By Chris Havel
Special to Event USA
New coach turns attention to building staff, assessing current roster’s talent
GREEN BAY, Wis. – Mark Murphy’s handpicked trio is set.
The Packers’ president has placed his trust and the team’s future in the hands of GM Brian Gutekunst, Director of Football Operations Russ Ball, and head coach Matt LaFleur.
The Packers’ talent scout, money man and X’s-and-O’s guy aren’t responsible for much … I mean, other than returning Green Bay to its lofty place among the NFC’s elite teams.
It’s a tall order, to be sure, and it’s especially so when a team has a winning tradition and one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks.
The Packers have both.
What they don’t have is an abundance of time or patience.
Packers’ fans want a winner now.
I don’t blame them because winning is expected in Green Bay, and because Aaron Rodgers, at 35, isn’t getting any younger.
The clock’s ticking.
This isn’t “rebuild and wait.” It’s “reload and win.”
Green Bay’s 6-9-1 season proved to be an extension of the 2017 disaster, the major difference being this time Rodgers started each game and the Packers still struggled mightily.
Back-to-back losing seasons don’t always guarantee that the head coach is going to be fired, but in Green Bay it was time. Ultimately, Murphy made the right call by firing longtime head coach Mike McCarthy four games shy of a 13th season here.
The timing was right for two reasons:
** No. 1 – There’s never a “good time” to fire a coach, but once Murphy’s decision was made he needed to move forward, and did so with proper haste.
** No. 2 – The Packers’ hiring of LaFleur was the first of eight NFL coaching dominos to fall. Essentially, Green Bay had its pick of the litter, so to speak, and chose LaFleur.
That LaFleur, 39, was my top choice speaks to his ability to stand out as a candidate both up-close and at a distance.
LaFleur’s first task is putting together his staff.
He announced that Mike Pettine will return as the team’s defensive coordinator. It is a significant move in terms of retaining a strong coordinator and maintaining continuity.
“I think we share a common vision, and I am really excited to see this defense take off in Year Two of his system,” LaFleur told Sirius XM radio last week.
“I think that continuity just for the players to be able to perform, usually in Year Two, it definitely is going to improve, and also the thing that was so attractive about Mike to me was, ‘Here’s a guy that’s been a head coach in the National Football League, and it’s going to be somebody that I can lean on because there’s going to be certain circumstances that come up that, hey, maybe I haven’t been through,’ so (I’m) excited to have Mike a part of our staff.”
It seems likely defensive line coach Jerry Montgomery also will return. Defensive passing game coordinator Joe Whitt won’t be retained, according to reports.
Neither will James Campen, who spent the past 14 years as the offensive line coach in Green Bay. Campen will join Cleveland as the Browns’ associate head coach/offensive line coach.
Ex-Bucs offensive coordinator Todd Monken, who was reportedly interviewed by LaFleur for that job in Green Bay, has accepted the OC position in Cleveland.
It means Nathaniel Hackett, the former Jacksonville OC who also interviewed for that position here, is the odds-on favorite.
Once all of LaFleur’s pieces are in place the Packers’ 15th head coach intends to critically assess the current roster.
That’s when Green Bay’s new staff will form its vision of what they intend the 2019 Packers to be. Then, LaFleur will share that vision with the GM, whose scouts will proceed accordingly.
In Gutekunst, the Packers have a second-year GM who has already shown a desire to play in free agency and a willingness to manipulate the NFL draft.
Gutekunst positioned the Packers nicely with six picks among the first 112 selections, including two picks in the first round (the 12th pick and the Saints’ pick).
In Ball, the Packers have upwards of $50 million in salary cap space to work with. That should account for several free-agent signings, including perhaps two mid-to-top tier free agents.
In LaFleur, the Packers have hope.
LaFleur’s ability to click with Rodgers is going to be essential to the team’s success and he knows it. The two spoke before the Packers announced LaFleur’s hiring.
“The conversation went great,” LaFleur said. “I can tell he’s a passionate guy, and he wants to win. And I think that holds true for me as well. So I think we’re in alignment there because, like I said before, this game is about winning. I know that he wants to add to his legacy, and the only way we’re going to accomplish that is to win a world championship.”
Murphy said he was impressed by LaFleur’s preparation and performance during their interview. LaFleur, the Titans’ offensive coordinator and play caller for one season, was the 10th and final candidate to be interviewed.
Clearly, LaFleur’s experience working for Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay was a factor. So was his work with quarterbacks such as Robert Griffin III, Kirk Cousins, Matt Ryan and Jared Goff, all of whom played well under his direction.
The possibilities of a Packers’ offense that relies on balance, throwing to the running backs and tight ends, and a heavy dose of play-action is the cure for what ailed Rodgers.
And the reality is that Rodgers wasn’t all that bad in 2018.
“Any time you’re the play caller, you want that collaboration with your quarterback,” LaFleur said. “Certainly we’re going to have a foundation in place of how we run our system. I think it’s a system that’s really predicated on building the run game with the pass game. We like to have plays … we like to say plays that start off looking the same but are different, plays that play off of plays. It lessens the predictability of what you’re trying to do, and it keeps a defense more off-balance.
“And if there’s one thing I can say in regards to a guy like Aaron, if you give Aaron time and you are unpredictable, he’s going to excel because we all know the talent he has. That’s how we’re going to build this thing.”
Offensively, everyone’s excited at the prospects under LaFleur.
The greater question is this: Can he handle a locker room? Can he coach up the entire team? Can he inspire a collection of the world’s most talented athletes to accomplish great things?
Murphy believes so or he wouldn’t have made the hire.
“In talking to (players) I think they wanted somebody that would hold players accountable,” Murphy said. “And the other thing that, and Brian can speak to this as well, he was there … (the players) talked a little bit about how they felt a complacency had set in among some players and coaches. So in my mind, that was something that as we went through the process, was kind of in the back of my mind. Is there something that we can do that can kind of shake people up so we don’t have the complacency?”
Consider things “shaken up” at 1265 Lombardi Avenue.
It’s time to reload and start winning championships again.