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Coach of the year? Look beyond the 'silly narrative' surrounding the Packers' Matt LaFleur

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Rodgers or Brady: Who's more deserving of the MVP? (2:17)

Keyshawn Johnson and Jeff Saturday go back and forth between Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady as far as who is more deserving of the MVP award. (2:17)

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Myth No. 1 about Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur: He will always be the guy who kicked the field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 8-yard line with 2:09 left in last year’s NFC Championship Game.

“That is a silly, silly narrative,” former NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said.

Myth No. 2: LaFleur only wins because Aaron Rodgers is his quarterback.

“The way we diminish what’s going on there, quite frankly, is unfair,” former NFL MVP Rich Gannon said.

The 42-year-old LaFleur, who just finished his third season as the Packers coach, has been saddled with those labels.

That may be about to change.

A third straight 13-win season and the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs -- in a year that began with uncertainty over whether Rodgers would even return and included myriad injuries and COVID-19 cases -- might finally register with those who still had questions about LaFleur, and with those who vote for The Associated Press Coach of the Year.

“I’ve called him the coach of the year for two months now,” said former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky, who now works as an analyst for ESPN. “At the beginning of the season, my statement was: ‘This is a championship roster, not a championship team because of all the distractions.’ He’s weathered all of these distractions and then all of the injuries.

“The fact that they’re 13-4 and they’ve had to go over some mountains in a year in which none of us even knew if Rodgers was going to play, in the midst of all that -- and just the way the team is playing, it’s not just Aaron throwing for 50 touchdowns like he did last year -- he’s the coach of the year.”

The ‘silly, silly narrative’

Late in the regular season, ESPN's analytics team ranked the coaches who made the best decisions on fourth down during their time with their current team.

LaFleur came in at No. 2. Only Arizona Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury ranked higher.

The website EdjSports.com, which studied all fourth-down decisions throughout the season, ranked LaFleur at No. 7 among the 32 coaches. It ranked his decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line leading by 3 with 3:26 left at Arizona in Week 8 as the second-best decision of the season, among all fourth-down calls, even though Rodgers threw incomplete on the play. However, it also dinged LaFleur for one of the top-10 worst decisions -- a fourth-and-6 punt from his own 42 leading by 2 with 2:14 left against the Browns on Christmas Day.

To this day, LaFleur believes he made the right call in the final minutes of the NFC title game. The field goal cut the Buccaneers' lead to five points and gave his defense the chance to get the ball back. The problem was Tom Brady & Co. never gave it back.

It didn’t help LaFleur that his quarterback sounded iffy about the call after the game by saying, “I thought maybe we were gonna have four chances to go.”

“I love Aaron Rodgers as much as anybody,” said Hasselbeck, who now serves as an analyst for ESPN. “But that’s a silly thing, because Aaron, you had your chances on first down, second down and third down. Let’s not look at that one play in a vacuum. Let’s look at the four plays.”

Welcoming Rodgers’ input

The last Packers coach to win AP Coach of the Year was Lindy Infante in 1989, meaning none of the guys who coached Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers has won it.

“I say this sometimes jokingly, ‘Hey, I can go call plays for Aaron Rodgers,’” said Gannon, an analyst on SiriusXM NFL radio and on Packers preseason games. “But it’s really a challenge because when you coach a quarterback like that, you better have the answers when you walk in there on Wednesdays because he’s going to ask the questions.

“If you haven’t prepared, then you’re in trouble. It's more a challenge to coach a guy like that than it is to coach a rookie who just walked in from college. This is a guy who has a Ph.D. when it comes to offensive football.”

LaFleur’s biggest challenge when he got the job in 2019 was to win over Rodgers. That happened almost immediately. Even last offseason, when Rodgers expressed doubts about returning to the Packers, it had nothing to do with LaFleur or his coaching staff.

“He did a good job of making me feel like what I brought to the table was important by blending the system the first year,” Rodgers said recently. “And really the first offseason, 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.”

LaFleur listens

Late this season, Davante Adams was asked what the best thing LaFleur has done this year. The ever-thoughtful receiver had so many to consider that he asked for time to think about it.

“That’s like a text-me-and-20-minutes-later-I’ll-text-you-back type of answer,” Adams said. "It’s a good question.”

And then Adams came up with a good answer.

“The best thing that he’s brought is his ability to listen,” Adams said. “We’ve had really good conversations. He trusts my input a lot, so it makes me feel good as a player, it makes me feel good about the studying that I do. It makes me want to dive into my stuff better because I know it’s not all for nothing. … You can have a head coach who says, ‘Hey, however I say is how we’re going to do it and how we’re going to rock.’ But he’s real open and receptive to my input.”

It's not just with Adams.

“The best teams we’ve had over the years have been player-led teams and involved a great amount of leadership, and at times, the players speaking instead of the coach,” Rodgers said. “Matt, I think, understands how to let the players take the lead in those situations.”

One example came late last month. With the Saturday game on Christmas against the Browns, LaFleur had originally scheduled a practice that Tuesday. But after several veteran players on his leadership council approached him about their concerns, he canceled practice and instead just held walk-throughs all week.

“I trust these guys,” LaFleur said. “When they come to me with something, I can usually take everything they say and make a really sound decision based on the best interest of our team.”

That goes for his coaches, too.

“When I watch the pass defense of Green Bay, allowing [defensive backs coach] Jerry Gray to be Jerry Gray,” Hasselbeck said. “And that means allowing his aggressive personality. He’s got a little bit of "we’re going to try to score on defense" and some head coaches don’t allow that. LaFleur has allowed his assistant coaches, I believe, to flourish.”

Hitting the gym at 5:45 a.m.

LaFleur pulled this off even though he was practically worn out before it started. Coaches and players are supposed to come to training camp refreshed. LaFleur felt anything but after months of uncertainty about Rodgers.

LaFleur wanted to make sure he was mentally sharp. So he put together an early morning workout group that includes several coaches and scouts. His thinking was that if he could stay physically sharp, he would be mentally sharp, too.

“In my time here, this is the best I’ve done in terms of working out,” LaFleur said in a late-season interview. “So we’ve got a group that we work out together at 5:45 every morning for like 30-45 minutes.”

There’s no doubt in LaFleur’s mind it has made him a better coach.

“I would say that I’m much less uptight about a lot of things,” LaFleur said. “I’m more relaxed.

“I’m definitely more comfortable in my skin. I think you kind of grow into the role, at least I did. So I’m definitely more comfortable in my own skin, but also I have so much trust and belief in the people around me and then you let them go.”

If anything kept him at the office late this season, it’s been the injuries and COVID cases. The offensive line was ravaged. At one point they were down to one of their preferred starters. Their best lineman, left tackle David Bakhtiari, didn’t play a snap until Week 18 while he recovered from ACL surgery performed last January. They played most of the year without their two best defensive players (cornerback Jaire Alexander and outside linebackers Za’Darius Smith) and they lost Rodgers and Adams each for a game because of COVID. In the midst of all that was the hullabaloo that surrounded the quarterback’s vaccination status.

Yet here is LaFleur, at 39-10 and with the most regular-season wins by any NFL coach in his first three seasons.

“I don’t think a whole lot fazes him,” Gannon said. “He can handle it all.”