LaFleur’s friend Sean McVay passed over for defensive coordinator with the Los Angles Rams, didn’t have an inspiring track record in his previous stints as DC. He was Green Bay’s second choice after the University of Wisconsin DC Jim Leonhard turned down the position.
But the defense reacted positively to Barry’s energy and the lessons he’s learned in his career. The unit had its ups and downs but finished strong with a dominant playoff performance against the San Francisco 49ers. Will LaFleur’s DC build on that foundation and finally give the Packers a consistent top-10 defense, or was last season a fluke?
Finally, after poor choices in his last two hires, LaFleur sought to reinvent Green Bay’s special teams by hiring Rich Bisaccia, a long-time special teams guru who had a surprisingly effective run as the Las Vegas Raiders’ interim head coach. LaFleur got general manager Brian Gutekunst to buy in on the special teams rebuild, and Bisaccia’s blueprint is on display thus far. Poor special teams cost the Packers in the playoffs, and how the unit performs in 2022 will be a massive indicator of LaFleur’s ability to fix a problem.
This year will be LaFleur’s toughest since his rookie season. He might not have a tougher one until Rodgers retires. He has to rebuild the offense to become more well-rounded, quickly accelerate the growth of his rookies (you know, coaching), hope his chosen coordinators can do their jobs well, and keep his mercurial quarterback happy. Regardless of his success so far, LaFleur will need a deep playoff run to earn the approval of the national audience, and bringing the Lombardi Trophy home might be the only way to get the respect he deserves.