GREEN BAY — Still focused on putting together his coaching staff, Matt LaFleur hasn’t gotten a chance to talk to many of his players just yet.
“I reached out to (All-Pro left tackle) David Bakhtiari and then I ran into (Pro Bowl defensive lineman) Mike Daniels. It’s been a crazy time for me right now,” the Green Bay Packers new head coach said during an interview Thursday morning on ESPN Wisconsin.
“I’m at Lambeau all day long. We’ve had a lot of guys in for interviews; I’ve been on the phone quite a bit. I’ve been over at Hinterland (at Titletown across Ridge Road from the stadium) quite a bit to have dinner every night.
“(I’m) just trying to nail down our staff, as well as trying to reach out to everybody in this organization, including the players. Ultimately, they’re the most important ones.”
It’s clear that LaFleur believes connecting with one player in particular — quarterback Aaron Rodgers — is of utmost importance. As an offensive-minded head coach and the play-caller, LaFleur knows getting on the same page with the two-time NFL MVP quickly and building a strong relationship with him is crucial.
That's why he's talked with Rodgers more than any other player at this point.
“I’ve had multiple conversations with Aaron,” said LaFleur, who actually revealed during his introductory news conference last week that he spoke with Rodgers before formally getting the job. “I’ll tell you what, the one thing that came across early is how passionate he is for the game of football and how much he wants to win. There’s nothing that’s going to stand in his way of really getting after it.
“I’m looking forward to working with him and continuing our relationship. And I really do view that (as important). Just philosophically, I think that anytime you have a quarterback of his stature — I went through this with Matt Ryan in Atlanta, a guy who’s had success — it is a partnership. Not only offensively but as a team, as a leader. And guys are going to follow guys of their caliber.”
To that end, LaFleur suggested Thursday it’s possible he won’t hire an official quarterbacks coach, instead sharing that job with newly named offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett. Both have been quarterbacks coaches in the past, and both see working extensively with Rodgers as vital.
“That’s a great question. That’s something that we’re trying to figure out right now,” LaFleur replied when asked if he planned to hire a quarterbacks coach. “Certainly, I want to be in that quarterback room as much as possible, and the goal is to be there all the time. I realize as the head coach, there’s going to be things that come up that you have to take care of. But I entrust that (Hackett) and I have the same vision for the quarterback and we’ll be on the same page.”
The quarterback coaching job has been a vital one since the team’s renaissance began in 1992 under head coach Mike Holmgren, a former quarterbacks coach himself. All three of Holmgren’s quarterbacks coaches — Steve Mariucci, Marty Mornhinweg and Andy Reid — went on to become NFL head coaches.
Rodgers has had four quarterbacks coaches during his 14-year NFL career – Darrell Bevell (2005) under head coach Mike Sherman, and Tom Clements (2006-2011), Ben McAdoo (2012-2013), Alex Van Pelt (2014-2017) and Frank Cignetti (2018) under head coach Mike McCarthy, who also came through the NFL coaching ranks as a quarterbacks coach, including one year with the Packers in 1999.
The Packers reportedly parted ways with Cignetti earlier in the week. From 2000 through 2003 under Sherman, offensive coordinator Tom Rossley served as the quarterbacks coach at the same time.
LaFleur was the Washington Redskins’ quarterbacks coach from 2010 through 2013, coached quarterbacks at Notre Dame in 2014 and was the Atlanta Falcons’ quarterbacks coach in 2015 and 2016 before becoming the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive coordinator under Sean McVay in 2017. LaFleur spent the 2018 season as the Tennessee Titans’ offensive coordinator, calling plays for the first time.
Hackett, meanwhile, coached the Jacksonville Jaguars’ quarterbacks in 2015 before being promoted to offensive coordinator in 2016. Although Jaguars coach Doug Marrone fired Hackett in late November and Jacksonville finished the year ranked 27th in total offense (302.0 yards per game) and 31st in the 32-team league in scoring offense (15.3 points per game), they finished the 2017 season ranked sixth in yards per game (365.9) and fifth in points per game (26.1) with Hackett as coordinator.
“I thought he did an incredible job in Jacksonville despite what may have happened this past season. There was a lot of adversity there that he had to fight through,” LaFleur said of Hackett, adding that he also liked that Hackett is “so organized” and “has experience as an NFL play-caller,” even though LaFleur will call the Packers’ plays.
“We’ve got similar backgrounds in the fact that he’s a coach’s kid. He’s been around the profession his whole life, and he’s got a lot of the same influences that I have. I just thought it was a great fit.
“I’ve never worked with him, so there’s certainly going to be a learning curve there. I’ve always had a great respect for him, and have always been impressed with his football knowledge.”
Both Hackett and LaFleur also believe in the importance of running the football, and believe in the impact it has on the play-action passing game.
Whereas the Packers finished the 2018 season having run the ball on just 32.5 percent of their offensive snaps, the Jaguars in 2017 and 2018 ran the ball 45.3 percent of the time with Hackett calling the plays, and the 2018 Titans ran the ball 48.4 percent of the time with LaFleur calling the plays.
“I think anytime you can take as much off the quarterback as possible, that only helps them out in the long run,” LaFleur said. “Certainly Aaron’s got incredible talent, and we’re going to definitely showcase that talent. But I just think in your early downs, the more you can stay balanced and keep the defense off balance and keep them guessing whether we’re going to run the ball or pass the ball, I think that it opens up opportunities for big plays down the field.
“Then, when you get to the known passing situations, whether it’s a third down or a 2-minute drive, then you’ve got to let the guy go play. I’m certainly excited because you’re talking about one of the greatest ever and his talent just speaks for itself.”