It was late in the second quarter of the Packers’ divisional-round game against the Rams Saturday. Los Angeles had just scored its first touchdown, and Green Bay got the ball back with 29 seconds remaining until halftime, leading 16-10. As the Rams kicked off, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers talked with coach Matt LaFleur on the sideline before taking the field. LaFleur said that he’d been watching film of the Rams defense in two-minute situations just before the game and told Rodgers what to look out for. Even in the moment, Rodgers chuckled at LaFleur’s extreme preparedness.
“I was like, ‘What?’” Rodgers said after the game, a 32-18 Green Bay win. “‘That’s what you were doing before the game?’”
After their conversation, Rodgers took the field and quickly drove the Packers into field goal range before time expired.
“But that’s the beauty in him, his style, and his staff. There’s no stone left unturned.”
Two years ago, the Packers fired Mike McCarthy and chose LaFleur as their new head coach, pairing him with Rodgers for what the organization hoped would lead to a continuation of Rodgers’s prime. Like other candidates hired in that 2019 cycle, LaFleur was young, coached offense, and bore a slight resemblance to Sean McVay, the Rams head coach whom LaFleur worked under in 2017 as an offensive coordinator. The trend of hiring these kinds of young, offensive-minded coaches with no head coaching experience garnered some well-deserved skepticism, but LaFleur’s two-year tenure has vindicated Green Bay’s decision. The Packers beat McVay’s Rams to advance to the NFC championship against the Buccaneers next Sunday. LaFleur has gotten the Packers to this round of the playoffs two years in a row and is one of seven head coaches to do so in their first two years on the job. He is 28-7 as a head coach in the regular season and playoffs, having won more games in his first two seasons than any other coach in Packers franchise history.
Whether LaFleur winds up with his name on a stadium or a trophy will be determined later. For now, he’s been the right coach for the Packers because he’s succeeded in the most important part of his job: having a healthy push-pull with Rodgers.
When Green Bay had its opening, Rodgers wanted a head coach who would “push” and “challenge” him. There’s an obvious understanding between the two, and Rodgers went out of his way several times to praise LaFleur after the Rams win. They clearly respect each other’s football acumen, but it also seems like part of Rodgers’s appreciation for LaFleur comes from how he’s made his job easier.
“This was one of those weeks where we were working through it, Wednesday and Thursday and Friday, and I feel like it just got fine-tuned and fine-tuned even more each day,” Rodgers said. “Matt is such a grinder.”
Rodgers also credited LaFleur’s play-calling, particularly his willingness to go back to the play-action deep pass, resulting in a 58-yard touchdown to Allen Lazard with seven minutes left after the same play resulted in an incompletion on a drop by Lazard earlier in the game.
“When the play was called I was thinking touchdown, for sure,” Rodgers said.
That play typifies LaFleur’s influence on the Packers, particularly Rodgers. LaFleur’s offense is a byproduct of the Mike Shanahan–Gary Kubiak system McVay runs in Los Angeles and Kyle Shanahan runs in San Francisco. It’s designed to elevate quarterbacks. In Green Bay, though, LaFleur gets to run it with a passer already in the NFL’s stratosphere. In getting ready for the no. 1 defense, both LaFleur and Rodgers played their ideal roles: LaFleur obsessively prepared the game plan and watched two-minute drill film up until kickoff; Rodgers took advantage and balled out.
“I think as a coach sometimes, specifically as an offensive coach going into this game, I probably had a lot more anxiety than our players in terms of just going up against a defense that throws some unique looks at you,” LaFleur said. “Our players never flinched.”
The Packers got to this stage of the playoffs last season only to get steamrolled by Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers, but that Green Bay team seemed much weaker than this one. Both teams finished 13-3, but the 2019 Packers finished ninth by DVOA; this season’s group finished third. Where Rodgers threw 26 touchdowns last season, he’s thrown a league-high 48 this season.
“We’re just a better, much more efficient team,” Rodgers said last week.
That’s happened with largely the same roster Green Bay had in 2019, with some of the difference coming from LaFleur’s offense functioning more smoothly in his second year.
It’s possible to have seen this coming when LaFleur was hired. His career highlight at that time was as the offensive coordinator on McVay’s 2017 Rams that ranked 10th in total offense and won the NFC West before losing to the Falcons in the wild-card round. He’d also been the quarterbacks coach in Atlanta for two seasons under Kyle Shanahan, who was then the offensive coordinator. In one of those seasons, 2016, the Falcons offense ranked second in the NFL and saw quarterback Matt Ryan win the sole MVP award of his career. The hiring of anyone who’d swapped hair gel tips with McVay reached the level of unintentional comedy when the Cardinals announced Kliff Kingsbury’s hire by noting he was friends with McVay, but it’s undeniable that the quarterback-friendly offenses those coaches run currently dominate the NFL. If the Packers beat the Buccaneers next Sunday, it will be the third year in a row that the head coach of the NFC champion will be someone who coached on Mike Shanahan’s Washington staff from 2010 to 2013. LaFleur’s résumé may not have been the longest among the available coaching candidates in 2019, but he’d had success working with offenses and quarterbacks. Chemistry with Rodgers was always the most important part of LaFleur’s job description. He’s achieved that, and the rest of the offense has fallen into place.
Before the game, Rodgers and LaFleur shared a long hug. LaFleur pumped his quarterback up for a few moments.
“I said, ‘Hey, man, whatever you see out there, understand that I totally trust—you’re the guy in charge out there, so whatever you see, go with it,’” LaFleur said.
Rodgers nodded. LaFleur slapped him on the back of the jersey. Then he went back to watching the Rams’ two-minute film.