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Tough guy? Players' coach? Packers' Matt LaFleur balancing both in first season

Editor's note: This story was originally published on Dec. 21.

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- As Robert Tonyan trotted back to the Lambeau Field sideline early in last Sunday's win over the Chicago Bears, he did not know what awaited him.

The Green Bay Packers' backup tight end had just misconstrued what quarterback Aaron Rodgers wanted him to do on a failed third-down play. As Rodgers gave him a public chastising, he saw coach Matt LaFleur approach.

Tonyan wondered whether LaFleur would chew him out or pat him on the butt.

"He came up to me," Tonyan said, "and he was like, 'Relax. I expect a lot out of you, but relax and go have fun and just play. Why are you thinking so much?' He just wanted me to go out there and play football."

It was exactly what a player such as Tonyan -- a talented-yet-still-striving-to-find-his-way, second-year pro -- needed.

"That was so good, and I talked to him after the game and I was like, 'Thank you for coming up to me and saying that,'" Tonyan said. "He said it again: 'I expect a lot from you, so just play.' I was thinking out there and flying around and getting too hyped."

Call LaFleur a players' coach or call him a tough guy. Either one seems fine with him.

Call him an equal mix of both, and he'll let out a big chuckle.

"Who says that?" said LaFleur, who turned 40 last month.

For starters, perhaps the most vocal player in his locker room.

"He's both," outside linebacker Za'Darius Smith told ESPN.com. "Yeah, most definitely."

And Smith knows tough guys. He signed with the Packers after four years with the Baltimore Ravens, where he played for John Harbaugh.

"He was one, for sure," Smith said of Harbaugh. "I would just say Coach Matt is a special coach, and that's why he's in the position he's in now at such a young age."

'You've got to support these guys'

Getting LaFleur to accept that premise isn't easy, in part because he never set out to be either a players' coach or a tough guy.

When the Packers hired him in January, he was a 39-year-old, first-time head coach with an open mind.

"It's not like I came in with a mindset of, 'I want to be this guy or that guy,'" LaFleur told ESPN.com this week, days after he became the first head coach in Packers history to make the playoffs in his first season.

"It happens organically. You've got to be true to yourself. You've got to know who you are as a person, what you're strong at and what you're maybe not as good at, and just be honest with yourself but also be willing to be accountable."

Perhaps that's what went through his mind when Tonyan approached the sideline.

"It's not like anybody's trying to mess up," LaFleur said. "It's never a calling out; that's not the approach that I take. You try to make the correction and own it and move on. We all mess up. It's not to place blame other than it's our job as coaches to try to get the most out of our players to help them. I want all these guys to have long, successful careers and make a ton of money or win a lot of games -- whatever motivates them."

Perhaps if Tonyan had screwed up in practice, LaFleur's reaction might have been different. On occasion in training camp, LaFleur would erupt. He threw then-safety Josh Jones out of a practice for fighting one day and blew up after rookie running back Dexter Williams botched the first play of another practice.

Games, however, are different.

"You've got to support these guys, especially on game day," LaFleur said. "These guys feed off confidence, and reassure them that, 'Hey, man, you're going to be all right. Let's just take a deep breath and get this corrected.'"

Three simple rules

To hear Rodgers tell it, the best part about LaFleur's approach is simplicity.

"When he came in, there wasn't a ton of elaborate speeches," Rodgers said. "It was three base rules for the squad."

When asked what those rules are, Rodgers said: "I'm going to let Matt tell you if he wants to tell you."

LaFleur doesn't -- not exactly, anyway.

"It's not like [the rules are]: 'No doing this, no doing that,'" LaFleur said. "Because then you get a laundry list, and it's like, 'Holy s---.'"

In the weight room at Lambeau Field, three phrases adorn the wall: "The Team. The Ball. The North."

Those aren't the rules, LaFleur said, but they're what the rules are designed to produce: A team-first attitude that focuses on football and, before anything else, winning the division -- something the Packers can secure with a win over the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).

"You've got to be true to yourself. You've got to know who you are as person, what you're strong at and what you're maybe not as good at, and just be honest with yourself, but also be willing to be accountable." Matt LaFleur

"It's just: Put the team first," LaFleur said. "It's very simplistic, generic rules that are guidelines to where if somebody makes a bad decision, you can say, 'Are you putting the team first? No.'

"I just think the more rules you have, the more you paint yourself into a corner. So it's very simple rules, and just abide by the rules, it's not hard. You can't do anything unless the guys embrace it, and our guys have embraced everything, so it's been awesome."

Three captains, 10 leaders

LaFleur thought about leadership at length when he was hired, but even that has evolved as the season progressed.

He decided to elect season-long captains, a practice the Packers had not done in recent years, instead opting for rotating captains each week. But when he looked at the player voting and saw how many different people received votes, he opted for a mix. The NFL allows for six captains, so he picked three for the season -- Rodgers, Smith and kicker Mason Crosby -- and decided to rotate the other three on a weekly basis.

As the season progressed, that morphed into a leadership council led by the three permanent captains. It now includes a total of 10 players who meet with LaFleur weekly after the Wednesday practice.

"There's been kind of a group within the group that's formed from a leadership standpoint that we all hold ourselves, especially in that group, to a really high standard because we have to set the tone for the rest of the squad," Rodgers said. "And Matt has fostered that ability I think by keeping things very simple.

"The accountability has been the same across the ball. There's no special privileges or side-door favors. It's: 'These are the rules, follow 'em.' You have a chance to buy in every single day, and if you don't you're going to get fined."

The first public mention of the leadership council came the week after the Packers' 37-8 loss at the San Francisco 49ers. Smith brought it up unprompted as a reason they bounced back the next week and beat the New York Giants.

"A couple of those guys, like Aaron and 'Z', came to me and said, 'Hey, we want to meet with you once a week with some of these other guys,'" LaFleur said. "I don't know how they got their process of deciphering who was on it, but they speak on behalf of the team, and we have candid conversations.

"We've been doing it for a few weeks now. They'll come to me with things, and I'll go to those guys with things. But it's been pretty cool because it happened organically, and it's been a very good, open, honest dialogue about everything we're doing."

Said Smith: "I feel like at his age, he needs help and he wants help, and I feel like the players can help out the most just because we're in the locker room and he's not. So some of the things that he's not seeing, we can relay it to him. Some of the things that he's not telling the whole team, he can tell to the leaders."

But they know LaFleur is the boss.

Take this past week. There was some grumbling about practicing in pads this late in the season, but LaFleur wanted players prepared for what he said will be "a physical-ass game" against the Vikings.

"You've got to make yourself available to the guys, and I'll hear everything out," LaFleur said. "But ultimately, you've got to make decisions in the best interests of the team."