49ers coach Kyle Shanahan enjoys seeing his former ‘right-hand guy’ Matt LaFleur have success
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49ers coach Kyle Shanahan enjoys seeing his former ‘right-hand guy’ Matt LaFleur have success

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49ers' Kyle Shanahan will coach against close friend Matt LaFleur on Sunday night in a matchup of the NFC's top teams.  

GREEN BAY — To understand the web of brother-like friendships that’ll be criss-crossing the Levi’s Stadium field on Sunday night — and what Kyle Shanahan means when he says of his buddy Matt LaFleur, “We just mess with each other a lot” — one only needs to hear Shanahan’s take on LaFleur’s travel plans leading up to the crucial NFC showdown between his San Francisco 49ers and LaFleur’s Green Bay Packers.

Shanahan knew all about how poorly the Packers’ last West Coast swing had gone when they traveled to Los Angeles an extra day early and delivered their worst performance of the season in an uninspired 26-11 loss to the Chargers on Nov. 3. In the aftermath of that loss, quarterback Aaron Rodgers wondered whether the decision to go west on Friday — rather than the usual Saturday day-before-the-game departure — might have played into the listless showing.

In turn, Shanahan was paying attention earlier in the week when LaFleur opted to make Saturday the team travel day. So while LaFleur’s wife, BreAnne, and the couple’s two sons spent much of the week in the Bay Area, the first-year coach and his team stayed back until the team charter departed Saturday afternoon.

“I’m really disappointed that you guys changed your schedule. I thought you guys were going to come out here a couple days early, and then we were going to try to sabotage Matt on Friday,” Shanahan told Wisconsin reporters during a conference call at midweek.

By “we,” Shanahan meant himself and 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, who are like brothers to LaFleur; LaFleur’s real-life brother Mike, the 49ers’ offensive passing game coordinator; and 49ers offensive running-game coordinator Mike McDaniel, who’s worked with both LaFleurs during his various NFL stops.

“I think that’s why he changed it,” a clearly amused Shanahan continued. “He was worried about us, not what happened against the Chargers.”

For those of you scoring at home, Shanahan is the coach who’s had the greatest influence on LaFleur during his NFL coaching career, having worked with him with the Houston Texans (2008 and ’09), Washington Redskins (2010-’13) and Atlanta Falcons (2015 and ’16).

Saleh worked with LaFleur in 2004 at Central Michigan University, where the two were roommates and became best friends — a relationship that led Saleh, who was already working for the Texans, to recommend LaFleur to Shanahan and Houston coach Gary Kubiak when the offensive quality control coaching job came open.

Mike LaFleur, 7½ years younger than Matt, joined the clique in 2014, when he worked as an offensive coaching intern in Cleveland, where Shanahan was the Browns’ offensive coordinator.

And McDaniel worked with Shanahan and one or both of the LaFleurs during his gigs in Washington, Cleveland and Atlanta.

And as if there wasn’t enough crossover between the two coaching staffs, Packers defensive coordinator Mike Pettine was the Browns coach in 2014 and hired Shanahan and Mike LaFleur to his staff; Packers offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and Saleh were on the Jacksonville Jaguars’ coaching staff together in 2015 and ’16; and Packers offensive line coach Adam Stenavich was a player on the Texans’ practice squad in 2008 and ’09, then worked for Shanahan as the 49ers’ assistant offensive line coach the past two years before LaFleur brought him to Green Bay in January.

Meanwhile, Matt LaFleur’s wife and kids have been staying with Mike and his family since Wednesday night, with Matt joking he’d told sons Luke and Ty to steal Uncle Mike’s backpack upon their arrival, and BreAnne and Shanahan’s wife, Mandy, went out to dinner together on Thursday night.

All of which might make for a slightly overwhelming scene at Levi’s Stadium for a rookie head coach if LaFleur hadn’t already gone up against Shanahan, Saleh and his brother in 2017 when he was the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive coordinator under coach Sean McVay, another member of the crew who worked with the LaFleurs and Shanahan in Washington.

“(All the relationships) just add a little bit more to it. But at the end of the day, you just look at that football team and how good they’re doing and we know this is an important game for us,” LaFleur said before the team left for San Francisco. “I’m glad I went through this in L.A. (in 2017) when we played San Francisco because it was a little bit different for me. I had worked with a lot of these guys for a long time … but I kind of got that (feeling) out of the way in LA. It will feel different this time around.”

Beyond all their personal connections, what will be fascinating will be how all their knowledge of each other’s playbooks and coaching philosophies will impact the play-calling chess match on each side of the ball. When Saleh and LaFleur faced off in that 2017 49ers-Rams game, LaFleur wasn’t L.A.’s play-caller — McVay was. And this will also be the first time Shanahan and Pettine have matched wits since going their separate ways after their time together with the Browns.

It’ll also be fascinating to see how LaFleur’s version of the modernized West Coast scheme compares to Shanahan’s. While they have similar offensive ideologies, their schemes have diverged with different players to work with and other coaches bringing their own experiences and ideas.

“I feel like we see it so much alike. That’s a byproduct of working with somebody for so long and having a lot of conversations about it. I feel like he’s taught me how to see the game,” LaFleur said. “There’s so many things that I learned from him. I think it’s just his detailed approach that he takes every day. I think he’s a guy that has a great vision for what he wants to get done, how to use players, how to adapt and put people in the right position. A lot of my football philosophy has been shaped by him.”

Responded Shanahan: “I think it’s definitely different. You can see a foundation of where we both come from and stuff like that, but we’ve both evolved year-to-year based off what you think is best for your players, where you’re at. Some of that stuff ties to how to win the game based off what you’re doing defensively, special teams. I think the foundations are similar and a little bit of our philosophies. You definitely don’t just turn on the tape and think it looks the same.”

While Shanahan said he considered LaFleur “one of my right-hand guys” when they were together in their various stops and that they remain “pretty good friends,” they remain ultra-competitive, too. They were while coaching together as well.

“We challenged the heck out of each other. We had a lot of good, hard arguments,” Shanahan said. “And I think we both made each other better through it all.”

And yet, for as competitive as they are with each other and all the good-natured grief they might give each other, Shanahan is thoroughly enjoying his friend’s early success.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all. He’s a good coach. He knows what he’s doing,” said Shanahan, whose first 49ers team in 2017 started 0-9 before winning six of the last seven games. “It seems like he’s with some good people, some good coaches and a great organization. He has a really good quarterback. It doesn’t surprise me at all they’re where they’re at.

“It’s just been cool to see him in that role. I always thought and knew he’d be good, but it’s really cool when you see him in that role. It’s not that I’m surprised, I always knew he’d be good, but to already see him there and see how comfortable he is and how natural he is at it, I’ve been very proud of him. He’s been even better than I expected. And I know he’s going to be doing this a long time.”

<&rdpStrong>Packers vs. 49ers: Three things to watch</&rdpStrong>

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