Matt LaFleur’s first job as head coach had nothing to do with revitalizing Aaron Rodgers, or redesigning a prehistoric offense. The first-year head coach faced a much more difficult task: to uproot complacency root and stem from an organization where it permeated every level of operations.
A culture of complacency robbed the recent vintage Green Bay Packers of their edge. Schemes stagnated along with the roster as Ted Thompson missed on critical picks, a mistake one can’t make when the draft is the only way the roster turned over. Amid the criticisms of Mike McCarthy in reports around his firing, an ugly truth revealed itself: accountability and competition waned and the team needed a reset.
LaFleur’s connection to Sean McVay and Kyle Shanahan drew much of the attention when he was hired, as did a lackluster season with the Titans. However, an essential element of coaching remained a mystery: how would he handle an entire locker room? A first-year head coach, albeit a football lifer from a coaching family, walking into a prickly situation after the last head coach lost the locker room looked far from ideal.
Instead, the 39-year-old coach has turned up the pace of practice, demanding that his team show more energy. Creating a sense of urgency on the field provides its own natural benefit, but it also serves as a metaphor for the kind of culture he’s building. Every rep counts, every snap matters; play hard and be in the right spot or get off the damn field (just ask rookie running back Dexter Williams). But that only works in fostering an environment brimming with competition if he puts his proverbial money where his mouth was. The best players must start regardless of where they came from, where they were drafted, or how much they played last season.
Even before final cuts, we’re seeing this culture manifest itself. Jaire Alexander spent considerable time, both in practice and outside of practice, working with Davante Adams under the idea of the old cliche that iron sharpens iron. Competition could breed contempt or it could foster a brotherhood. No one competes harder than they do against family. Rashan Gary went to Za’Darius Smith for advice on pass-rush technique. David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga have taken an active approach in mentoring young linemen. Aaron Rodgers has provided guidance to receivers, tight ends, running backs, even defensive players like Darnell Savage.
If the best players play, there’s no contempt for veterans who start simply because they’ve been around. In turn, locker room politics fade and acrimony over playing time never grows (though inevitably, some players will still believe they should be playing more).
On many teams, the presumption would be a second-round pick would play sooner rather than later, but that hadn’t always been the case for the Packers under Mike McCarthy. Out of loyalty, Green Bay failed to move on from prominent veterans beyond their reasonable utility to the team, with A.J. Hawk providing the most infamous example among fans. But Lane Taylor, a seemingly entrenched starter, could still lose his job to Elgton Jenkins because of how well Jenkins has played in training camp and the preseason. As we stand, less than two weeks from opening kickoff against the Bears, LaFleur still won’t name a starter.
Brian Gutekunst’s first major move as general manager brought DeShone Kizer to the Packers, but as he called it, Kizer still has to earn his keep. Tim Boyle started last week’s preseason game against the Raiders and has been the more consistent Packers backup in practice. If Tim Boyle is the best option to be QB2, LaFleur has already shown a willingness to honor that, despite the practice Green Bay paid for Kizer.
On the other side of the coin, Tra Carson offers more reliability than sixth-round pick Dexter Williams despite a clear talent deficit. In years past under Ted Thompson, there would be no question someone like Williams would make the team. Draft picks had to make the team. LaFleur has Carson ahead of Williams on the depth chart and could conceivably be willing to risk losing Williams to another team at final cuts.
Meanwhile, fourth-round pick J’Mon Moore might not even be WR8 at this point, and appears to be a lock for cut day. Gutekunst will have to show a willingness to move on from draft mistakes in a way his predecessor rarely would. One year in would be quick to cut bait, but that’s reflective of how little Moore progressed from a disappointing rookie season.
There may be nothing more to the Adams-Alexander camp competition than a fun story. It may not make Gary better to be working with Smith. And picking Boyle over Kizer might not materially impact the Packers this season. That said, complacency can rot a team, growing over time until it collapses. Green Bay came very close to collapse last season. Fumigating the house won’t make it more valuable, but it will stop the infestation. That’s the starting point.
LaFleur took steps to get the Packers house back in order. Up the energy levels, create competition everywhere and have a GM bring in young, hungry veterans to add another layer of insulation against future pests. A new offensive system, “the illusion of complexity,” a renewed emphasis on the highly efficient play-action pass, none of it could end up working. It might not “fix” Aaron Rodgers. But LaFleur’s impact on resetting the culture can already be seen in just a few short months. Making it last will be a battle he begins fighting even before Week 1. He’s now in charge of maintaining the house that Lombardi built.