GREEN BAY — A year ago, a first-time, offensive-minded head coach in the NFC North — one whose first name is also Matt, oddly enough — made it a priority to keep his team’s veteran defensive coordinator.
It worked out splendidly for Matt Nagy and the Chicago Bears, whose No. 1-ranked defense, led by coordinator Vic Fangio, fueled their 12-4 season and division title.
Now the Green Bay Packers and new coach Matt LaFleur are hoping that keeping defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will have a similar effect.
Speaking in an interview on SiriusXM Mad Dog Radio on Friday, LaFleur confirmed what has been widely reported since he was offered the Packers’ coaching job: Pettine will stay on as defensive coordinator.
The Packers made the news official on Friday afternoon.
LaFleur wasn’t willing to say publicly Pettine was coming back after he was introduced as head coach on Wednesday, but he and Pettine got together on Thursday, and the conversation made it clear to LaFleur that keeping Pettine was definitely the way to go.
“We’re going to go with Mike. I had a chance to sit down with him (Thursday) and really go through a lot of different things. I think we share a common vision and I am really excited to see this defense take off in Year 2 of his system. I think that continuity, just for the players to be able to perform, usually in Year 2 it definitely is going to improve,” LaFleur said.
“And also, the thing that was so attractive about Mike to me was, here’s a guy who’s been a head coach in the National Football League. It’s going to be somebody that I can lean on, because there’s going to be certain circumstances that come up that maybe I haven’t been through. So, really excited to have Mike as a part of our staff.”
While the team was able to keep Pettine, a league source confirmed longtime defensive assistant Joe Whitt, who served as the team’s defensive passing-game coordinator in 2018, had been dismissed Friday evening.
Whitt served as the team’s cornerbacks coach from 2009 through 2017, and during that time, the Packers led the NFL in interceptions with 176. The 2018 season was his 11th in Green Bay. A league source said Friday night that Pettine did not make the decision on Whitt.
It’s unclear whether the other defensive assistants — Patrick Graham, Jerry Montgomery, Jason Simmons, Scott McCurley, Ryan Downard and Jay Hayes — will return. But keeping Pettine was important to many of the defensive players.
“I think it means a lot (that Pettine is coming back),” inside linebacker Blake Martinez, who relays Pettine’s play calls in the huddle, said Friday. “I love coach Pettine’s scheme. It allowed a lot of guys to be in good situations, good matchups, and just able to make plays. I think we had 10-plus guys get at least one sack. I think it’s pretty cool to have everyone contribute in that sense.
“That’s one of the biggest things for me. When I made my first-year to second-year jump, being able to have the same defense going into that second year (under then-coordinator Dom Capers), it’s going to be that much bigger of a jump going from my third year to my fourth year, to have this defense down and once again learning those little intricacies to where I can make a 1-2 step quicker play than I did this last year.”
In his first year as defensive coordinator, Pettine’s injury-ravaged unit didn’t put up the kind of final numbers he’s accustomed to. The Packers finished the season ranked 18th in total defense (354.4 yards per game) and 22nd in scoring defense (25.0 points per game). In his previous seasons as the defensive coordinator for the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills, Pettine had never had a unit finish outside the top 10 in total defense.
Pettine said late in the season he had been rejuvenated after two years out of coaching following his two-year stint as the Cleveland Browns coach. And unlike Fangio, who was named the Denver Broncos coach earlier this week, Pettine said he wasn’t really interested in being a head coach again.
He reiterated that stance before the Packers’ season-ending 31-0 loss to the Detroit Lions while also expressing a desire to stay and keep building the Packers defense.
“I know some people might scratch their heads given what our record’s been, but just from a personal standpoint, just the year this has been (great) — getting back in, and the enjoyment being around the players, being around the coaching staff, building a plan, going out and practicing it, teaching it, implementing it,” Pettine said. “But it’s what I love to do and I don’t know if I necessarily see that changing anytime soon.
“The foundation is the hardest thing to get right, and I feel that a lot of it has been built. We’ve made a lot of mistakes — especially me personally, I’ve learned a lot of cases of what not to do versus what to do — but when you just look at Year 2 as you look forward to it, the nice part about it is you reap the rewards of having already (built the foundation).
“If you have the bulk of your players back and the bulk of your coaching staff back, that Year 2 is not so hectic. You start Year 2 well ahead of where you would have been in Year 1. So of course, naturally, most people would want to feel like, ‘Hey, I started something, I want to finish it.’”
Meanwhile, LaFleur confirmed ex-Jacksonville Jaguars offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett is in the running to be the team’s new offensive coordinator. Hackett is the son of former University of Pittsburgh and USC head coach Paul Hackett, who mentored ex-Packers coach Mike McCarthy early in McCarthy’s coaching career at Pitt and with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Nathaniel Hackett spent most of the past four seasons with the Jaguars under coach Doug Marrone, serving as quarterbacks coach in 2015 before moving up to offensive coordinator in 2016. Marrone fired him on Nov. 26, after the Jaguars’ seventh consecutive loss during their 5-11 season.
But in 2017, Hackett was in charge of a Jaguars offense that helped Jacksonville to an AFC Championship Game berth against the New England Patriots. Although the Jaguars ranked 27th in total offense this season (302 yards per game) and 31st in the 32-team league in scoring offense (15.3 points), they finished the 2017 season ranked sixth in yards per game (365.9) and fifth in points per game (26.1).
LaFleur said during his introductory news conference Wednesday he will call the Packers’ offensive plays, so Hackett — or whomever LaFleur hires — will be in a support role on game day. LaFleur had been a non-play calling offensive coordinator under Sean McVay with the Los Angeles Rams in 2017 before leaving to call the Tennessee Titans’ offensive plays last year as their offensive coordinator.
“He’s certainly on the radar,” LaFleur said when asked about Hackett. “He did a lot of great things there in Jacksonville. They went to the AFC Championship Game (last year), so that’s definitely somebody I want to talk to.”
However, Hackett isn’t the only candidate for the offensive coordinator position. ESPN.com reported Friday afternoon that Todd Monken, the ex-Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator who was one of 10 head-coaching candidates to interview with the Packers, also is set to interview for the job.
Monken also is set to interview for the Detroit Lions’ and Cleveland Browns’ offensive coordinator positions, ESPN.com reported. Hackett has already interviewed for that Lions job, which came open when Lions coach Matt Patricia parted ways with Jim Bob Cooter.
It’s unclear how LaFleur’s search for an offensive coordinator has been limited by potential candidates not being able to leave their current jobs. LaFleur’s brother, Mike, is the San Francisco 49ers’ wide receivers coach and passing-game coordinator, but it is unlikely that 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan would allow Mike LaFleur to leave the staff to take a non-play calling offensive coordinator position. The same is likely true of the 49ers’ running-game coordinator, Mike McDaniel.
Given Matt LaFleur’s close relationship with Shanahan, he likely knew that going into the hiring process and thus turned his attention to other candidates. Because Hackett and Monken aren’t under contract with their former teams, hiring them would be a matter of competing with other teams that are interested in them.
“We’re going through that phase right now, just getting an opportunity to talk to some of the (coaches) that have been here,” LaFleur said of the staff interview process. “Certainly I’ve had ideas prior to coming here of guys that I’d like to bring in, but we’re in the evaluation and vetting stage right now and we’re going to continue to work through that to put together the best possible staff.”