CHICAGO — Matt LaFleur believes he was born for this.
Now, don’t misunderstand the Green Bay Packers’ first-year head coach. He doesn’t view his job leading one of the most iconic franchises in professional sports as something that was predestined or anything like that. He had the same dreams as most sports-playing kids growing up, picturing himself as an NFL quarterback, not stalking the sidelines wearing a headset and radioing in plays to Aaron Rodgers.
But LaFleur eventually came to grips while in college at Saginaw Valley State that, while he had the ambition and drive to be a pro athlete, he didn’t have the genetics.
“You know, it’s funny, because you’re always thinking you can play at the next level,” LaFleur said in advance of Thursday night’s season opener against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field — a rivalry game that will kick off the NFL’s 100th season.
“When I was in high school, I was, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll be able to play in college.’ And then you get to college, ‘Oh, yeah, I can play at the next level.’ Well, it didn’t take long for me to figure out, ‘There aren’t too many under-6 feet quarterbacks — who are Division II players, mind you — that are playing in the NFL.’
“So I had to come to terms with that pretty quickly and realize that my best bet at continuing on in football was to become a coach.”
If LaFleur didn’t have such an ultra-competitive personality, perhaps he would have accepted the meant-to-be-a-coach nature of his upbringing. His father, Denny, coached at Central Michigan University for more than two decades, holding just about every assistant coach job on the Chippewas’ staff.
And so, even as LaFleur played sports growing up, he expected to be a coach one day — after his pro career ended, of course.
“I think sometimes you’re a product of your environment,” LaFleur said. “My mom was a coach and a teacher. My grandpa was a coach and a teacher. I mean, my whole family is a bunch of teachers, for the most part — mostly on my mom’s side of the family. It was just one of those deals where I was always around football.
“It was such a huge part of my life since the time I was born. I mean, my dad coached (at Central Michigan) all the way up to my senior year of high school, so my first 18 years, my life was all about Central Michigan football. Every Saturday in the fall, we were going to games. And it wasn’t just my immediate family — it was my aunts and uncles and cousins and grandma and grandpa … everyone came into town, and that’s what we did as a family. It was like a ritual every weekend in the fall.”
“So, I just fell in love with the game.”
Keeping an even keel
One would think, then, that with his first game as head coach looming, LaFleur might be a bundle of nervous energy and anticipation. But he insisted this week that he could not — would not — make the game about him and his debut. While he may have just been doing an excellent job of masking his anxiety, those who were around him insisted they didn’t see anything other than the even-keeled coach they’d seen throughout training camp.
“I don’t see a real difference in his approach. I mean, it’s been consistent from the day he walked in,” said defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who was the Cleveland Browns’ head coach in 2014 and ’15, grew up the son of a coach and can identify with the emotions that typically come with that first game in charge. “I know probably inside it’ll be a boiling a little bit, but that’s always an exciting time. He’ll be confident because of the way we’ve prepared. That’s always been a mantra of ours, that you’re most confident through your preparation.”
Asked what he remembered from his first game as a head coach, Pettine recalled the maelstrom of emotions he experienced leading up to kickoff.
“I hid it well,” Pettine said with a smirk. “It didn’t help that we were at Pittsburgh and we were losing 24-3 at halftime or something like that. We came back and tied the game in the second half, but there was no moral victory to take out of that. I just remember that people were happy that the game ended up competitive. I’ve always said there’s a word for ‘almost winning’ — it’s … ‘losing.’ I have much better memories obviously of our first win than that first game.
“But it’ll be an exciting time — not just for Matt, but for all of us. I just think the newness of what we’re doing offensively, the newness of the defensive unit, we’ve been together building it since the spring and I think we’re going to be ready to go when we get down to Chicago.”
LaFleur said he wanted to be very intentional about not allowing his emotions to get the best of him throughout the week of preparation, but he acknowledged it could be hard to keep them in check when he comes out of the tunnel.
He said he benefited from being around three first-time head coaches in the past four years before being one himself: The Atlanta Falcons’ Dan Quinn in 2015; the Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay in 2017 and the Tennessee Titans’ Mike Vrabel last year.
“I think it is a combination of all those guys. They’ve got a lot of similarities and I’ve taken a little something from each of them,” LaFleur said. “I think you just have to take every day and make the best of each and every day. That’s the only way I know how to prepare. That’s kind of how I’ve been trained, the guys I’ve been fortunate to be around in this business. Put your best foot forward each and every day and then I think you can go into a game with a calm mind and a confidence.”
No ‘Win one for the Gipper’
After getting the job in January, LaFleur acknowledged he spent a lot of time thinking about how he’d approach the first time he spoke to the team as a whole. While he reached out to all of his players after getting the job, when the full roster reconvened for the start of the offseason program in April, he wanted to make sure he struck the right chords in his first team meeting.
There was no such planning for his night-before-the-game address to the players at the team hotel Wednesday night, he insisted. With a historic rivalry game against the defending NFC North Division champions in the first game of the NFL’s 100th season — and with the we’re-not-rebuilding high expectations he has for his team and his players — LaFleur said he felt the gravity of the moment speaks for itself.
“Yeah, I don’t know if I’m going to say any ‘Win one for the Gipper’ speeches or anything like that,” LaFleur said. “I think our guys, we’ve got a pretty mature group. I think they’re locked in. I think they’re ready to go. They know what this game is all about. It’s a big division game and it’s the first game of the season. I don’t think I have to say anything magical to get these guys ready to go out and play.”
What LaFleur does have that could be magical is a cutting-edge offense that the Packers are hoping will revitalize Rodgers, who grew frustrated and sometimes disenfranchised in the waning years of ex-coach Mike McCarthy’s tenure. With Rodgers engaged and excited about what LaFleur’s offense delivers schematically, a quick turnaround after back-to-back playoff-less seasons isn’t out of the question.
“That’s the beauty of the first weeks of the season. There’s so many unscouted looks,” said Rodgers, who also seemed to try to tamp down expectations for the offense in the early part of the season. “What film are they watching of us? Are they watching last year? Are they watching Tennessee film?
“That’s why it comes down to trusting your training. It’s going to come down to the execution of the fundamentals and trusting the experience in the midst of a tough environment.”
An environment LaFleur believes he — and his team — will be ready for.
“I definitely saw that in the (first) team meeting (early in the week). I could tell our team was pretty focused and locked in,” LaFleur said. “We’re going to sort of operate as we always do. I learned from Dan Quinn a couple years ago, they all count the same. You have to have that championships mindset each and every week, and each and every day. That’s the way we’re going about our business.”