GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — What a year it has been for Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur.
Thursday marks exactly one year since LaFleur was introduced as the 15th head coach in franchise history.
“That was already a year ago?" LaFleur said on Wednesday.
After winning more games (13) than any other Packers coach in their first year, LaFleur will lead Green Bay against the Seattle Seahawks in Sunday's divisional playoff game at Lambeau Field.
“It's been a fast year, there's no doubt about it," the 40-year-old LaFleur said. "When I think back at it, I really haven't given much thought to it to be truthful. Somebody mentioned it to me yesterday, and I was like, ‘I guess that was a year ago.’ The time has flown by. We've done a lot over the last year and it's been a really fun process.”
Among the first words Packers president and CEO Mark Murphy said during LaFleur's introductory news conference on Jan. 9, 2019, were “I believe we found a great fit for the organization and this community.”
So far, so good.
Mike Holmgren and Mike Sherman each won nine games in their first seasons in Green Bay. That was a franchise record. LaFleur shattered that and became the first coach in team history to lead the Packers to a division title in his first season and has Green Bay back in the playoffs for the first time since 2016. LaFleur is the first coach in franchise history to lead the Packers to the postseason in his first season.
“I think the best teams are player-led teams, and I think he's allowed the players to take ownership of important parts of the squad,” Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said of LaFleur.
“The biggest thing is the leadership part, letting guys kind of be themselves. From the start, it was a limited amount of rules and very simplistic approach. 'Be a professional, be on time, be prepared, don't make excuses, make it about the team, be the best version of yourself in the locker room, embrace your role and make the most of it.' I think it's allowed guys to make the decision to buy in every day.”
Rodgers found out LaFleur was going to be his next head coach, only the second of his 15-year NFL career, while golfing. The two-time MVP remembers coincidentally shanking a drive on the sixth hole after he and LaFleur spoke.
“I enjoyed our conversation,” Rodgers said. “I wasn't sure how far along the process was but I was kind of told right after, when I was talking to (general manager) Brian (Gutekunst), that that's who they wanted to go with.
“It was exciting. Obviously change is always difficult. I think you have to embrace it and focus on the positives, and there were a lot of positives with Matt right away."
LaFleur spent 10 seasons in the NFL before landing in Green Bay, first as an offensive assistant, then as a quarterbacks coach and finally an offensive coordinator. LaFleur said it was in Atlanta, under coach Dan Quinn, where he learned how to prepare for the postseason.
“Every game, from the regular season to the playoffs, every game was a championship mindset,” LaFleur said. "That's the same approach that we've taken with our football team here.”
LaFleur was the quarterbacks coach for the Falcons in 2015 and 2016, when he helped guide Matt Ryan to an MVP season and a berth in the Super Bowl. There seasons later, LaFleur will go head to head on Sunday with a coach in Seattle's Pete Carroll who has actually won one. Carroll is 28 years older than LaFleur.
“He's still doing it,” LaFleur said of the 68-year-old coach. "I tell you what, he's got a lot energy too. He's done it for so long at such a high level. I've got a lot of respect and admiration for him, just what he's been able to accomplish throughout the course of his career.”
Rookie NFL head coaches are 26-25 all time in their playoff debuts. Only two of them — Don McCafferty (1971 Colts) and George Seifert (1989 49ers) — actually won the Super Bowl. Regardless of how the season ends for the Packers, LaFleur has changed the culture in Green Bay.
“It's been an exciting year,” Rodgers said. "It's funny, life in general, how much can change in a year. You think about the feeling of the organization and disappointment and everybody really being gone. Now, we're here. There's eight teams left in the playoffs. I think there's a different sentiment about the squad and which way our arrow is pointing and the excitement that the playoffs brings to the organization, the area and the region.”
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