When the Packers hired Matt LaFleur in 2019, the Packers were coming off one of their worst seasons since 1991. LaFleur has been part of a league-wide trend of hiring young, offensive-minded head coaches, such as Sean McVay and Kliff Kingsbury. After two years, LaFleur has established himself as one of the best young coaches in the game today. Since his hire two seasons ago, the Packers are tied for the most wins in the league at twenty six.
In fact, his first season was one of the fastest turnarounds of a franchise in a new coach’s inaugural season. The Packers’ seven-game improvement in 2019 was surpassed by only two other coaches since 2002.
Tony Sparano and Andy Reid both led larger regular season improvements, but unlike LaFleur, they couldn’t deliver in the playoffs their first year. In fact, after Sparano’s inaugural season, the Dolphins regressed each of the following three seasons, leading to his eventual firing. It took until Reid’s third season in Kansas City before he could finally deliver a playoff victory for the Chiefs. LaFleur and the Packers bucked this trend, following up a 13-3 inaugural season with an NFC championship appearance.
How does LaFleur’s early career stack up historically? Since the league expanded to 32 teams in 2002, there have been 123 head coaching hires. LaFleur is just the third coach to start his head coaching career with consecutive conference championship appearances. The first coach was Rex Ryan with the New York Jets in 2009 and 2010. The other coach was Jim Harbaugh with the San Francisco 49ers in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
While neither of these coaches were able to deliver a Super Bowl title for their team, LaFleur has an asset that neither Ryan nor Harbaugh had–a future hall of fame quarterback. The league is increasingly a quarterback-driven league, but neither of them had Pro Bowl quarterbacks during their coaching career. Without a settled quarterback situation, consistent success in the NFL is hard to achieve.
This is what will set LaFleur apart from Ryan and Harbaugh. Rodgers will eventually be inducted into the NFL hall of fame. While it’s not clear how many more years Aaron Rodgers has in the tank, 2020 was arguably his best season of his career with the offense led the league in scoring this past season, garnering Rodgers his third MVP.
With the offense running smoothly under offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, LaFleur’s biggest challenge next season will be to ensure that the defense can match the success of the offense. To lead the charge, he’s turned to a new defensive coordinator, Joe Barry. In terms of new players, there is help out there in the free agency that the Packers could bring in to improve the defense.
Improvements to the defense may be what it takes to get the Packers and LaFleur over the NFC Championship hump for their first Super Bowl appearance since 2010. Barry represents the most important hire that LaFleur has had to make in his short career, and getting it right will set the Packers up for another run of domination in the NFC.
By Stephen Juza