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Tom Oates: New Packers coach Matt LaFleur must get Aaron Rodgers to buy into his program

January 10, 2019

It was no secret what the Green Bay Packers were looking for in a coach to replace Mike McCarthy.

First and foremost, they needed a coach who could get Aaron Rodgers back to playing like Aaron Rodgers, a coach who could put the 35-year-old quarterback in position to recapture his Hall of Fame form after the first off-year of his NFL career.

From all accounts, Matt LaFleur has the smarts, personality and coaching background to get that done.

LaFleur, who signed Tuesday night to become the Packers’ 15th coach was Tennessee’s offensive coordinator last season and before that worked under some of the NFL’s brightest and most creative young offensive coaches in San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan and Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay. The trend across the league is to fill coaching vacancies with youthful quarterback gurus in tune with the modern NFL offense and LaFleur fits the description.

That doesn’t mean LaFleur will succeed, only that he is the type of coach the Packers need. However, putting the onus entirely on LaFleur to get Rodgers back to peak form and the Packers back to the playoffs is unwise. This isn’t a one-man job.

Indeed, the onus to return the Packers to contending status is just as much on Rodgers as it is on LaFleur. Maybe more so.

Rodgers got what he wanted after McCarthy’s increasingly dysfunctional offense led to a 6-9-1 record. Just 10 days after the season, he finds himself with a new coach, a new offense, a new approach. What Rodgers does now that he has all those things is entirely up to him.

LaFleur’s four-year contract with a fifth-year option takes him through 2023, which coincides with the final year of Rodgers’ contract. Since neither one is going anywhere in the foreseeable future, their fortunes are intertwined. It’s pretty simple: if Rodgers doesn’t buy into what LaFleur is selling, the Packers will go down in flames.

People who have worked with LaFleur say he is an intelligent, confident person who will coach Rodgers hard and challenge him daily. Good, because that’s exactly what Rodgers needs at this stage of his career.

His critical and unsolicited comments about McCarthy’s offense after the Packers’ 22-0 victory over Buffalo in September made it clear the relationship with his coach of 13 seasons had frayed beyond repair. The problem had been building over the years but seemed to reach a head when new offenses featuring creative spread concepts from college football took the NFL by storm early this season. McCarthy’s offense, cutting edge when he was hired in 2006, looked prehistoric by comparison.

But with a new coach in the big office, blaming the offensive approach is an excuse that is no longer available. LaFleur likely will employ more presnap movement, more running, more quick passes and more pass-run options than McCarthy did. He’ll still try for explosive plays, though probably not as often as his predecessor.

Rodgers clashed with McCarthy in part because he could. As the offense evolved and Rodgers gained experience, McCarthy gave him a lot of input into the game-planning and play-calling. Over time, Rodgers’ disagreements with McCarthy over plays and strategy escalated and the situation became unworkable.

The best thing that could happen for the Packers now is for Rodgers to accept LaFleur’s offensive approach and implement it without reservation. That won’t be easy, however. Rodgers is intelligent, strong-willed and competitive, all of which helped him become a great quarterback. But he is also set in his ways after 14 years in the NFL and isn’t going to agree with everything LaFleur does.

Although Rodgers has accomplished more in the game than LaFleur and is one of the NFL’s biggest stars, LaFleur is now his boss, which will make for an interesting dynamic once they put their heads together. LaFleur would be foolish not to tap into Rodgers’ vast experience. Rodgers would be equally foolish to resist change when the Packers need it so badly.

For this new pairing to work, Rodgers and LaFleur must form a partnership. The last thing Rodgers needs at this stage in his career is a my-way-or-the-highway coach. He needs one who can connect with him on an intellectual level, who can challenge him without ruffling his feathers, who can maintain his respect but at the same time have the strength to set the direction for the offense.

The way coaches such as McVay and Shanahan talk about him, LaFleur has what it takes to accomplish that. He also should have the time.

One of Rodgers’ complaints about McCarthy was he wasn’t always available for film study and game-planning sessions. With respected defensive coordinator Mike Pettine remaining on board in Green Bay, LaFleur should be able to concentrate on getting Rodgers and the offense squared away, similar to what McVay did in Los Angeles with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips

LaFleur has shown he is bright, creative, knows how to attack defenses and can work with quarterbacks. He’s never worked with a quarterback of Rodgers’ stature, though, and he’ll have to figure out how to gain Rodgers’ respect without capitulating to him. How much Rodgers aids in that process could be the difference between success and failure for the Packers.

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