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Packers give Matt LaFleur chance to prove apple doesn’t fall far from coaching tree

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A coordinator and position coach under some of the most respected minds in the league, LaFleur must now construct his own legacy.

NFL: International Series-Los Angeles Rams Practice
Matt LaFleur (right) became friends with Sean McVay (left) in Washington under Mike and Kyle Shanahan.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Half a decade ago in Washington D.C., Matt LaFleur forged a bond with a baby-faced mid-20’s tight ends coach with spiky blonde hair. This friendship would come to help define LaFleur in the eyes of the Green Bay Packers front office, catapulting him into the big chair at 1265 Lombardi. Oh, and his friend? He’s preparing to take on the Cowboys in Los Angeles this weekend after taking the NFL by storm in his first two seasons as the Rams head coach.

Sean McVay’s vertiginous success gives LaFleur heat. Mike and Kyle Shanahan solidify the 39-year-old Michigan native’s pedigree. Gary Kubiak provides some gravitas. All of these men shaped the new Packers head coach, leading to the central question in his hiring: is LaFleur a protégé of the men under whom he’s coached, or simply a product of them? Clearly Mark Murphy and Brian Gutekunst believe he’s the former. Now, he gets the chance to prove it.

LaFleur’s deep roots in coaching under some of the most respected coaches in the NFL presented quite a tantalizing option for the Packers as a Mike McCarthy replacement. Even before his stop in our nation’s capital where he met Sean McVay, LaFleur began building the branches of his coaching tree resume. That seedling starts in Houston under Gary Kubiak, a disciple of Mike Shanahan, who is himself part of the prestigious Bill Walsh tree. If this all sounds confusing already, buckle up.

Kubiak became a punchline in Houston, but had been a Super Bowl-winning coordinator in Denver under Mike Shanahan and eventually earned another ring as head coach in Denver with Peyton Manning. His zone-run offense propelled Arian Foster to stardom and laid the groundwork for another friendship essential to LaFleur’s rise: Mike’s son Kyle Shanahan.

The Shanahans brought LaFleur to Washington in 2010, where he met McVay and assisted in the construction of the famous Robert Griffin III rookie season and early mentoring of Kirk Cousins. Kyle then brings LaFleur to Atlanta, where they set the world ablaze with Matt Ryan and Julio Jones in 2016.

McVay’s surprising hire in 2017 brings LaFleur to LA as offensive coordinator, which ultimately earns him a job with Mike Vrabel, part of the Bill Belichick tree (though we aren’t sure if that tree is bearing much fruit). For a 39-year-old coach, that resume speaks volumes. Shanahan and McVay are widely considered the two brightest offensive minds in the NFL and each think highly of LaFleur, having hired him. Technically the Shanahans have hired him multiple times if you count father and son.

But being in the kitchen when the food is made doesn’t mean one is a great chef. LaFleur has never been a head coach at any level of football and his one season in Tennessee produced middling results.

In one crucial way, LaFleur is the Packers version of the Trading Places experiment, only (hopefully) without the racism. He was in a difficult situation last year with the Titans, dealing with an injured quarterback, a shaky offensive line, and a dearth of quality pass catchers. With the Packers, he’ll have the football equivalent to the limo, butler, and the brownstone in the tony neighborhood with the offensive talent as his disposal.

McVay reportedly pushed for LaFleur with the Packers and based on the reaction of former players like Dan Orlovsky, Aaron Rodgers will be pleased with him as a coach. With all the intrigue swirling around Josh McDaniels, Murphy and Gutekunst snapped up LaFleur, a coach who hasn’t done things like lead a team before or call plays in high-leverage moments. McDaniels has called played in a Super Bowl. LaFleur hasn’t.

But Kyle and Mike Shanahan have. Gary Kubiak has. And while Sean McVay hasn’t, he spearheaded the greatest single-season offensive turn-around in NFL history with Jared Goff. If LaFleur is truly a protege of these men, imagine what he could do with Aaron Rodgers.

Such success is hardly a guarantee. For every McVay, there are half a dozen Marty Mornhinwegs. How many teams thought they were hiring Bill Belichick Jr. and wound up with Charlie Weis or Romeo Crennel instead? It’s like the stock market: past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results and the NFL proves every year just how bad it is at picking futures. But with his resume, if a team can’t justify taking a gamble on a young, ideologically progressive coach with legitimate bona fides in prestige systems, who is worth that risk?

When the Packers hired Mike McCarthy, part of his appeal was his roots in the West Coast system. He was a Mike Holmgren discipline, descended from the Walsh tree, though a different branch than Shanahan et al. Ted Thompson and Brian Gutekunst come from the Ron Wolf tree (which is really the Al Davis tree). Green Bay values pedigree and continuity. Former NFL QB Trent Dilfer called LaFleur “Mike McCarthy before McCarthy stopped grinding.” The Packers would be lucky to recreate the success of the early McCarthy years. Although they may be from different branches of the coaching tree, Green Bay is banking on LaFleur not falling too far.