On the day the Green Bay Packers introduced Matt LaFleur as their new head coach, the 39-year-old said he hadn’t yet made any concrete decisions about his assistants. Several holdovers from his predecessor’s staff remained under contract, and LaFleur needed to meet with them before determining what roles he needed to fill with external candidates.
LaFleur has made some of those decisions in the time since. Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine will return for 2019. Special-teams coordinator Ron Zook won’t. Neither will Joe Philbin, who served as the team’s offensive coordinator before taking as head coach in December on an interim basis.
The Packers hired LaFleur to bring their offense into the modern age, and thus who he chooses as his top offensive assistant will help shape the team’s identity. That makes LaFleur’s choice for offensive coordinator one of the most important decisions he will make during his first year on the job.
Unsurprisingly, LaFleur could pursue coaches from his past to fill the role. Landing a right-hand man with shared offensive roots and philosophies could expedite the learning and installation process for his scheme and ease the transition process from the previous regime. Moreover, LaFleur knows several assistants who come from the same mold.
Unfortunately for LaFleur and the Packers, none of those coaches appear likely to come available this offseason.
Though LaFleur has direct connections to several qualified candidates, none appear likely to come available. San Francisco 49ers run-game coordinator Mike McDaniel has ties with LaFleur from their shared time in Washington. However, according to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, 49ers headman Kyle Shanahan “doesn’t seem inclined” to let McDaniel leave at this time. The Athletic’s Matt Barrows also reports that Shanahan blocked an interview request for McDaniel from the Cardinals.
LaFleur also worked with Los Angeles Rams quarterbacks coach Zac Taylor and tight-ends coach Shane Waldron, both highly regarded offensive assistants who seem fit for promotions. But Taylor reportedly will leave to become the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals once the Rams’ postseason run concludes and, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Tom Silverstein, Sean McVay will not allow his assistants to leave for anything less than a play-calling position.
And if LaFleur hoped to bring in his 31-year-old brother Mike to fill the role, he seems out of luck. On Monday, NBC Sports Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco dismissed the prospect a family reunion, reporting that the younger LaFleur will remain in his current role with the 49ers. Even if the younger LaFleur received team approval to interview, his lack of experience (he landed his first NFL job in 2014) makes him a hard sell as an offensive coordinator.
With those options apparently off the table, LaFleur’s search will have to pivot towards coaches he doesn’t already know. Yet, that could prove to be a blessing in disguise as candidates from different backgrounds can bring philosophical diversity to the scheme and structure. For proof, LaFleur needs to look no farther than his new divisional rival Matt Nagy, who built a strong offensive staff without relying on familiar faces.
Shortly after accepting the Bears’ head-coaching position last year, Nagy tabbed former Oregon Ducks head coach Mark Helfrich as his offensive coordinator. Helfrich didn’t call plays for Nagy, but he brought a different perspective on how to create space on offense and take advantage of speed and size mismatches. Those elements popped up in Chicago’s offenses throughout the 2018 season.
Of course, Nagy learned the value of a philosophically diverse staff from his former boss, Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. Despite ranking as one of the NFL’s oldest coaches, Reid kept his offense on the cutting edge by surrounding himself with young assistants weaned on the spread and tempo-driven schemes prevalent in college football. The Chiefs have continued to improve with each passing year under Reid’s watch, finishing first in scoring this season.
At least one of the names under consideration for the Packers’ offensive-coordinator job fits the Helfrich model. Nathaniel Hackett has reportedly received interest from multiple NFC North teams, including Green Bay. Hackett served as the Jacksonville Jaguars’ offensive coordinator and ran an offense that varied significantly from LaFleur’s. He also took the fall for the Jaguars’ offensive struggles this past season, receiving his walking papers from head coach Doug Marrone after a 24-21 loss to the Buffalo Bills.
But none of that should stop LaFleur from seriously considering Hackett for his staff. Less than a year has passed since Hackett, armed with only an undermanned receiving corps, a hobbled Leonard Fournette, and Blake Bortles, hung 38 points on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round and nearly toppled the New England Patriots a week later in the AFC Championship Game. Hackett has proven himself capable of squeezing more out his personnel than many of his contemporaries, and his offensive viewpoint could add new dimensions and features to LaFleur’s offense.
In the event Hackett signs on with another team or doesn’t mesh with LaFleur, the Packers have other options worth exploring. Bengals offensive coordinator Bill Lazor lost out to the aforementioned Taylor for the head-coaching vacancy and might not return to the staff for next season. Lazor first made his mark as Chip Kelly’s quarterbacks coach and earned plaudits this past year for scheming around Cincinnati’s porous offensive line. And while he comes from a different coaching tree, Lazor has used a variant of the West Coast offense for the vast majority of his NFL career, something that could hold great appeal for LaFleur.
If LaFleur wants someone completely outside the NFL orbit, he could interview former Houston Cougars head coach Major Applewhite. Applewhite runs a high-octane, spread offense developed over more than a decade. He won most of his games as a head coach but fell short of the expectations university president Renu Khator and boosters had for the program. Applewhite also engaged in a public spat with star defensive tackle and future NFL first-round pick Ed Oliver. Even so, Houston’s offense improved every year under Applewhite’s guidance. The Cougars ranked 69th out of 128 teams in offensive S&P+ during his first season as head coach. They improved to 37th and then 15th over the next two years.
Hackett, Lazor, and Applewhite each offer valuable insight for constructing an offensive scheme, and other coaches could bring their own spin as well. Though LaFleur certainly has a vision for how his offense should look, Nagy has demonstrated how alternative viewpoints can keep the attack fresh without losing its cores principles, a concept that should intrigue to the Packers’ new headman. After all, his former boss proudly admits to stealing ideas from other successful coaches. It only makes sense that LaFleur borrows something from the reigning division champion.