GREEN BAY, Wis. — At his core, Matt LaFleur is a quarterback.
Maybe not one who many people saw play, unless they were paying attention to NCAA Division II football in the early 2000s or were fans of the Omaha Beef or Billings Outlaws in the early years of the National Indoor Football League.
But that’s how the Green Bay Packers coach sees football — through the eyes of a quarterback.
“It’s the same approach we do, I would say, every year,” the fifth-year coach explained as he prepared Love and the Packers for Saturday’s NFC divisional round playoff game at the San Francisco 49ers (8:15 pm ET, Fox).
Eight months later, that approach not only has Love playing as well as — if not better than — any quarterback in the NFL, but it has also fueled the Packers’ late-season run that has them on the verge of doing the once unimaginable: hitting on and developing a third straight franchise quarterback, continuing a run of excellence that dates to Hall of Famer Brett Favre‘s emergence in 1992.
If anyone thought LaFleur’s success in his first three years — which included back-to-back-to-back 13-win seasons and two NFC Championship Game appearances — was simply a ride on Rodgers’ coattails, then what he has done with Love this season should dispel that notion.
“That’s foolish,” said former NFL MVP quarterback Rich Gannon, who calls games for CBS Sports and SiriusXM NFL Radio. “I just think Matt’s done a great job with this kid.”
A vice president of player personnel for another playoff team agreed.
“I mean, the proof is in the work,” he said.
Another longtime NFL scout used just one word to describe the job LaFleur has done this season: “Incredible.”
The scout, however, was quick to credit general manager Brian Gutekunst and his staff for not only having the foresight to make Love a first-round pick in 2020 (after Rodgers had led the Packers to the conference championship game in 2019), but to build the young roster around him — forming the youngest team to reach the playoffs since 1974.
“It’s been elite evaluating and drafting,” the scout said. “It’s all the organization. They do things the right way, and that team is young enough to go up to San Francisco and win.”
The list of coaches who have won big after a Hall of Fame quarterback left the team starts with Bill Walsh, whose 49ers teams went seamlessly from Joe Montana to Steve Young. The modern-era list might end there.
“It helps if the new quarterback is there with the old one and can see how you do things,” said former Packers head coach Mike Holmgren, who worked with both Montana and Young as an assistant with the 49ers.
“The challenge is the second player is never quite the same player. They’re different and they have unique skills. You teach them the same way and you have your standards set the same way, which is important, but then as a coach you have to adjust to that player’s particular talents because it’s not going to be the same.”
Holmgren learned that when he arrived in Green Bay in 1992 and began to work with the gunslinging Favre.
“Coming from Joe Montana, who did everything almost perfect, to Brett — and I tried to teach him the same way,” Holmgren said. “But then after a while, I go, ‘OK, I know he’s trying and I’m trying, but it’s not working. It’s not the same. He’s not the same. So let’s try and identify certain things, let him play while still being disciplined.'”
From afar, Holmgren said it’s fair to assume LaFleur has made the same types of adjustments going from Rodgers to Love.
“I think it’s really showcased the kind of teacher that Matt is because I think you’ve seen steady growth from Jordan throughout the entire year,” said former Falcons quarterback Matt Ryanwho played two seasons (2015-16) in Atlanta with LaFleur as his position coach. “If you just look at the numbers from Week 11 on, it’s just incredibly impressive.
“They went through the growing pains of starting for the first time, and I think Matt took his time and didn’t give Jordan too much too quickly and let him play into it.”
Like Holmgren and most offensive gurus, LaFleur lives by the details. Ryan learned that right away from LaFleur.
“Matt’s got this thing called a ‘Quarterback Pack’ that had every read and progression and what the footwork was,” said Ryan, who now serves as an analyst for CBS Sports. “And it was for every play, every coverage that you go through, and he would do it every week.”
Even with the LaFleur-Love pairing in its infancy, the early returns suggest the coach has at least something to do with the success.
Over the final eight regular-season games, Love completed 70.3% of his passes (third best over that stretch) and was second in touchdown passes (18, one behind Dallas’ Dak Prescott) with only one interception. For the entire 17-game season, Love finished second in the NFL with 32 touchdown passes (Prescott had 36).
“Jordan coming in here in 2020, sitting behind Aaron, getting one start in those three years, and you can just tell he learned so much and really [got] ingrained into Matt’s system,” said Packers guard Jon Runyanwho came to the Packers in the same draft class as Love.
“Matt’s a quarterback. [Love] just took it and ran with being able to learn from Matt and taking this whole offense on himself.”
LaFleur and Love didn’t have much of a base to lean on when they began preparing for this season. Love had one career start, a 13-7 loss at Kansas City in 2021 when COVID-19 sidelined Rodgers for the week. Love went 19-of-34 for 190 yards, one touchdown, one interception and a 33.1 QBR.
LaFleur has admitted time and again that he and the coaching staff left Love ill-prepared for the pressure package the Chiefs delivered that night.
So that’s where LaFleur and his offensive assistants began.
It led them to a key moment in Sunday’s 48-32 wild-card playoff win at the Dallas Cowboys. The Packers were up 14-0 late in the second quarter, and Love suspected the blitz was coming on third-and-7 from the Dallas 20-yard line. He made sure rookie tight end Tucker Kraft knew to stay in and block, which helped give him just enough time to throw off his back foot and hit rookie receiver Dontayvion Wicks on a post route for a touchdown.
“That zero blitz is a prime example of something that, going into the year … we made a strong emphasis to make sure that we had answers for when people wanted to all-out us,” LaFleur explained this week.
“It’s time spent, value received, so you got to judge how much time you want to put into that. … A matter of a few seconds to get Tuck to stay in on a protection and to hang in there when you got a free runner at you. I just thought that was so impressive, and I think that’s just a great example of what he is, the growth that’s transpired with him.”
It’s a concept LaFleur might have glossed over with the veteran Rodgers, but for a quarterback who had little experience, the coaching staff knew they could not take shortcuts this time around.
“Matt taught him, ‘If you don’t understand protections, we’re just going to get heated up,'” Gannon said. “I think he’s gotten better with that as the season’s gone along.
“There’s a lot of examples as the season has gone along, and you see a guy who clearly understands protections, knows where his hots are, knows where the quick-answer throws are, understands where he can drift to create an extra split second, how to hold the football, how to draw the rush.”
Said LaFleur: “It’s a credit to the players, because not every player can do that — I’ve been around a lot of quarterbacks that don’t ever want to change the protection or just struggle with it, quite frankly — just the amount of work that he’s put in.”
LaFleur also credited quarterbacks coach Tom Clements — the only person to coach Favre, Rodgers and Love — for aiding in Love’s development. Offensive coordinator Adam Stenavich and passing game coordinator Jason Vrable are also among those who have worked closely with Love.
“Obviously with Aaron, just how much knowledge he has of the game, he’s able to understand things and get to certain looks that he might want, where I don’t have as much knowledge in that area,” Love said this week. “But I think Matt gives you all the information you need, all the keys to be successful, and it’s kind of on you to make it happen when you get out there on the field.
“But I think that’s the key — with Matt, with Tom, with Steno — is they coach everybody the same way, give you all the information you need to be successful and kind of put it on you to go out there and be successful.”
None of those three assistant coaches was in his current role at the beginning of LaFleur’s time. The fact that LaFleur lost offensive coaches like Nathaniel Hackett, Justin Outten and Luke Getsy from his original staff and still pulled this off should say something about him as a head coach.
It didn’t happen overnight, but it did happen in some unusual places, according to Packers assistant head coach/special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia.
“I believe he has a great working relationship with Jordan,” Bisaccia said recently. “They talk on the bus a bunch before games. They talk a bunch on Bus 1 after games. [In] his team meetings, he’s to the point [and] he’s exact.”