One coaching domino down, plenty of NFL ripples to digest.
In a thin field of head-coaching candidates with only a few “tentpole” candidates carrying a wealth of head-coaching experience, Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur is set to become the Green Bay Packers’ choice. It is a move that surprised a multitude of league sources who have monitored the field, many of whom had pegged either New England offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels or former Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase as the leading candidates to pair with quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Not only were some head-coaching candidates surprised at LaFleur being offered the Packers job Monday, even the Titans were apparently caught off guard. One team source told Yahoo Sports the shared belief in the building was LaFleur would likely be returning as the team’s coordinator in 2019.
Now that won’t happen, leaving the Titans to find quarterback Marcus Mariota’s fourth offensive coordinator in five years. That was just one revelation in the LaFleur hire. Among the others:
1. Josh McDaniels is staying in New England for 2019
Going back as far as late November, there were indications McDaniels would be interested in pursuing the Packers job if it opened. And when Mike McCarthy was fired, some other NFL assistants had already indicated to McDaniels’ camp they would be interested in joining him if he were to land in Green Bay. Now it looks like McDaniels’ only tangible head-coaching option has evaporated, much to the surprise of some close to him.
And now? The Cleveland Browns have discussed McDaniels internally, but their only formal interview request from the Patriots staff was for defensive assistant Brian Flores. Partially because Flores is a far more unknown commodity inside the Browns organization, which previously courted McDaniels in a past coaching search. But also because there is concern over how McDaniels would fit with the Browns’ current structure, which includes shared power between chief strategist Paul DePodesta and general manager John Dorsey.
The end result is McDaniels will remain in New England next season, where he is believed to be the highest-paid coordinator in the NFL.
“The book is closed,” McDaniels told reporters on Tuesday morning about interviewing for a head coaching position. “I’m completely focused on the Chargers [Patriots’ next playoff opponent] and our season, finishing strong, and I’ll be here moving forward.”
2. LaFleur could challenge Aaron Rodgers but not threaten power structure
So what did Green Bay get in LaFleur? First, a take from inside the Titans. A team source described LaFleur as “smart, funny, charismatic and personable” and “someone who can definitely win an interview.”
He’s also “an acquired taste for some who might think he’s a little arrogant or demanding, kind of like [San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan].” Also, LaFleur is said to be “not afraid to let personnel know when something is lacking on the offensive roster.” According to the source, LaFleur was also a guy who rallied the offensive roster after the Week 8 bye, running a balanced attack under less-than-ideal injury circumstances.
All of that sounds like head-coach material, which the Titans believed he was, albeit with some thinking he would have another year or two of play-calling under his belt before this kind of job offer materialized. Another league source outside the Titans added that quarterback Kirk Cousins clicked with LaFleur a great deal when the two worked together with the Washington Redskins, with Cousins seeing LaFleur as a close extension of onetime Washington offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Add that LaFleur also has earned admiration from Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay and former Houston Texans head coach Gary Kubiak, and he has no shortage of respected backers in the league.
The flip-side of the hire: Resonating questions from an NFL crowd on why the Packers passed on more seasoned candidates for someone who has called plays for only one season.
Can LaFleur handle Rodgers, who ran over McCarthy for much of 2018 and might be in need of both scheme innovation and someone who will check him when necessary? Why did Atlanta Falcons coach Dan Quinn let LaFleur leave the team before the 2017 season, when he was the most sensible replacement for Shanahan? And following LaFleur’s 2017 offensive coordinator season with the Rams, why did McVay let LaFleur depart that franchise for Tennessee, rather than giving him some play-calling duties?
None of these questions suggest something is wrong with LaFleur, mind you. It’s simply an illustration of why some question hiring a coach with limited play-calling exposure over multiple candidates with more experience in that realm (or with actual head-coaching experience).
Part of the underlying suggestion is that while LaFleur represents risk, he is also a hire who carries the attraction of not being a threat to an existing power structure. He’s going to be in Green Bay to coach, whereas candidates like McDaniels or Gase would have certainly pressed on the personnel department as well. There is no ambiguity about whether LaFleur will have more influence than second-year general manager Brian Gutekunst. He won’t. There is also no ambiguity that Packers president Mark Murphy is firmly at the top of the franchise pyramid, with little worry of surrendering any juice whatsoever to a head coach.
3. Reaching for a McVay is firmly a trend in this NFL cycle
We probably could have guessed this with Kliff Kingsbury getting NFL head-coaching interviews, but LaFleur underscores it to an even higher degree. The two chief selling points on his resume are: LaFleur having been a coordinator under McVay for a season in 2017; and having been the chosen quarterbacks coach for Shanahan in two different offensive coordinator stops.
NFL teams are in love with young, aggressive coaches who offer a background in some wide-open or creative offenses. But they’re also thirsting to pull off what the Rams did in 2017, when Los Angeles rolled the dice on McVay at a time when it was believed he was still a year or two away from being prepared for a head-coaching job. That gamble paid off huge for the Rams, and now other NFL franchises are willing to attempt some replication. There’s no better place to start than with the young offensive coaches that McVay or Shanahan have relied upon on their staffs. And that’s a huge part of why LaFleur will be on the Packers’ sideline in 2019.
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