Packers' Matt LaFleur thrives by giving freedom to staff, players

Green Bay’s Matt LaFleur didn’t need much time as a head coach to discover the importance of letting his assistant coaches and players do their jobs without feeling undue restrictions.

That approach has the Packers coach on the verge of making NFL history.

LaFleur’s 38 regular-season victories match George Seifert’s NFL record for the most by any coach in his first three years on the job. LaFleur can have the record to himself if the Packers (12-3) beat the Minnesota Vikings (7-8) on Sunday night.

"I think No. 1, just the trust that you have with everybody that you’re working with, whether it’s our coaching staff or our players and trying not to micromanage people," LaFleur said. "Let them do their jobs and let them go out there, and the players, for example, let them go out there and play freely."

LaFleur’s fast start hasn’t surprised former colleagues such as New York Jets coach Robert Saleh, who says he understood LaFleur’s potential way back when they used to talk football while sharing an office as Central Michigan assistants in 2004.

"You just know when someone knows, right?" Saleh said.

Matt LaFleur coaches the Green Bay Packers against the Cleveland Browns at Lambeau Field on Christmas Day 2021

LaFleur owns a 38-9 regular-season record and 40-11 overall mark with three straight NFC North titles. The Packers lost in the NFC championship game each of the past two seasons.

He’ has arguably done his finest job this season.

The Packers have played the entire season without 2020 All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari and most of the season without 2020 Pro Bowl outside linebacker Za’Darius Smith and cornerback Jaire Alexander. Their offensive line is missing four projected starters, including Bakhtiari and 2020 Pro Bowl selection Elgton Jenkins.

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Yet the Packers still have the inside track on earning the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed and lone first-round bye.

"No matter who’s in, who’s out or whatever, we’ve just been living up to a certain standard," defensive tackle Kenny Clark said. "That’s a credit to him and how he pushes us every single day."

Wide receiver Davante Adams praises LaFleur’s willingness to listen. Adams says LaFleur has approached him for input on what routes might work best to help the 2020 All-Pro get open.

"For him to be open like that and kind of be receptive to what the guys, especially the guys that have been around for a long time and have legit ideas or whatever it may be, it’s just awesome to know that I can come in and talk to him and he’ll give me a conversation," Adams said.

Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams line up to run a play against the Cleveland Browns on Christmas Day

LaFleur, like Seifert, has benefited from coaching a Hall of Fame quarterback.

Seifert had a 38-10 regular-season record with San Francisco from 1989-91 and helped the 49ers win a Super Bowl in his debut season. Joe Montana earned MVP honors in 1989 and 1990 as the 49ers went 14-2 each of those seasons.

LaFleur’s had the luxury of coaching Aaron Rodgers.

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But part of Rodgers’ resurgence the last two seasons has stemmed from his working relationship with LaFleur, who was an offensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams and Tennessee Titans before going to Green Bay.

"It’s been a good marriage of our personalities and our philosophies," Rodgers said.

LaFleur and Rodgers say the turning point came when the pandemic forced NFL teams into a virtual offseason in 2020. Those Zoom sessions helped them grow closer and reach a consensus on what would work best for this offense.

"I thought we made a bunch of strides in really whittling down some of the things on both sides — some of the stuff I thought was great and might not fit the scheme and the personnel that we had, and some of the stuff that he brought to the table that didn’t quite fit the personnel that we had — and really homing in on the concepts and the ideas that we really were good at," Rodgers said.

Aaron Rodgers

Rodgers earned his third MVP award last season as the Packers scored a league-high 31.8 points per game. Rodgers is an MVP contender again this season.

"The more conversations we’ve had, that trust just builds and builds and builds," LaFleur said. "Like every relationship, there’s definitely moments where we can disagree, but I think there’s enough trust, love and respect that it’s OK. I think that’s how you grow in any relationship."

LaFleur takes a similar approach with his assistants.

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He assembled a staff in Green Bay that largely consisted of coaches who hadn't previously worked with him. But once he got to know his assistants better, he gave them more freedom in how they instructed players. That included methods such as offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett referring to the red zone as the "gold zone" last year in a nod to the movie "Austin Powers In Goldmember."

"He’s allowed us as coaches to let our personalities out and let us interact with the players," offensive line coach Adam Stenavich said. "I think that’s really helped us just become a tighter team because the players feel more connected to their coaches."

Those connections are producing plenty of victories.

"When you get people that are on the same page, that care about one another, these guys spend a lot of time together, not only in the facility but outside of it as well," LaFleur said. "It allows you to work through some adversity together. You just continue to grow stronger and stronger and stronger."

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