GREEN BAY — Ben Sirmans had to laugh. He’s still not quite sure how this happened.
“It’s strange, being one of the older guys,” the Green Bay Packers 48-year-old running backs coach said Monday afternoon. “I’m like, ‘Man, I didn’t expect this to happen so soon.’”
While new coach Matt LaFleur didn’t necessarily set out to bring a youth movement to the Packers’ coaching staff — he said finding “excellent communicators,” coaches who were “passionate” and of “high character,” and finding the right “fit” with each coach were his priorities — the end result was a staff full of thirtysomethings.
Of the 39-year-old LaFleur’s 20 coaches on offense, defense and special teams, 12 have yet to reach their 40th birthday. Seven are in their 40s and only one — defensive coordinator Mike Pettine — is over 50.
“Age, it’s a number,” said the 52-year-old Pettine, a former head coach with the Cleveland Browns who stayed on after being hired as defensive coordinator last year by former coach Mike McCarthy. “These guys are very well versed in what they do and what you’re looking for in an assistant coach. They love football, they’re smart, they’re excellent teachers, they have a great demeanor with the players.
“That’s what it’s all about, helping these players get better. I don’t care if a guy is 25 years old or 65 years old, it’s all about how they do their job.”
After firing McCarthy following a Dec. 2 loss to Arizona, team president/CEO Mark Murphy said there was concern in the building about complacency. Although the 55-year-old McCarthy, who was 42 when he was hired in 2006, took pride in cultivating young coaches — including Luke Getsy, the 35-year-old former wide receivers coach who is back as quarterbacks coach after one year at Mississippi State — he had mostly veteran coaches on his staff.
Last season, for instance, McCarthy’s coordinators were Joe Philbin (57), Ron Zook (64) and Pettine. He also had Jim Hostler (52) as the offensive passing-game coordinator and James Campen (54) as the offensive line coach and run-game coordinator. Defensive pass-game coordinator Joe Whitt (40) and run-game coordinator Patrick Graham (40) were young by comparison.
While acknowledging the importance of experience, LaFleur said he believes a young staff will serve his team well.
“I think we’re going to bring a lot of energy every day. And I think we’ll be able to connect and reach our players — and that’s what I’m most excited about,” LaFleur said as he formally introduced his full staff. “I think they’re all great, high-character guys. You will not see egos. These guys are going to roll up their sleeves and get to work. And I think our players will appreciate that and they’ll be excited when they get to meet these guys moving forward.”
Asked why he didn’t add a veteran coach on the offensive side of the ball to serve as the team’s associate head coach — as other young head coaches have done in recent years — LaFleur said the idea “was not really part of my thought process.”
Perhaps the most significant young hire was 35-year-old offensive line coach Adam Stenavich, who was in training camp with the Packers as a player in 2007, when he was coached by Campen. No assistant in team history had been on the Packers’ staff longer than Campen, who after 15 years was not retained and has since joined the Cleveland Browns as associate head coach/offensive line coach.
Campen said in an ESPN Wisconsin interview last month that he “fought like hell” to stay in Green Bay, but that LaFleur understandably wanted his own line coach who was well versed in the outside zone blocking scheme the Packers will employ in the run game.
“I think we can maybe relate to the players in a different way," Stenavich said. "However we motivate and coach might be a little different than an older coach. But it really doesn’t matter. It’s really about how you coach and how you teach. You can be 54, you can be 35, as long as you are on your stuff and you’re presenting it in a way that makes sense so the players can buy in, that’s what it’s all about.”
Added Getsy, whose star pupil — two-time NFL MVP Aaron Rodgers — is the same age as he is: “You’re coaching (mostly) guys who are 22 to 25 years old, so the relatability probably helps. But I think what’s cool about us is although there’s a lot of younger guys, there’s a lot of really good experience that these guys can relate to.”
Strength staff reshuffling
LaFleur officially completed his staff earlier in the day when he announced the strength and conditioning staff. While the same four coaches remain, Chris Gizzi takes over for longtime coordinator Mark Lovat, who’d been in charge of the department since 2010. According to LaFleur, it was Lovat’s idea to promote Gizzi while staying on in an assistant’s role.
“I think this kind of speaks to the kind of person that Mark Lovat is. I hadn’t really thought about (promoting Gizzi) until he brought it up to me,” LaFleur said. “He’s a selfless individual. He suggested that. And then that’s when I really started to think about it.”
LaFleur called the 43-year-old Gizzi, who played linebacker for the Packers in 2000 and 2001, “a critical hire.” Why? “You talk about the guys that are going to take to the team the most, it’s going to myself, it’s going to be the special teams coordinator and it’s going to be the strength coach,” LaFleur said. “So those three positions are absolutely critical to our success moving forward.”
Pettine made it clear he was not part of the team’s decision to part ways with Whitt. Whitt ended up with the Browns but his firing had come as a surprise, given his close working relationship with Pettine. “I have a ton of respect for Joe Whitt. I think he’s going to be a coordinator in this league sooner than later. Outstanding teacher. There were no issues,” Pettine said. “The thing I appreciate about Joe is he wasn’t afraid to speak up, and if he saw something that was wrong or needed to be corrected, we had very meaningful discussions about it. I don’t want a room full of bobbleheads. He loves football, he holds his guys accountable. There were no issues there.” … Until the offseason program begins in early April — teams with new head coaches are allowed to start earlier than the rest of the league — players are off-limits to the new coaches, per NFL rules. But soon-to-be free-agent outside linebacker Clay Matthews meandered through the locker room Monday while position coaches met with reporters, joking he only came to the facility for a free lunch. … The team announced its 14th annual “Tailgate Tour” will depart April 9 and visit Marshfield (April 9), Sparta (April 10), New Richmond (April 11), Chippewa Falls (April 12) and Antigo (April 13). With the early start to the offseason program, no current players will be on the tour, but Murphy will instead be joined by alumni Nick Barnett, Earl Dotson, Ryan Grant, Bernardo Harris, Aaron Kampman and Scott Wells.
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.