GREEN BAY — Matt LaFleur hasn’t been at this head-coaching thing for very long, but the Green Bay Packers' rookie coach clearly understands one aspect of his new gig.
You have to do what you believe is right. No matter what anyone on the outside thinks.
And so, when it comes to his relationship with two-time NFL MVP quarterback Aaron Rodgers — the topic LaFleur has been asked about more than any other since the Packers hired him Jan. 11 — LaFleur has thought long and hard about how he wants to build it.
As well as what he considers it: A partnership.
That’s the word LaFleur has used time and time again to describe how he’ll relate to his quarterback, including during the recent NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis. And despite the scrutiny their relationship will be under after the coach-quarterback relationship between ex-head coach Mike McCarthy and Rodgers seemingly became untenable last season, LaFleur insists he’s in no way concerned about whether McCarthy and Rodgers got sideways with each other late in their 13 seasons together.
“Honestly, that doesn’t bother me, what happened last year,” LaFleur said during a Q&A session with beat writers at a downtown Indianapolis eatery during the combine. “To me, it’s about what we can do moving forward, the relationship that I can develop with him, that our staff can develop with him. That’s what’s going to be critical moving forward.
“As long as that communication’s always there and it’s clear, open and honest, I think you can accomplish whatever you want to together. So, I’m not going delve too much into what happened in the past. He’s had a hell of a career up to this point. For me, it’s just about what can we do moving forward.
“I know this, when I talk to him, the guy wants to win, and I think he’s at the point of his career where he’s starting to think about his legacy and what’s going to leave, and the only way you can do that is you better win a world championship. That’s the goal. We’re always going to strive for that. I think that’s where he’s at in his career.”
LaFleur has spent most of his NFL coaching career working with quarterbacks, including the Washington Redskins’ Robert Griffin III and Kirk Cousins in 2012 and 2013, the Atlanta Falcons’ Matt Ryan in 2015 and 2016, the Los Angeles Rams’ Jared Goff in 2017, and the Tennessee Titans’ Marcus Mariota this past season.
While Griffin and Cousins (rookies in 2012), Goff (second season) and Mariota (fourth season) were all young quarterbacks when LaFleur coached them, Ryan was in his eighth season when LaFleur first became his position coach. In their second year together, Ryan won the NFL MVP and led the Falcons to Super Bowl LI.
“Just going through those two years with him gave me a good perspective on how to communicate with these guys that have had a lot of success in their career and maybe have done things a little bit differently,” LaFleur said. “How we can both learn together and grow together and make it our offense. It’s not my offense. This is going to be our offense. It’s a partnership.
“It’s (a matter of), try to teach him how I see it, but I also want to know how he sees it. Because there’s a lot of great things that he’s had a lot of success with in the past that we’d be crazy not to continue to do. It’s about finding and building our offense to make him the best player that he can be.”
That word — partnership — is bound to perk the ears of critics who think LaFleur runs the risk of letting Rodgers run roughshod over him if he doesn’t clearly show him who’s boss. And LaFleur clearly grasps that.
He just doesn’t care.
“Honestly, personally, it doesn’t bother me how it’s perceived, what people think,” LaFleur said. “To me, what matters is what we do in our building and what our players know to be true and our coaches know to be true.
“Again, I just keep going back to it. I think it’s so imperative. The relationship’s going to be absolutely critical. Whether you’re working with Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Kirk Cousins, Robert Griffin, Marcus — all those relationships have been critical with the play-caller because the last thing you want to do as a play-caller is give a guy a play that he doesn’t believe it’s going to work. I think your odds of it working are very, very small.
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“I want to know what he thinks because I think if he believes in it, (it matters). We’ve got plenty of plays. We’re going to have enough plays where it’s not going to hurt my feelings if we cross a couple things off the list.”
General manager Brian Gutekunst, who was part of the hiring process along with director of football operations Russ Ball and team president/CEO Mark Murphy, who made the final call on hiring LaFleur, said LaFleur’s experience with quarterbacks and ability to connect with them was crucial to the decision to hire him.
“It was important. Obviously we have one of the best that’s ever played the game and our team is built, specifically on offense, around him. So certainly that was an important factor moving forward,” Gutekunst said. “I think obviously (Rodgers) is very, very important to our team. So that relationship is always important, but for us, it’s very significant. That was an important part of how we went about it.”
The Packers are scheduled to open their offseason program on April 8, when the strength and conditioning portion of the program kicks off. After that comes individual position work, then organized team activity practices and minicamp. The Packers get extra time this offseason because of the coaching change.
For now, Rodgers and LaFleur have talked a few times, but not in-depth about the offense. He can’t have a playbook — even if he could, LaFleur is still in the process of teaching it to his assistant coaches anyway — until the program begins, so there’s not much to talk about besides the relationship-building process. And LaFleur understands that.
“Right now, it’s just been a phone call here or there. We’re not allowed to talk Xs and Os, but it’s just part of the development of learning each other,” LaFleur said. “I know this: I know he wants to win, I know I want to win, I know our coaches want to win and I know our other players want to win. And we’re going to do everything we can to make sure the communication lines are always open, that we’re very, very clear and honest with each other.”
LaFleur acknowledged that building a connection with Rodgers will be different than it was with those younger quarterbacks — including Griffin, who raved about what LaFleur meant to his early success — and even Ryan, who wasn’t as accomplished as Rodgers is now.
“When you’re dealing with a young guy, it’s a blank slate,” LaFleur said. “When you’re dealing with these older guys, there’s going to be things that they’ve had a lot of success with, that they feel really comfortable with, and then there’s going to be some things where they’ve got what we call ‘scars’ where, hey, maybe they’ve tried this play or a certain play and it hasn’t worked out.
“It’s just like when you go to a restaurant and you order something and get food poisoning. Are you going to order that same thing again? Probably not. You know? But we’ve just got to try to work it in as best we can and try to reframe how they see things and Aaron how he sees certain things that we feel like gives us the best chance to win.”
The Packers released linebacker Antonio Morrison on Friday after one season, freeing some $2 million in salary cap space.
Morrison, who was acquired in a trade with the Indianapolis Colts in August, played in all 16 games with eight starts last season and had 42 tackles (28 solo), four tackles for a loss, a sack and four tackles on special teams.
He was a fourth-round pick by the Colts out of Florida in the 2016 draft. In two seasons in Indianapolis, Morrison played in 31 games with 19 starts and finished with 154 tackles (91 solo), six tackles for a loss and a pass defensed.
Meanwhile, the Detroit Lions have cut offensive guard T.J. Lang, a long-time standout with the Packers.
Detroit made the move Friday, releasing the banged-up veteran with one season left on his three-year contract. The 31-year-old Lang played a career-low six games last season and went on injured reserve in November with a neck injury. His career has also been stunted by neck, hip injuries and a concussion.
Green Bay drafted the Detroit-area native and former Eastern Michigan standout in the fourth round of the 2009 draft. He became a starter for the Packers during the last six seasons of his eight-year stint with the franchise. Lang has started 113 of the 138 career games.
The Lions say Lang represented everything you could want from a football player and team captain.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Jason Wilde covers the Packers for ESPN Wisconsin. Listen to him with former Packers and Badgers offensive lineman Mark Tauscher weekdays from 9-11 on “Wilde & Tausch” on your local ESPN station.