For the first time since 2006, a new head coach will roam the opposing sideline when the Minnesota Vikings clash with the Green Bay Packers.
Hailed as another one of the league’s up and coming offensive gurus, 39 year old Matt LaFleur took over for Mike McCarthy following McCarthy’s 13-year stint with the organization. It’s LaFleur’s first head coaching job after acting as an assistant with five organizations, including Gary Kubiak’s Houston Texans.
It’ll be a new sight for the Vikings to see a new head coach in Green Bay. Then again, there are a lot of new faces calling the shots. LaFleur is one of 14 active coaches that received their first head coaching opportunity in the least three years.
“If there’s eight new ones in four years that’s 32 new ones. That’s one a team,” Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer joked, referring to the league’s frequent coaching turnover. “It is what it is. I guess that’s why they call it [N]ot [F]or [L]ong.”
LaFleur’s longevity may very well be impacted by how well he performs twice a year against the Vikings, starting on Sunday.
Like many of the head coaching newcomers, LaFleur climbed the ladder by working under great offensive minds like Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay. Those relationships also put him in touch with the two quarterbacks on Minnesota’s active roster, Kirk Cousins and Sean Mannion. LaFleur was Cousins’ quarterbacks coach from 2012-13 in Washington and Mannion’s offensive coordinator with the Los Angeles Rams in 2017.
“We were together for two years, and Matt’s from Michigan,” Cousins said. “Matt actually used to vacation about one town south of where I lived, and so we’ve kept in touch quite a bit through the years. Before he jumped up to the NFL he was coaching at Central Michigan, played at Saginaw Valley, grew up and went to Mount Pleasant High School I believe, so I’m very familiar with all of his background and people he knows.”
Quarterbacks coaches usually spend the most time with the quarterback of any staff member, so Cousins developed a strong relationship with LaFleur, a former quarterback himself. LaFleur was a college quarterback at Saginaw Valley State and extended his career into a short backup stint with the Omaha Beef of the National Indoor Football League. Most of his coaching jobs — the Packers are his 11th in 17 years — revolved around coaching quarterbacks until he moved up the food chain to be McVay’s right-hand man with the Rams, where he met Mannion, Jared Goff’s backup. Mannion said he never minded the long hours in the meeting room with LaFleur, who was easy to be around.
“Just all about the details, very detail oriented guy,” Mannion said of LaFleur. “Really, he’s very process-driven over results, which really stood out to me. ‘Let’s not get caught up in what the end result was, but really, are we all about the details play in and play out,’ which I think is a great mentality that really made an impression on me. I’ve tried to take that with me. Something I definitely learned from Matt was just being process driven and not results driven.”
It was good fortune for LaFleur to wind up with McVay, whose innovative offense that included a robust screen game, play-action pass and jet motion concepts quickly got imitated by the rest of the league. McVay, a first-time head coach as of 2017, already has a coaching tree growing as a result, with LaFleur taking the Packers job and former Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor ending up in Cincinnati.
Between McVay, Kubiak and Mike and Kyle Shanahan, LaFleur’s influences made him an attractive candidate to pair with Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
“Matt, I think, brings a lot of offensive creativity,” Mannion said. “I can definitely understand the appeal for Matt to work with a guy like Aaron, and I’ve played for Matt, so I know it’s a great system, and he’s a really good coach. It’s one of those things where different coaches rub off on you throughout your whole career, and Matt certainly did for me.”
Cousins believes being a former quarterback helps LaFleur see and communicate the game, which takes on even greater importance in light of the reports than Rodgers and McCarthy had a fractured relationship by the end of McCarthy’s tenure.
“He sees the game really well,” Cousins said. “He’s a former quarterback, so right from Day 1 he gets it, he understands what it’s like to play this position. He’s been around some really good coaches, starting with Mike Shanahan in terms of understanding what it looks like to prepare, to gameplan and how you can keep defenses off balance with the run game and the pass game. He studies it, he’s spent a lot of hours in the building working and grinding.”
Both Cousins and Mannion have kept in touch with LaFleur. After Green Bay’s Week 1 10-3 win, where the Packers defense covered for a lackluster offensive outing, Cousins shot LaFleur a text foreshadowing this Sunday’s matchup that said, ‘Congrats on getting your first win, but we’re coming on Sunday.’
“It’s a unique deal that he’s coaching our rival,” Cousins said. “In one sense you want to pull for him and root for him. On the other hand, you’ve got to make sure he doesn’t one-up you.”