Can re­served LaFleur win over locker room?

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - Sports - Pete Dougherty Colum­nist USA TO­DAY NET­WORK – WIS.

Matt LaFleur’s in­tro­duc­tory news con­fer­ence re­vealed him for who he is: a young, per­son­able but re­served new head coach of the Green Bay Pack­ers.

It matched the de­scrip­tion I’d heard from a cou­ple of peo­ple who’d worked with and ob­served him in his one sea­son with the Ten­nessee Ti­tans last year.

LaFleur cer­tainly doesn’t have the

com­mand­ing size and per­son­al­ity of a Mike Holm­gren or Bill Par­cells. He doesn’t give off the dy­namic vibe of a Pete Car­roll or the young Sean McVay.

Which raises a valid ques­tion: Does the 39-year-old LaFleur have the pres­ence to com­mand a room of 63 NFL play­ers plus an­other 20 or more as­sis­tant coaches? Does he not only know foot­ball but have the per­sona to lead an NFL fran­chise?

To get a sense for how much of an is­sue this might be, I talked this week to three long­time NFL as­sis­tant coaches. None of them knew much about LaFleur, but they’d worked with all types of head coaches over the years, and their opin­ions are well worth know­ing.

To be up front, three is a small sam­ple size. No doubt there are as­sis­tants and scouts in the NFL who place a great pri­or­ity on a head coach’s phys­i­cal pres­ence and abil­ity to dom­i­nate a room. Even one of the sources who works for the Ti­tans and thinks highly of LaFleur won­dered if the young coach will have to muster a lit­tle more juice as a head coach.

Still, I found the con­sis­tency in the re­sponses of the three coaches I con­sulted eye open­ing, as sum­ma­rized by one who has worked more than 30 years on the of­fen­sive side of the ball.

“I used to think there’s only one way, but there are 100 ways to do things,” he said.

Or as an­other put it: “Can it work? Ab­so­lutely. Does he need help? Ab­so­lutely.”

Let’s start by say­ing that none of what fol­lows is an en­dorse­ment of LaFleur. He might be a smash­ing suc­cess. He might bomb. He might fall in the vast area be­tween.

The point is, if LaFleur isn’t a win­ning head coach, it won’t be be­cause of his mod­est stature (I’d guess he’s about 510 and 175 pounds) and unas­sum­ing per­son­al­ity. It’s that good head coaches come in all shapes, sizes and per­son­al­i­ties,

and no one type is a pre­req­ui­site for suc­cess.

Re­ally, the ev­i­dence there is hid­ing in plain sight. Did Pro Foot­ball Hall of Famers Tom Landry, Joe Gibbs and Tony Dungy light up a room? Buddy and Rex Ryan were as al­pha as they come, yet what did ei­ther ac­com­plish as a head coach?

An NFL coach has to stand in front of his play­ers and coaches al­most daily dur­ing the sea­son and ef­fec­tively com­mu­ni­cate his vi­sion and ex­pec­ta­tions. That skill is a must. He also has to some­how, some way in­spire his play­ers. But com­pe­tence and au­then­tic­ity mat­ter more than any per­son­al­ity trait.

“This isn’t the SEC where you have to come across as this fast-talk­ing, high­en­ergy sales­man to get your play­ers to com­mit to you,” one of the coaches said. “If you come across as be­ing a real per­son and some­one who is go­ing to treat their play­ers like men, some­one who’s

grounded, you can cap­ture them.

“You come across the other way, of­ten times you come across as be­ing phony. We’ve all seen guys try to do that. The bot­tom line is, you have to be your­self. Just be your­self, be­cause ev­ery­one else is al­ready taken. If he just comes across and is him­self, that will be plenty good enough.”

In fact, all three of the as­sis­tants said in one form or an­other that it’s not the coach’s per­son­al­ity that mat­ters as much as the bal­ance of per­son­al­i­ties on his coach­ing staff.

As one put it, if the head coach is lowkey, he needs a few as­sis­tants who are out­wardly en­er­getic. If he wants his play­ers to like and love him, he bet­ter have a few as­sis­tants with an edge. And if he’s a tyrant, he bet­ter have sev­eral diplo­mats among his staff or he’ll cre­ate a hor­ri­ble work­ing en­vi­ron­ment and lose his play­ers.

“Ninety per­cent of it re­volves around the right pieces to the puz­zle,” one of the coaches said. “… If a guy’s low-key, he’s got to be a thinker. He’s got to be, how do I move my chess pieces here? He can­not be low-key and not have a plan.”

This is where LaFleur’s re­tain­ing of Mike Pet­tine as de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor could be im­por­tant. Pet­tine is LaFleur’s op­po­site: a big guy and strong per­son­al­ity who brings an edge and high en­ergy to meet­ing rooms and the prac­tice field.

It will be in­ter­est­ing to see if LaFleur and Pet­tine also re­tain Patrick Gra­ham, who was lineback­ers coach and de­fen­sive run game co­or­di­na­tor last sea­son. Gra­ham was by far the most an­i­mated coach on the Pack­ers’ prac­tice field this past sea­son.

On of­fense, it’s look­ing like LaFleur might over­haul the en­tire staff, so it re­mains to be seen what per­son­al­i­ties he hires, es­pe­cially at of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor and of­fen­sive line.

“(Pet­tine) is a nice com­ple­ment right there for him,” said an­other of the coaches, who has worked his ca­reer on de­fense. “I think it will be ben­e­fi­cial, and I’d as­sume from LaFleur’s per­son­al­ity he’s not go­ing to be hard to get along with.”

None of this is to dis­count the ad­van­tages a take-charge, dom­i­nate-any­room per­son­al­ity brings to a head­coach­ing job. It can win over play­ers or mo­ti­vate them through fear. It can give a team en­ergy and ur­gency.

But play­ers will sniff out blowhards and frauds. LaFleur can’t be­come a new per­son now that he has a new ti­tle. He’ll have to hold play­ers’ at­ten­tion and com­mand the room his way.

“I was told when I first came into the league by an old coach, as long as play­ers think you can make them play bet­ter and help them play longer, they’ll al­ways be in your cor­ner,” one of the coaches said.

“That was true then, and it’s true now. If you do that, you have them cap­tured mind, body and spirit.”

The ques­tion isn’t whether LaFleur is too low-key to be a head coach in the NFL. The ques­tion is whether he has the stuff to lead and in­spire and hire while re­main­ing low-key.


One of Matt LaFleur’s first chal­lenges as a young NFL head coach at 39 will be get­ting vet­eran play­ers to be­lieve in him.

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