Success Doesn’t Happen Overnight
“The Green Bay Packers have let go of head coach Mike McCarthy after 12 games into the 2018 season.”
December 2, 2018 – The Packers officially cut ties with the Ted Thompson/Mike McCarthy era. I was at that Arizona Cardinals noon game, which coincidentally ended up being McCarthy’s last. The tickets were given to us free, since the season thus far hadn’t been a buyer or seller ticket market. My girlfriend and I arrived to the game in the south end zone addition: the nosebleed section of the nosebleed section. It had been snowing since around five in the morning and hadn’t stopped. “This is what we call a snow game,” I told my girlfriend, Andrea.
We sat in the blizzard conditions and gusting winds until halftime. Subjected to multiple horrendous offensive series by the Packers and an anemic Arizona offense, we joined the crowded scene of at least one hundred ticket holders inside the 1919 Kitchen and Tap. It never occurred to me this would be the last time I’d watch McCarthy on the sideline coaching the Packers.
Later, sitting with my eyes glue to the tv in my living room, Tony Dungy, Rodney Harrison and Mike Tirico would refer to the mid-season firing of Coach McCarthy disrespectful. He had brought the Lombardi trophy back to Titletown, made deep playoff runs and overall, created many successful seasons in Green Bay. There is a street named after him in Green Bay. That was under Ted Thompson, of course. Brian Gutekunst had been changing up personnel additions and subtractions and cleaning house in short order however it needed to be done.
Five weeks later, an unexpected name became the 15th head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Matt LaFleur left Nashville with his family to lead the Pack back to glory.
In his initial press conference, it was obvious LaFleur understood the pressure of coaching an incredibly historic football team. He seemed nervous and unprepared, and this Packers’ fan was skeptical if he was right for the job.
However, as the off-season progressed, we found out Gutekunst was not afraid to make additional moves. Clay Matthews III and his hair– along with Nick Perry and his broken hand– were out. Za’Darius and Preston Smith were added to an outside linebacker core, led by Kyler Fackrell. He was coming off a surprising 10.5 sack season. And to this day, I question the validity of double-digit sacks for “Sackrell.”
Adrian Amos was “traded” for Haha Clinton-Dix to add to the Green Bay defense. The defense was being revamped, now with a focus towards the glaring deficiencies. But how was the offense going to be handled? What was going to happen with the offense? Rodgers had a decent season, personally speaking, with 4,400 yards and 25 touchdowns. But it was clear, he had enough of the Mike McCarthy era and was in desperate need of a spark with a new CHALLENGE! *Mike McCarthy Cellcom Voice*
2019 spring turned into summer, and minicamp transitioned to training camp while rumors swirled around the working relationship of first-time head coach LaFleur and the Packers’ veteran quarterback. The national media ran with the idea of LaFleur not letting Rodgers audible and check as much at the line of scrimmage, as he had in the past. The articles and blogs got the clicks that way (after all, that was the sole purpose of journalism in 2019). I constantly wondered if LaFleur was cut out to handle the attention, new personalities and Rodgers’ huge persona with all the additional responsibilities of being a head coach in the National Football League.
Expectations are a funny thing. Generally, unless you are a complete pessimist (or Lions fan), you probably experience these changes with rose-colored glasses. Packers’ fans expected to finish above .500 and potentially make it back to the playoffs. Winning the division would be great; Chicago was coming off a twelve win season with first year head coach Matt Nagy and the game wrecker, Khalil Mack. Minnesota finished above Green Bay in the division race.
The season progressed, and young and talented players continued developing. The buzz around Aaron Jones during the off season came to fruition. Davante Adams was productive, despite being a little banged up. The revamped defense was what Packer fans, wanted for years: a pass rush.
The Smith Brothers were the voices in the locker room. Local and national media attracted to their personalities and theatrics. People had forgot about the “qualm” of QB and head coach from the off season. It is hard to remember the last time (if ever) there was a pair of impactful first year players on either side of the ball. Charles Woodson? Sure. Reggie White? Absolutely. Julius Peppers? Of course. But while Z and Preston were dominating offensive tackles, microphones and sack celebrations, Rodgers and Coach LaFleur were quietly shredding opposing defenses.
Rodgers finally had a new age head coach he could learn from. LaFleur was able to install his offense around an extremely intelligent quarterback. The two absolutely had bumps in the relationship. I can recall a few games, where they exchanged looks and words in the early part of 2020. But every time you saw an issue, there would be camera shot of them slapping hands and talking before the end of the game. They are competitors. In the moment, they are passionate about what they are seeing and aren’t concerned with anything but winning. The relationship transformed right before our eyes into a full-on bromance.
I was able to see Coach Matt LaFleur speak last month at the Wisconsin Building Supply contractor event in Appleton, WI. It surprised me that as he took the stage, he still seemed uncomfortable. He had just won 14 games and exceeded ALL expectations of fans, commentators, “owners” and the NFL. Why was he nervous? He continued to talk and after a few minutes, he settled in. I think he was able to shake the nerves when someone asked if they could get him a beer and what he preferred. He obviously declined the typical Wisconsin gesture, before glancing around and asking if any sponsors were there. He quietly said he enjoyed Spotted Cow, a beverage this “blogger” finds extremely overrated (@ me!) . But LaFleur was playing to the crowd. He knew it would get people fired up, and it worked.
Coach Matt LaFleur does not come across arrogant, nor bodacious or closed-minded. The now-40-year-old head coach is a vibe. He invigorates the Green Bay Packers organization, locker room and culture— and all within just one year.He got veteran players to buy into what he was trying to establish, and that shouldn’t go unnoticed. Players like Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith galvanized the 53-man roster to believe they were great. Transitions similar to what the 2019 Green Bay Packers usually take two to five years. The five-year plan is one-year in, and I couldn’t be any more excited to see what year two brings.
Matt “Fra” Froehlich