He’s 3-0 against the Vikings, 8-0 against the NFC North, 18-4 against the entire NFL, 4-0 the week after a loss and, well, let’s just say even the late Vince Lombardi himself would be flashing that gaptoothed grin and tipping his fedora to 40-year-old Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur.
“I don’t think anybody’s ever had a better record than Matt’s got to this point,” said Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak, whose 1-5 Vikings play the 5-1 Packers at Lambeau Field on Sunday.
Not quite, Gary. But close.
Who wins 18 times in 22 regular-season games?
Lombardi? Lambeau? Bud?
No, no, no.
Shula, Walsh, Landry, Noll, Belichick?
So who wins 18 times in 22 games?
“A really good coach who has a really good quarterback and really understands the game,” said Packers secondary coach Jerry Gray, who held the same position with the Vikings the past six years. “I think you have to be really, really lucky. But you have to be good, too. To me, when you call his stats out, they’re like unheard of, especially in today’s game.
“But when you look at Matt, he’s a guy who is going to fly under the radar. He’s not going to be arrogant about his stuff. He’s not going to be arrogant about his record. He’s like a lot of coaches, but I think he’s a little different with his new-age approach than an older guy would be. And he gets players to really buy in.”
In a league that’s in its 101st season, only five other coaches have won more than 17 of their first 22 regular-season games.
George Seifert (20-2) was handed the keys to Bill Walsh’s 49ers dynasty after it won Super Bowl XXII after the 1987 season. Paul Brown (19-3) dominated the upstart All-America Football Conference in the late 1940s before his Browns were absorbed into the NFL in 1950.
The other three were player-coaches in the 1920s. Guy Chamberlin went 19-0-3 with the Canton Bulldogs; Dick Rauch went 19-3 with the Pottsville Maroons; and George Halas went 18-2-2 with the Decatur and Chicago Staleys before renaming them the Bears in 1922.
“Matt is the real deal and was a great coach for me in Washington,” said Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins, who had LaFleur as his position coach his first two years in Washington (2012-13). “I’m so grateful to have been drafted to Washington, largely because of the coaches I got to play with: Mike Shanahan, Kyle Shanahan, Matt LaFleur and Sean McVay.”
Before a Vikings game last season, LaFleur was asked what goes through his mind when he hears his name mentioned alongside Lombardi and other giants of the game. At the time, LaFleur was becoming Green Bay’s first rookie coach to win his division, advance to the conference title game and win more than nine regular-season games (13). He posted a record seven-win improvement over his predecessors Mike McCarthy and interim Joe Philbin.
“The only thing that goes through my mind,” LaFleur said, “is we got a huge game this week.”
From NIFL QB to NFL wunderkind
Like Cousins, LaFleur is a Michigan guy. The son of a football coach, he was a star quarterback at Saginaw Valley State and spent two years in pro football for the National Indoor Football League’s Omaha Beef and Billings Outlaws.
“The pro career didn’t last very long,” LaFleur said.
He was a graduate assistant at Central Michigan under Brian Kelly at the time.
“The opportunity came up to go out there and play a little arena ball or whatever,” LaFleur said. “We were breaking for the summer and had a couple weeks off and he was, ‘Hey, yeah, go for it.’ ”
LaFleur started the paid portion of his coaching career at Saginaw Valley State in 2003. He broke into the NFL as Kubiak’s offensive quality control coach with the Houston Texans in 2008-09.
His first position job was a four-year stint as Mike Shanahan’s quarterbacks coach. Then came a one-year stop at Notre Dame as quarterbacks coach and two years as Falcons quarterbacks coach, including Atlanta’s Super Bowl run in the 2016 season.
The next year, at 37, LaFleur became McVay’s offensive coordinator with the Rams. He didn’t call plays but did get his first taste of that a year later as Titans offensive coordinator.
Packers General Manager Brian Gutekunst came calling in 2019. The mission: to deliver a youthful NextGen, McVay-like pedigree to an offense that had become stale under McCarthy; to mesh some old-school Shanahan two-back looks with some new-school three-, four- and five-receiver sets; and, oh yeah, to see that Aaron Rodgers doesn’t head into the Pro Football Hall of Fame with just the one Super Bowl ring.
“I think LaFleur is doing a great job,” said Mike Zimmer, the Vikings’ defensive-minded coach, who’s 24 years older than LaFleur. “He’s got a great trigger man who manipulates a lot of players, a lot of the defense. But they’re doing a great job with the scheme of keeping you off balance, too.”
The Packers rank second in scoring (32.8) and first in fewest turnovers (two). They’ve had no turnovers in five of six games this year and 14 of 22 under LaFleur.
Meanwhile, Rodgers has returned to top form in his second season in LaFleur’s offense. He’s second in passer rating (113.4) and has a 17-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Making room for Adams
The Packers have played 1,432 games since joining what would become the NFL in 1921.
Two players in those 100 seasons have caught 14 passes in a single game.
Hall of Famer Don Hutson, the league’s first star receiver, did so Nov. 22, 1942, in a 21-21 tie with the Giants at the Polo Grounds in New York.
Seventy-eight years later, the perfect storm descended on U.S. Bank Stadium and allowed star receiver Davante Adams the opportunity to turn 17 targets — the third-highest total in the league this season — into 14 mostly easy catches for 156 yards and two touchdowns in a 43-34 win over the Vikings in Week 1.
In hindsight, it was unrealistic to think the Vikings had a chance of slowing Rodgers and Adams that day.
Their top three cornerbacks from 2019 were gone and their replacements — all young and inexperienced — were denied an offseason program and a preseason slate of games because of the global pandemic. Throw in the fact Rodgers was facing an empty stadium and a pass rush missing Danielle Hunter and, well, we all got the picture pretty quick when Adams was targeted 11 times in the first half.
“We’re always trying to put him in position to be the guy,” LaFleur said of Adams. “But there are things teams can do to take a guy away. So we’ve got to be mindful of that and make sure not everything is centered around just 17 [Adams’ jersey number].”
He said something similar last week. Then Adams was targeted 16 times for 13 catches, 196 yards and two touchdowns in a 35-20 rout of Houston.
LaFleur moved Adams around against the Vikings in Week 1, when he:
• Lined up to the right seven times and to the left seven times.
• Motioned right once and left once.
• Caught three bubble screens behind the line of scrimmage.
• Lined up in two-receiver sets twice, three-receiver sets five times, four-receiver sets four times and five-wide, empty-backfield sets three times.
• Lined up in three-receiver bunch sets to both sides and was in the slot on both sides.
Most of the 14 catches came with young cornerbacks simply overmatched by Adams’ expert route running and Rodgers’ quick throws.
“That can get a little frustrating,” defensive end Ifeadi Odenigbo said. “But at the end of the day, we all understand that the DBs we have right now were playing college football just nine months ago. We didn’t have a preseason so that was really their first true test.
“I think these rookies, they’re no longer rookies anymore. It’s their second time playing the Packers. I expect them to do well this game.”
More Lombardi comparisons
The Vikings’ turnover at cornerback continues. Holton Hill, who surrendered six of Adams’ catches in Week 1, is out. Mike Hughes was placed on injured reserve Friday and rookie Cameron Dantzler’s status is uncertain because of COVID-19 protocols. Curtis Riley, acquired this week, was added to the active roster and Mark Fields was promoted from the practice squad.
Adams’ 13th catch in Week 1 came with Hill in his face in man press coverage on second-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Hill couldn’t get even a finger on him before Adams released and caught a too-easy touchdown pass.
“His releases are some of the best in the game,” Vikings receiver Adam Thielen said. “There’s probably not a better guy against man press than Davante.”
And there might not be a better offensive mind than LaFleur to work alongside Adams and Rodgers.
Of course, the Lombardi comparisons don’t end with regular-season records through 22 games. They’re only beginning.
Lombardi was 48 years old and in his third season when he won his first title. The first of five — including the first two Super Bowls — in seven seasons in the 1960s.
“These comparisons are nice,” Gray said. “Numbers are great. He’s got great numbers. But I think Matt would be the first to tell you the only thing he would like to have is that trophy with Vince’s name on it. He’s got a chance at it.”