GREEN BAY — Matt LaFleur stopped short Monday of flat-out saying he’d made a mistake.
But the Green Bay Packers first-year head coach’s decision to have the team travel to the West Coast on Saturday this time around — one day before Sunday’s crucial NFC showdown with the San Francisco 49ers in Santa Clara, California — said it for him: That having his team go to California on the Friday before its Nov. 3 matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers wasn’t the right call.
Give the rookie coach this much: He admits when he’s wrong and he does something about it — even if the impact of getting to Southern California a day earlier than usual was probably negligible in the grand scheme of the team’s worst performance of the season. Just as he had promised he would in the wake of his team’s listless 26-11 loss to the Chargers, LaFleur consulted with strength and conditioning coach Chris Gizzi, head athletic trainer Bryan “Flea” Engel, director of performance nutrition Adam Korzun and “some other people” and made the call to travel on the traditional day-before-the-game schedule most teams use no matter the destination.
“What I came to find out was just that the two-hour time difference really doesn’t affect our guys a whole bunch,” LaFleur said following a light practice as the Packers returned from the bye week. “It’s harder on teams going from West Coast to East Coast, so coupled with the fact that how I felt the Chargers trip went, I just thought this was the best route to go for our football team.”
Asked if the NFL’s decision to flex the game into NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” timeslot factored into his decision, LaFleur replied, “We were going to go Saturday regardless.”
Immediately following the loss to the Chargers, quarterback Aaron Rodgers questioned whether some of his teammates handled their bonus time in California properly and whether shoddy preparation or a lack of energy contributed to the disappointing showing. And, in turn, Rodgers sounded a public alarm about not making the same mistakes before going west again for the 49ers game.
“We’ve got to be honest about our routine and decisions we made the last 48 hours and make sure that our heads are in the right place the next time we come on a big road trip, which will just be in three weeks,” Rodgers said at the time. “I think it can happen to any team. I don’t think it was complacency at all. Whether it was the trip, not everybody taking care of themselves the right way over the two days or we were just tired or the differences in temperature, but those are just excuses. The facts are that we weren’t locked in from the start, and that’s a little disappointing.”
Rodgers didn’t shy away from those remarks during his regular press briefing at his locker a few days later, instead reiterating his concerns.
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Asked Monday if he thought LaFleur’s decision to travel on Saturday was related to the team’s poor showing against the Chargers, cornerback Tramon Williams underscored the importance of focus given the importance of the game.
“We obviously don’t want what happened against the Chargers to happen this week, but our mind is not (on that game),” Williams said. “As a player, you don’t look at it that way, you look at it that we just didn’t show up. We didn’t play well. This time around we have to show up and we have to play well, obviously against a really good 49ers team,
“We’ve got to continue doing what we’re doing and we’ve got to treat this week as normal as possible, which we will, and hopefully we show up, show out, when the time comes.”
There’s no question that the stakes for this matchup between the NFC West-leading Niners (9-1) and NFC North-leading Packers (8-2) are high. Although the 49ers (No. 1) and Packers (No. 2) would be the NFC’s top two seeds if the season ended today, the conference has three other teams very much in the mix for those coveted first-round byes and divisional-round home games: The NFC South-leading New Orleans Saints (8-2); the Seattle Seahawks (8-2), who are a game behind the 49ers but won their first head-to-head matchup; and the Minnesota Vikings (8-3), who are a half-game behind the Packers and have their bye this weekend.
Even so, LaFleur insisted that he’s not talking about the importance of the game on seeding; rather, he continues with his “go 1-0 every week mantra” – as cliché as he knows it is.
“I think our guys have done a great job all season long of just attacking it one game at a time. And not only one game at a time, but one day at a time. And that was the message,” LaFleur replied when asked what he told the players upon their return to work Monday. “Again, they’re 9-1 – so you can’t look any further than that right there. (Instead of seeding), you’re going to look at what we need to clean up on our end, and then just how we’re going to go about attacking the Niners.”
But his players understand the big picture and the importance of this game — even if it’s unspoken.
“The goal never changes. That’s understood already. It’s not something that we have to talk about, that we have to look at. It’s already understood,” Williams said. “We can’t get there unless we take it one week at a time and that’s the only way we can do it. Obviously, we’ve got a tough 49er team that we can’t look past even if we wanted to, you know? We just here taking it one week at a time and that’s what we’re gonna do every week.”
All 53 of the players on the roster were able to participate in practice, including tight end Robert Tonyan, who has been sidelined since suffering a hip injury at Dallas on Oct. 6, and kick returner Tremon Smith and special teams linebacker Ty Summers, both of whom left the team’s Nov. 10 win over Carolina with concussions. “I think it speaks to the support that we have around this organization in terms of helping keep our guys healthy. I think it speaks to our players taking care of their bodies,” LaFleur said. “And with anything like that, there’s also some luck that’s involved there, too. We’re in pretty good shape right now.” ... LaFleur said he won’t talk much this week to 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, one of his closest friends in coaching. LaFleur’s brother, Mike, is the 49ers’ offensive passing-game coordinator. “Occasionally we’ll talk but there will be not a lot of talking this week,” LaFleur said. “The time I talk to him the most is usually if I’m FaceTiming my brother and he’s in his office.” … LaFleur said he watched the 49ers’ come-from-behind win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday while working in his office. “It’s definitely not as easy to see how you want to attack somebody off the TV copy. It’s definitely easier to see off the coaches’ film,” he said. “But there are certain things that you can pick up.”