GREEN BAY — Amid all the requisite we-hired-a-new-coach pomp and circumstance and fresh-start excitement when the Green Bay Packers officially introduced head coach Matt LaFleur last week at Lambeau Field, team president/CEO Mark Murphy and general manager Brian Gutekunst each made comments that sure sounded like not-so-subtle criticisms of the previous coaching regime.
And those clear messages for why Murphy thought change was needed are being reinforced by the team’s decisions on its assistant coaches. According to two league sources, the Packers are looking to make a clean break from the Mike McCarthy era — successful as it might have been — and that desire has played a role in how LaFleur’s staff is being assembled.
Since LaFleur’s hiring, the team’s three longest-tenured assistants — offensive run-game coordinator/offensive line coach James Campen, defensive passing-game coordinator Joe Whitt and offensive coordinator/interim head coach Joe Philbin — have either been dismissed or given the OK to seek jobs elsewhere. All three were under contract for 2019 and thus needed to either be let go (Whitt) or given permission to interview with other teams (Philbin, Campen).
Campen, who began with the Packers in 2004 under McCarthy’s predecessor, Mike Sherman, just finished his 15th season on staff — tied for the longest tenure of any assistant coach in Packers history.
ESPN reported that Campen was in Cleveland interviewing for a position on new coach Freddie Kitchens’ staff Saturday. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the Minnesota Vikings were also interested in hiring Campen as their line coach.
Philbin, who also started with the Packers under Sherman in 2003, returned in 2018 as offensive coordinator after three-plus seasons as the Miami Dolphins’ head coach and two years as the Indianapolis Colts’ assistant head coach/offensive line coach. While Murphy got emotional when talking about Philbin — “There’s not a finer man that you’ll ever meet than Joe Philbin,” Murphy said — and Philbin spent 10 combined seasons in Green Bay (seven under McCarthy), he is not expected to return.
Whitt, whom McCarthy hired as a defensive quality control coach in 2008 before promoting him to cornerbacks coach in 2009, spent 11 years on the Packers’ staff before Friday night’s dismissal. McCarthy promoted him to defensive passing-game coordinator last year after passing him over for the coordinator job that went to Mike Pettine.
“I think it’s going to be a feel thing,” LaFleur replied last week when asked during a Q&A session with beat writers about how he’d go about hiring a staff. “Certainly, when I look at our staff, there’s a few things that stick out in my mind: No. 1, we need to hire good people. If you’re a quality coach (but) they’re not good people, they’re not going to be part of this organization. It really starts with hiring good people.
“We want great communicators and teachers, and they better be experts in the field. Those are the things that I’m going to try to get a feel for with each candidate.”
The Packers officially kept Pettine as defensive coordinator on Friday, and two sources said it was not Pettine’s call to part ways with Whitt. Citing a source, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that the decision on Whitt was likely made “by the front office.” Pettine, while hired by McCarthy, came aboard last year.
“They just want to move on from the guys who were with McCarthy the longest,” one league source told the State Journal. “They want to make a clean break.”
Rooting out ‘complacency’
Given how Murphy controlled most of the introductory news conference last week, it’s hard not to wonder exactly who is pushing for that break. But based on what Murphy and Gutekunst said during LaFleur’s introduction, the approach probably shouldn’t be surprising.
Early on in his nearly 14-minute soliloquy to open the proceedings on Wednesday, Murphy mentioned that he had enlisted the help of the team’s leadership council, a nine-player group that included quarterback Aaron Rodgers and other well-respected veteran players — one from each position group.
Mindful of public perception that Rodgers holds too much sway in the organization, Murphy emphasized that none of the players were asked about specific candidates. Instead, he said, players were asked what traits they were seeking in a new coach following McCarthy’s nearly 13-year tenure and Philbin’s four-game run after McCarthy’s Dec. 2 firing.
“I think they wanted somebody that would hold players accountable,” Murphy said. “And the other thing that — and Brian can speak to this as well, (because) he was there — the players talked a little bit (was) how they felt a complacency had set in among some players and coaches.
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“So that was something that as we went through the process, was kind of in the back of my mind. ‘Is there something we can do that can kind of shake people up so we don’t have the complacency?’”
Later, Gutekunst was asked what had convinced him that LaFleur, who had never been a head coach at any level and spent only one year as an offensive play-caller in Tennessee after nine years as an NFL assistant with Houston, Washington, Atlanta and the Los Angeles Rams, was the right choice.
Gutekunst’s initial reply focused on LaFleur’s character and experience coaching quarterbacks. Then, he said, “When we got in the room with him, the presence that he had in front of us, just made me feel like he could coach our whole team — that he could drive our team to where it needed to be, that he could be aggressive enough to …”
Gutekunst’s voice trailed off. Then, he added, “We need to get better. And we need to play harder. And I thought he could do that for us.”
Seeking ‘great people’
Lack of accountability. Complacency. Needing to play harder. Harsh criticisms, all, for a regime that saw the team qualify for the playoffs nine times (including eight straight seasons from 2009 through 2016) in 13 years, reach four conference championship games and win Super Bowl XLV.
But given that players themselves told Murphy and Gutekunst those things, it’s awfully difficult to dismiss those critiques as baseless.
“I was in on the leadership council conversation, and it was a great conversation that we had,” inside linebacker Blake Martinez said. “I think for us it was us letting out everything that we needed to get out on the table, and I think it was just a great opportunity for us to voice our opinion and give our understanding of what we think we need or we want (in a coach).
“But at the end of the day, the main conversation was we agreed on both sides about a lot of situations. They explained to us that, ‘Hey, we’re going to take your considerations and we respect them, and we’re going to make sure we get the right guy. And when we do, everyone has to be on board and ready to go.’”
LaFleur has yet to hire an offensive coordinator or a special-teams coordinator after firing veteran coach Ron Zook earlier in the week.
Sources confirmed that LaFleur has already interviewed ex-Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and was interviewing ex-Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Todd Monken on Saturday.
ESPN reported that the San Francisco 49ers denied the Packers’ and LaFleur’s request to interview offensive assistants Mike McDaniel and LaFleur’s brother, Mike, for positions on the Packers’ offensive staff. McDaniel and Mike LaFleur are 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan’s top two lieutenants on offense.
“There are a lot great people here, and you win with people,” Matt LaFleur said. “We have to continue to bring great people in here, and that starts by assembling a great staff — and evaluating the roster after that, and adding whatever key pieces we can. I feel lucky to have the support of (Murphy and Gutekunst), and I think you guys will be happy with the product we put on the field.
“We want to be very intentional about what we do (in the hiring process), so it’s hard to put a timeline on anything. But we feel like there are a lot of good candidates out there.”