GREEN BAY, Wis. – Matt LaFleur plans to designate a game-management adviser – someone who will counsel him on the difficult decisions that inevitably come up during an NFL game.
In fact, even before he became the Green Bay Packers head coach last month, he told people that not having one “will get you fired.”
No one on his 24-member coaching staff, which was finalized this week, was given that title, but he told ESPN.com that it will come from someone in the team’s football technology department – a group established under former coach Mike McCarthy.
LaFleur hasn’t settled on the person or people who will serve in that capacity. He wants to use the early portion of the offseason to better get to know what he called the “football tech guys” – which consists of a director (Mike Halbach), three analysts (Ryan Feder, Connor Lewis and Jack Prominski) and an assistant (Chris Gaines).
In the meantime, he has at least one key member of his staff on whom he can rely more than the others when it comes to things that come up for a first-time head coach. That’s defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, the former Cleveland Browns coach who lasted just two years in that role. He’s the only member of LaFleur’s staff – which skews young – who has been an NFL head coach.
“I have a thick book on what not to do,” Pettine said with a wry smile. “So I can steer him clear of some of the pitfalls of being a first-time head coach.”
That’s not the reason LaFleur retained Pettine, but the things he experienced with the Browns can only help a 39-year-old head coach.
“He’s sat in this seat,” LaFleur said. “But I’ve got a lot of friends that are head coaches right now and that’s what’s so cool for me to see guys like Kyle Shanahan, Sean McVay, Dan Quinn, Mike Vrabel. Those are four guys that I know that I can pick up the phone any time and bounce something off of.”
In Pettine, LaFleur liked what he saw in his first year as the Packers’ defensive coordinator despite clear shortcomings in personnel and major injury issues at all three levels – from a defensive line that saw all three Week 1 starters (Muhammad Wilkerson, Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark) finish the season on injured reserve to a linebacker group that lost one starter in training camp (Jake Ryan) and another at midseason (Nick Perry) to a secondary that traded away declining former Pro Bowler safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and couldn’t maintain any lineup consistency at cornerback thanks to injuries (most notably to 2017 top draft pick Kevin King).
Still, the Packers made a modest gain in the rankings – from 22nd to 18th in total defense – despite just 15 takeaways (seven interceptions, eight fumbles recovered).
More importantly, LaFleur saw the benefits of not starting over, which would have meant a third defensive coordinator in as many seasons.
“Just the guys that I trust in this business all have great things to say about Mike Pettine,” LaFleur said.” And I just think that continuity going into Year 2 for the defense is going to be critical because I think you’ll see there’s always a learning curve in Year 1. And I’m excited to see what the defense can do in Year 2 moving forward.”
Pettine will need an influx of personnel.
Edge rusher is perhaps the team’s biggest offseason need. Coaching could help there, too. LaFleur, with the suggestion of Pettine, hired two new linebackers coaches – Mike Smith from Kansas City as outside linebackers coach and Kirk Olivadotti from Washington as inside linebackers.
“We spent a lot of time last year with having to shuffle in a lot of different players,” Pettine said. “In Year 1 of a system, it’s really hard to get into the graduate level details of the jobs. So kind of going through the end-of-year cutups and you come to the realization we spent so much more time last year on coaching players on what to do and not enough time on how to do it, and that’s usually typical of a Year 1. We’re looking forward to having guys that are experienced in the system. We have a much better sense of who we are and what our skill set is what we want to get done. The nice thing is you don’t reset it back to Year 1. You have a little bit of momentum and you’ve built a pretty solid foundation with the guys you’re going to have back.”
Defensive backs coach Jason Simmons, who was retained from last year’s staff, played in the secondary for 10 NFL seasons for multiple defensive coordinators – Jim Haslett, Tim Lewis, Vic Fangio, Richard Smith among them. He remembers how much easier it was with Lewis and Fangio because he had them for multiple seasons.
“I remember coming in being more relaxed because I anticipated what was coming,” Simmons said. “It’s different learning something for the first time as opposed to being refreshed on things, which allows you in any scheme to play faster because that’s what it’s about. If you’re thinking, you’re playing slow. If you’re responding – and that’s my thing, responding versus reacting.”
While Pettine’s focus is on making that happen, he also takes the time to help LaFleur through the rigors of being a head coach – even if that doesn’t mean he’ll be advising him on things like replay challenges, fourth-and-1 decisions and clock-management moves.
“We’ve had meetings and gone through some things and he’s asked me direct questions on how have you done it before,” Pettine said. “Or if there’s something I see he’s working on that I’ve had some experience with or might have a suggestion or something that I’ve been part of in the past that’s been helpful, I’ll bring it up. The working relationship so far has been very smooth.”