GREEN BAY, Wis. — There will come a time when Matt LaFleur will have to correct something Aaron Rodgers does. It may be in a meeting room during the early days of the offseason program or on the field during individual spring workouts or in an 11-on-11 drill in a full-blown practice.
And LaFleur can only hope it goes as well as it did with another MVP quarterback he coached.
It was 2015 and LaFleur was the 35-year-old first-year quarterbacks coach of the Atlanta Falcons, where Matt Ryan was about to begin his eighth season as an NFL starter and had three Pro Bowls on his resume.
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“I’ll never forget the first time I corrected him on the field,” LaFleur recalled.
To hear LaFleur tell it, Ryan was slinging passes to receivers on skinny post routes. A few of the throws sailed off target. LaFleur stepped in and said something about Ryan’s balance.
“He didn’t like it too much,” LaFleur continued.
Ryan’s play said differently.
“What was cool about it was for about the next 10 throws, he was ripping the ball,” LaFleur said. “So I let it go for a while, and I’ll never forget I just said, ‘Hey, I think I’m going to tick you off every day.’
“Matt and I have a great relationship. He was incredible to work with. I do sincerely mean this. When you’re dealing with a quarterback, it is a partnership. He and I have stayed in contact to this day. I think we have a great respect to one another. I think I probably learned as much from him as he learned from me.”
And that’s how LaFleur will approach things as Rodgers’ new head coach.
Given all that was made about Rodgers and how difficult he can be to coach, it’s no wonder that Wednesday’s introductory press conference with LaFleur was dominated by questions about how he will make it work with Rodgers.
“Quite honestly the way our team’s structured, we [need] somebody who’s going to be able to work with Aaron and help him play the very best he can play,” Packers president Mark Murphy said. “[That] is going to really help us win.”
It may not be easy for Rodgers at first. Although he has the intellect to match his ability, he will have to learn a new offensive system after playing in Mike McCarthy’s offense for 13 years. Yet the part of Rodgers that loves a challenge should enjoy that.
There’s also the fact that it’s an offense Rodgers spoke admiringly of during the season. In the week leading up to the Packers’ game against the Rams, where LaFleur served as the offensive coordinator under Sean McVay in 2017, Rodgers called one it of the “fun offenses that you try to steal plays from or enjoy watching, obviously, what Sean has done and what Andy [Reid] is doing in Kansas City.
“For years we have been a team that people have stolen a lot of plays from.”
LaFleur left the Falcons to be an offensive coordinator with the Rams, but not before Ryan won the NFL MVP in 2016. He then left the Rams to be a play-calling coordinator for the Titans last season — a move Murphy admired.
“It was a risk for him to leave L.A. and go to Tennessee,” Murphy said. “But he did it because he knew it would help him become a head coach, to take on the play-calling responsibilities. Quite honestly, if he had stayed in L.A. with the kind of year they had this year, he’d be the hot candidate. He’s be flying all over the country talking to everybody. But I think the experience he had in Tennessee, there’s no doubt that made him a better coach, and we think he’s absolutely ready to be a head coach.”
And he’s ready to integrate Rodgers into what he called “our system.”
“The foundation, it goes back to Mike Shanahan,” LaFleur said.
One version of it is being run by Kyle Shanahan with the 49ers, another by McVay with the Rams and now by LaFleur in Green Bay. Shanahan and McVay run offenses that have been praised for being innovative. To LaFleur, that means trying to “stay one step ahead of the game because if you stay stagnant and you don’t evolve, I think people catch up to you.”
“We like to say plays that start off looking the same but are different, plays that play off of plays,” he said later. “It lessens the predictability of what you’re trying to do, and it keeps a defense more off-balance. And if there’s one thing I can say in regards to a guy like Aaron, if you give Aaron time and you are unpredictable, he’s going to excel, because we all know the talent he has. That’s how we’re going to build this thing.”