Third-year Packers coach and longtime NFL offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur makes the call to do some Q&A with Post columnist Steve Serby.
Q: Tell me why New York will not scare coach Robert Saleh?
A: Saleh has a very quiet confidence, and I think that he’s done it the right way. He’s earned everything he’s gotten in life. He works his tail off, he’s very smart. He’s a very efficient worker — probably one of the most efficient people I’ve ever been around in regards to how he works. He’s cut his teeth, man, he’s had to earn it. It’s amazing how sometimes things that don’t work out end up being a blessing in disguise, but it didn’t work out in Jacksonville, and he gets an opportunity to be the coordinator in San Francisco. What amazed me about what he was able to accomplish there is, yeah, certainly it took some time for them to build that defense up, but when they did, it was an elite level defense, and it was a big reason why they went to the Super Bowl. But what was even more impressive, you look at a year ago, for them to lose the talent that they lost and still be one of the top defenses in the National Football League, I think that tells you everything you need to know about Robert Saleh.
Q: What is it about him that makes defensive players say, “I’ll run through a wall for him?”
A: I think he’s a real guy. There’s nothing phony about him. He obviously cares for his players. He earns their respect, but he also brings a lot of energy and passion. I think he’s an excellent communicator, and a great leader.
Q: Why will your brother Mike, the Jets’ offensive coordinator, have a successful partnership with Zach Wilson?
A: I think they will have a great partnership because I know how hard Mike works at it, he’s been trained the right way. Kyle [Shanahan, 49ers coach, has] done a great job with him and has really empowered him over the last couple of years to have more ownership in the offense, more say so. He works his tail off, and when you combine that with a player that’s as capable as Zach, I think that they will flourish together. I don’t think that’s gonna be necessarily easy or quick transition, I think they’re gonna have to go through their lumps together and grow together, but I think ultimately, those are two guys that will persevere through it and come out better on the other side.
Q: Why do you and Aaron Rodgers click?
A: I think there’s a lot of reasons why. No. 1, we both care. And I think we’re both really competitive. But there’s been just so much great collaboration between us — and it’s not only just him and I — it’s everybody in that room … [quarterbacks coach] Luke Getsy, [offensive coordinator] Nathaniel Hackett. It’s been a fun process to kind of grow this thing together. I think there’s a lot of trust that has developed over time between both of us.
Q: What were your impressions of Zach Wilson during joint practice with the Jets last month?
A: I was really impressed. You can see the talent, just how effortless, how easy it is for him to throw the football. He’s got really good feet. But it was just cool to see how hungry he is … asked great questions, is super-receptive … so I’m excited to see how he progresses throughout the course of his career.
Q: What advice would you have for your brother about being a first-time play-caller?
A: Don’t ever look at the stats (laugh). It’s all about winning in this league, and I think a lot of times as a play-caller or coordinator, you get judged by where you rank in every category, but ultimately, all that matters is how are you winning games collectively as a football team, and if that means statistics, you just gotta do what’s in the best interests of the football team. And I think as long as you keep the focus there, then you got a chance to be successful.
Q: Your advice for Robert Saleh as a first-time head coach?
A: Where do I begin, ’cause it’s too much (chuckle). But I just think that you gotta always stay true to your core beliefs no matter how good or how bad it’s going. Which I know he will. To rely on other people I think is important part of it. You can’t do everything yourself. If you try to do that, then it can be overwhelming. But I think he’s done a great job of surrounding himself with good people that are about the team, and he can’t be afraid to rely on those people.
Q: What made Mike Shanahan a great coach?
A: There are so many qualities that he possessed that I think made him a great coach, but I think one of the things that I learned just was his attention to detail — not only attention to detail, but his ability to focus at such a high level for such a long period of time … his ability to set a standard, and making sure that standard was met every day by everybody in the building, whether you’re a player or coach.
Q: How does Kyle Shanahan differ style-wise from his dad?
A: I think Kyle possesses all of those as well. I think style-wise definitely different personalities, I would say that just growing up in different eras. Kyle is as detailed as anybody I’ve ever been around, and I think that’s what makes him so great. I think he’s very creative, he’s got a great mind, he sees the game well, he sees it from really an all-22 perspective.
Q: Describe the first time you experienced Lambeau Field.
A: It was 2008, and I was coaching with the Houston Texans, and it was extremely cold that day. And we actually came up here and we won the game, but I’ll never forget, my brother was a student at Elmhurst College, and I had gotten him pregame sideline passes, and he never showed up for the pregame. I was like, “Where the heck is this guy?” He got there really late, and I remember looking down, and during the game him and his girlfriend at the time were on our sidelines (laugh) and they were freezing their butt off on the sidelines. But he watched the whole game from the sidelines, and that was obviously before security has gotten to where it is now.
Q: What struck you about your first sight of Lambeau?
A: You’re in the middle of a neighborhood, then all of a sudden here’s the crown jewel of football that just pops up.
Q: What have you learned about the tradition of the Green Bay Packers?
A: I would say our Packers fans are pretty informative, they definitely know the history here. … Everybody will let you know that they’re an owner, and that you work for them (laugh). … It seems like every time you meet somebody that has played for the Packers, they tell you what a special place this is to them.
Q: How would you describe your leadership style?
A: No. 1, I never want to ask of somebody what I wouldn’t be willing to do myself. And then I also think that it’s definitely not a dictatorship. I feel like I’m pretty decent at weighing in on not everybody’s opinion, but defiantly will take input from others.
Q: What are the ideal traits of a Matt LaFleur football player?
A: Probably just smart, tough and competitive.
Q: Why is play-calling so much fun for you?
A: It’s always fun when you have good players (laugh). It’s a lot more fun when you have good players. I think it’s just kind of the chess match that you play a little bit versus the defense. There’s nothing more exhilarating than when you dial something up and it plays out exactly how you want it to. But you also have to have the people around you that enables you to go out there and execute whatever you draw up.
Q: What is your single best moment as a head coach and your most bitter defeat?
A: Well, I could tell you the most bitter defeat was probably this last year in the NFC Championship game (against the Buccaneers). That was the most disappointing experience probably to my life. Just having some costly mistakes that it’s hard to recover from in a game like that. … Best single moment … the first victory will always stand out, that first week in Chicago, opening night, Thursday night game. Even though it was a little bit frustrating as a play-caller, you always remember your first victory. But I also think going to Minnesota that first year and winning the division on the road, in a prime-time game, that was a really cool experience.
Q: You received a lot of criticism for calling for a field goal down 31-23 with 2:05 and three timeouts left with in the NFC Championship. Do you regret going for the field goal?
A: I’m always gonna be process-driven and process-motivated, so I do believe in our process, I think that was the right decision. It didn’t work out, so it doesn’t matter. Hindsight’s 20/20, so yeah, you regret not making a different decision when something doesn’t work out.
Q: What do you like best about your current team?
A: Well, there’s so much to like. No. 1, I believe in everybody in the locker room. We’ve got a lot of high-character people, and then when you combine that with talent, you feel like you got a chance each and every week. Ultimately, we gotta go out there and do it and put it all together, but it gives you a lot of confidence going into the season.
Q: Whatever comes to mind: Sean McVay.
A: “Rain Man.” … This guy has got the most unbelievable memory, which has been well-documented, that I’ve ever been around. Whatever he sees, it’s like ingrained in him.
Q: Brian Kelly.
A: Just a guy that has won everywhere he’s been. I think he’s got an unbelievable ability to get guys to believe that even when we weren’t great, that they’re better than what they were, and they [Notre Dame] would perform better.
Q: Who are coaches outside of football you admire?
A: I’ve always admired Tom Izzo. Just growing up in Michigan, the intensity which his [Michigan State basketball] teams played with. And it seemed like he always got more out of less. Another guy, I know he’s been fortunate to coach some pretty talented teams, but a guy like Phil Jackson. I think it’s one thing to have talent, it’s another thing to be able to manage and get the most out of that talent, and you look at his track record, I think until you’ve been in this seat, it definitely has given me a greater appreciation for what he’s been able to accomplish over his career.
Q: Who was your boyhood idol?
A: Probably my grandpa. He’s a guy that I just had so much respect for. He was a high school football coach. I saw the impact that he had on other people. He was kind of a chameleon. He was a great storyteller first and foremost, and he was a guy that could really fit in with any type of people. He was extremely funny, and showed really our whole family just the love and support that makes everybody feel good.
Q: How good a quarterback were you at Saginaw Valley State?
A: I was OK (laugh). I transferred in from Western Michigan, and to be honest, you could work out players at the Division II level, so I had gone for a workout, they worked me out as a quarterback and as a receiver, so I really wasn’t quite sure what I was gonna play there, I just wanted to play. And I went through spring ball as a quarterback, I ended spring ball as the No. 2, and after the first game of my redshirt sophomore season, our starting quarterback got a concussion, and he never could play again, and I took the reins from there. It was a pretty good career, but I will say that it was definitely easier having two NFL receivers [Glenn Martinez, Ruvell Martin] to throw to.
Q: Did you dream of an NFL career?
A: Yeah, of course I did. I always thought that, “You’ll find a way to get there,” but there’s just not too many quarterbacks that are 5-[foot]-10, 180 pounds in the National Football League (laugh).”
Q: Who were your favorite players growing up?
A: Growing up in [Mount Pleasant] Michigan, Barry Sanders was definitely a guy that I had always idolized. … Brett Favre, just watching him play the position, and how competitive he was.
Q: Were you a Lions fan?
A: I was. But I would tell you this: My dad was a college coach, so I grew up more of a fan of college football than professional football. Every weekend we were either at Central Michigan games, whether it was home or away, or we were just constantly watching college football. On Sundays, I would watch the Lions ’cause that was the local game that was gonna be played every week, and Barry Sanders was such an electric player, he was a lot of fun watching growing up.
Q: Describe your sons Luke, 8, and Ty, 6.
A: It’s amazing how two kids can come from the same people that are so different. I would say my oldest is much more like me, and my youngest, I’m not quite sure where he gets his personality from. He likes to be more of the center of attention, where I think my oldest is a little bit more reserved and doesn’t like to be the center of attention.
Q: You don’t like to be the center of attention?
A: No. I never have. Which is funny ’cause it’s a weird profession to pick, right?
Q: Three dinner guests?
A: Phil Jackson, Vince Lombardi, Martin Luther King [Jr.].
Q: What would you ask Coach Lombardi?
A: How he motivated, and how he got the most out of all the guys that he was able to coach throughout the course of his career.
Q: Favorite movie?
Q: Favorite actor?
A: Will Smith.
Q: Favorite actress?
A: Jennifer Aniston.
Q: Favorite singer/entertainer?
A: Zac Brown.
Q: Favorite meal?
A: I’m a sucker for banana pancakes.
Q: Favorite books?
A: “Talent Is Overrated” … and I just got done reading “11 Rings.”
Q: Where were you on 9/11?
A: I was in my Spanish class. … or I might have been on my way to Spanish class when the towers got hit. I remember talking about it in class, and then kind of wondering what was going on. I remember we were getting ready to play Ferris State that week, I just remember we talked about it, we didn’t know if we were gonna have our game that Saturday or not. I really didn’t think we were gonna play, and we ended up playing. Which was another good life lesson for me in terms of just, you better prepare for everything ’cause I don’t think I probably prepared as well as I should have that week just thinking that we weren’t gonna play, and I didn’t have a very good game because of it.
Q: It’s hard to believe it’s been 20 years.
A: I know, it’s amazing how fast time flies.