As the 2021 season has gone on, Matt LaFleur’s candidacy for Coach of the Year has gained significant traction among Packers fans – and, increasingly, the national media as well. Much of this discussion has revolved around his remarkable record this season despite the injury challenges that the team has faced, in addition to his considerable offensive acumen and play-designing ability. That record – 10-3, currently good for the #1 seed in the NFC – has certainly been impressive. However I believe that there are other, more underrated, factors that reinforce his suitability to win the COTY award.
Before we get into those other reasons, however, I want to summarize just how much the injury bug has affected the Packers. Green Bay has not sustained as many injuries as some other teams. However, the injuries that they have dealt with have affected their top players to a disproportionate degree.
The top of any Green Bay injury list should include All-Pro LT David Bakhtiari (started the season on IR and has yet to return to a game), All-Pro CB Jaire Alexander (out since Week 4), and All-Pro OLB Za’Darius Smith (out since the end of Week 1). Left tackle, cornerback, and edge rusher are arguably the three most important non-quarterback positions on the football field. Green Bay has been missing their top players at these positions for the majority of the season. In addition, backup LT Elgton Jenkins missed Weeks 3-5, and sustained a season-ending ACL injury in Week 11. Starting center Josh Myers has been out since Week 6. Starting TE Robert Tonyan has been out since Week 8.
Other players who have missed 1 or more games due to injury include OLB Whitney Mercilus, OLB Chauncey Rivers, OLB Rashan Gary, OLB Preston Smith, DT Kingsley Keke, CB Eric Stokes, CB Kevin King, ILB Krys Barnes, TE Josiah Deguara, TE Dominique Dafney, KR/RB Kylin Hill, WR Marquez Valdez-Scantling, and WR Allen Lazard. Several other players have missed time due to COVID: OLB Jonathan Garvin, DT Tyler Lancaster, WR Davante Adams, and QB Aaron Rodgers.
Many of those who missed time are starters or key backups. The fact that the Packers are 10-3 given this context is somewhat astounding, and is a credit to LaFleur’s ability. That’s not the only reason that I think LaFleur should be Coach of the Year, however.
The Joe Barry Hire
After the 2020 NFC Championship game, LaFleur faced the challenge of replacing defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who had been fired after multiple defensive miscues contributed to the Green Bay loss. LaFleur interviewed several candidates, but ultimately decided to select Joe Barry. Many criticized the move, pointing to the poor results that Barry experienced at his previous stops in Detroit and Washington.
As the season has progressed, however, Barry has significantly improved the defense in comparison to its 2020 counterpart. At one point, the Packers held the dangerous offenses of the Cardinals, Chiefs, and Seahawks to a combined 34 points. Tackling, long a weakness of Green Bay’s defense, has turned into a strength. To date, the Packers defense is top 10 in passing yards per game, rushing yards per game, total yards per game, and points per game.
Here’s the point. Matt LaFleur had to fill a critical need at defensive coordinator. He did so by gambling on a coach who had achieved dubious results in the past. So far, that hire appears to have been an excellent choice. Things can change of course, and it’s possible that the defense experiences a meltdown further down the road. Right now, however, Matt LaFleur deserves credit for finding the right man for the job, especially considering how many outside factors could have deterred him from choosing Barry. In making this hire, LaFleur demonstrated an admirable ability to spot and acquire coaching talent. If Brian Gutekunst deserves praise for finding Rasul Douglas and De’Vondre Campbell, then LaFleur should be equally commended for hiring Barry.
Ah, the drama. It seems like few teams in the NFL – if any – have faced the level of attention and spectacle that has afflicted the Packers this year.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock buried in the depths of the Mariana Trench, you’ll know all about the Aaron Rodgers offseason saga. For months it seemed possible that he would not return to the team. When Rodgers finally did show up, on the eve of training camp, he mentioned that he had considered retiring and aired a number of grievances about the operations of the Green Bay front office.
Attention on the situation declined over the course of training camp. However, national and local media refocused on it after a Week 1 blowout loss to the Saints in which Rodgers played at an uncharacteristically poor level. This prompted renewed questions about his commitment to the team that did not die down until their victory over the Lions a week later. The fate of the QB’s tenure with the team is still very much in question, though speculation has mostly entered a state of suspended animation for the time being.
The future of star receiver Davante Adams, whose contract expires after this season, is also in doubt. He may not want to return to the team if the Packers decide to move on from Rodgers. In July – a few days before Rodgers’ return – both players posted identical photos from the “Last Dance” documentary. This only exacerbated questions about the duo’s future.
They weren’t the only players who seemed to express dissatisfaction. Edge rusher Za’Darius Smith – another player whose future with the team is in question – appeared to be unhappy after not being named one of the team’s captains before the season. A mysterious back injury that popped up in training camp and has kept Smith out of the lineup all year has further complicated the situation.
The Regular Season
The Packers had already faced more drama in the offseason than most teams would face all year. It wouldn’t stop there, however. Aaron Rodgers contracted COVID-19 in early November, though he had claimed to be “immunized” in an offseason press conference. It was revealed that, contrary to the belief of some, he had not received the COVID-19 vaccine. This prompted another round of national attention, as many criticized his potentially misleading verbiage. He missed a road game against the Chiefs as a result of his COVID diagnosis. The Packers would end up losing 13-7. Rodgers, wide receiver Allen Lazard, and the team were later fined for violations of the NFL’s COVID protocols.
Matt LaFleur’s team has encountered numerous distracting situations in the last few months. Many of these could have had the potential to derail the season. Through it all, he has kept the Packers united and in contention for a Super Bowl. From the outside, the team appears to be as close as ever on the field and in the locker room. He has never thrown a player, coach, or member of the front office under the bus. Throughout 2021, LaFleur has shown admirable leadership ability and relational acumen. It is fair to assume that without him, the Packers’ season would look significantly worse.
Before we finish, I want to address a common counterargument to LaFleur’s COTY case. Many have discounted his achievements – especially in comparison to Bill Belichick and Kliff Kingsbury, the other main candidates for COTY – because he has Aaron Rodgers, an elite, Hall of Fame-worthy QB. I think that this is an oversimplification of the situation. Rodgers’ skill has certainly been part of Matt LaFleur’s success. However, Rodgers is not a cure-all; in his last year with Mike McCarthy as head coach, the Packers went 4-7-1 before McCarthy was fired.
Much of Rodgers’ success in the Matt LaFleur era has come from a growing adoption of LaFleur’s offense. His 2020 MVP season coincided with a complete acceptance of this system. Several of Rodgers’ best games this year have been those in which LaFleur has leveraged the QB’s short-game ability to run a surgical, well-designed offensive attack. LaFleur has schemed receivers open with creative play designs, confused defenses with schematic twists, and allowed Rodgers to operate efficiently from the pocket; in LaFleur’s system, Rodgers no longer needs to regularly make superhuman plays. In many ways, Matt LaFleur’s offense has elevated the elite traits of Aaron Rodgers just as much as Aaron Rodgers has elevated the LaFleur system.
Consider this as well. Is Kyler Murray a pushover? How much of the Patriots’ success is due to Josh McDaniels and his ability to develop Mac Jones? The respective contributions of a coach and their players can be hard to parse out. Kingsbury and Belichick, as good as they are, aren’t completely responsible for their team’s success either. Furthermore, neither have faced the injury challenges or outside distractions that LaFleur has
Considering all these factors – the injuries and drama the team has had to deal with, the gutsy hiring of Joe Barry, LaFleur’s ability to design and call outstanding offensive gameplans – I believe that there is no one better suited than Matt LaFleur to be Coach of the Year.
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