Last season, the Minnesota Vikings finished 24th in defensive DVOA, with an aging roster. They went 13-4, but they’re an analytically astute front office. The team understood that it had allowed the fifth most points in the league, and so they parted ways with Ed Donatell, their defensive coordinator, after just one season. It’s entirely possible that Donatell was always intended as a stop-gap in Kevin O’Connell’s regime, but it’s still unusual to see the DC for a 13-4 team get the axe.
The Vikings hired Brian Flores as Donatell’s replacement. Flores came up with the Patriots in various roles before ascending to head coach of the Dolphins. Flores claims Dolphins’ owner Stephen Ross attempted to bribe him into tanking and that, after he refused, he was fired in retaliation. Flores is also embroiled in litigation against the league and several franchises for various discrimination and employment causes of action. It’s messy, and not the point of this post. The point is that, all of the preceding notwithstanding, the man can coach defense, and with Flores at the helm, the Vikings have ascended to fifth overall in defensive DVOA, sandwiched between the 49ers and Cowboys. Coaching matters.
The Green Bay Packers finished last season 25th in DVOA, as per usual, just a hair behind the Vikings, and stuck with their retread defensive coordinator Joe Barry. Unlike the Vikings, they did not improve to fifth overall. Barry’s efforts this season have landed Green Bay at 29th in DVOA, ahead of only Denver, Washington, and Arizona.
There are, of course, the usual excuses for Barry on the injury front, but such is life in the NFL, and for everything that he’s missing, he’s still had the services of Rashan Gary, Preston Smith, Kenny Clark, and a group of talented young players like Lukas Van Ness, Karl Brooks, and Carrington Valentine. Moreover, the Packers have faced Justin Fields, Desmond Ridder, a combo of Derek Carr and Jameis Winston, Jimmy Garoppolo, Brett Rypien, Kenny Pickett, Tommy DeVito, and Baker Mayfield. If ever you were going to luck into an average or better defensive season, this should have been the time.
The fact is that not moving on from Barry, and indeed hiring Barry in the first place, has been a colossal mistake. We all see it at this point, and I don’t think it’s worth harping on it. What I do think Matt LaFleur needs quickly figure out is how he handles having a lame duck on staff internally. He didn’t exactly get off to a good start in his post-game presser, when he placed the blame on “communication issues,” which seemed to impugn the players and not the coordinator. We can never know what is going on inside a locker room, but given some of the tweets from players like De’Vondre Campbell this week, I think some worry is justified.
It’s no fun to fire someone. This is true whether the person deserves it or not. It’s true even if the person being fired will, in the long run, benefit from being forced to find an opportunity that is a better fit. I don’t even blame LaFleur for holding off during the holiday season, as pre-Christmas/holiday firings are beyond the pale. That said, when you find yourself in this situation, there are some actions you need to take.
The first is re-establishing trust in the locker room, which requires a combination of transparency and confidence. If you’ve seen Dolphins’ coach Mike McDaniel on Hard Knocks you will have an idea of exactly what I’m talking about. As the man in charge, you first have to publicly eat all of the crow you’ve cooked up during the Barry era, while establishing that Joe is no longer in charge. This is important. If he’s technically still around, that’s fine, but players are not stupid, and they will not respect you if the man in charge of the defense is a man you have already fired in your mind. There may not be an heir apparent to Barry on staff, but that is, again, a problem of Matt’s making, and it is his responsibility to solve. Whether it’s elevating a promising young position coach for a tryout or sliding special teams coordinator Bisaccia over for a few games, (which is itself a dicey proposition), you can’t let Barry be in charge, even with massive supervision. Barry needs to know where he stands, and the players need to know where they stand in relation to Barry.
The next thing you absolutely have to do to retain the locker room is to present a plausible plan going forward that your players believe is sufficient to keep them in the playoff hunt. This will require a lot of work, but that is what happens when one of your direct reports fails. You have to take on their responsibilities until a suitable replacement is available.
LaFleur needs to show an understanding of what went wrong schematically, something that, after the last two weeks, isn’t difficult. He also needs to offer a way forward, and if he’s going to be wrong about what he does, he should at least be popular. That may mean more man defense or more catering to what the players want generally. He should be up for it, as you cannot fall off the floor.
The Carolina Panthers are terrible, but they have the personnel to run a sort of combo of the Tampa and New York offenses that tore up Green Bay over the last two weeks. I assure you that they will be studying film of DeVito’s sack avoidance, and implementing those concepts with Bryce Young, who is 3rd in the league with a 10% sack percentage. Young can run like DeVito and throw better than DeVito. As bad as he’s been, there’s a game plan freely available that has beaten Green Bay already. Carolina also has good pass-catching backs in Miles Sanders and Chuba Hubbard, meaning they can stress the standard Packer zone by spreading out their receivers and backs to create their version of the Chris Godwin/Campbell mismatch (likely with Adam Thielen) from last week. If you’re Matt LaFleur, you can’t show up and run “standard Barry” this game. You will absolutely lose.
I am not a fan of how LaFleur reflexively defended Joe Barry. If you’re going to take a round for your guy, you need to be the one to actually take the round. Loyalty is a two-way street. It is supposed to involve putting in effort for each other out of mutual respect. At this point, LaFleur is just doing Barry a favor at the expense of his own credibility. Could the Packers have signed Brian Flores this offseason? I have no idea, but that charity towards Barry cost them the opportunity to explore better options like Flores, and that was a huge mistake. It should not happen again.