Less than two years into his NFL head-coaching career, Matt LaFleur has won 18 of 22 games and successfully navigated a pair of potential controversies involving his best and most pivotal player.
Partly as a result of those achievements, the Green Bay Packers have retained their status as Super Bowl contenders a month into a surreal and unsettling 2020 season, and Aaron Rodgers has remained the toast of Titletown while playing at an MVP level.
For all of those outsiders who predicted a drama-filled drop-off following the Packers' ill-fated trip to the 2019 NFC Championship Game -- and the subsequent selection of Rodgers' presumed successor, former Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft -- Green Bay looks even better in LaFleur's second season.
As the Pack (4-0) emerges from its bye week and begins preparing for Sunday's marquee matchup against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, LaFleur believes that he and his generationally talented quarterback have big things in their immediate future, even as a global pandemic ensures that nothing be taken for granted.
"I think our quarterback's playing at a really high level right now -- well, like he has his entire career -- but he's playing really, really lights out, and we're just playing good team football," LaFleur said during an appearance on this week's Pass It Down podcast, which can be heard here. "Anytime there's what's deemed a controversial decision or whatever, you've got to answer the questions. But I like where we're at right now, and there's a lot in front of us -- I know that."
The Packers have averaged an NFL-best 38 points per game while rolling to victories over the Vikings, Lions, Saints and Falcons, and their 445.5 yards-per-game average ranks second only to the Cowboys. Rodgers, with a 128.4 passer rating, ranks just behind the Seahawks' Russell Wilson (129.8) for the top spot among qualified passers. The Green Bay QB's gaudy numbers include a 70.5 completion percentage, 1,214 passing yards and 13 touchdowns without an interception.
Back in April, after Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst traded up to select Love with the 26th overall pick, LaFleur told me that Rodgers -- who'll turn 37 this December -- "is the leader of this football team, and my expectation is that he will be for a long time."
Many people were skeptical that such an arrangement could commence smoothly. Even Rodgers conceded, in a subsequent call with reporters, that his "general reaction at first was surprise, I think, like many people. You know, obviously, I'm not gonna say that I was thrilled by the pick necessarily, but I understand. The organization is thinking not only about the present, but the future." He also mused about the possibility of finishing his career elsewhere.
That may happen, but for now, Lambeau Field remains Mr. Rodgers' neighborhood. Love, who has been inactive for all four of the Packers' games (and is third on the depth chart behind backup Tim Boyle), is firmly in watch-and-wait mode.
LaFleur and Rodgers, meanwhile, are enjoying the spoils of a streamlined offense in their second year together, one which they fine-tuned via virtual chats over a COVID-19-impacted offseason in conversations that included offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy.
"I think we really took advantage of this offseason," LaFleur said in the podcast interview. "It was difficult not being together, being in the same building, but we had so many good conversations through Zoom -- with myself, with Aaron, with Hackett and Getsy -- and it really allowed us to kind of refine our offense. (We figured out) what it is we're doing well, what we need to get better at and what we need to get rid of, in order to kind of streamline this thing.
"I just think it was a really productive time when you could find a million reasons for it not to be productive. So it's just a credit to those guys, just putting the time in, and there was a lot of great conversation that came out of it."
As for that other mini-controversy -- the one that LaFleur confronted months before coaching his first game? He insists that "the audible thing," which became known to the outside world after a story I wrote in June of 2019, has been completely and satisfactorily resolved.
LaFleur, who models his offense after longtime co-worker, friend and mentor (and now San Francisco 49ers coach) Kyle Shanahan's attack, had never before worked with NFL quarterbacks who had carte blanche to change plays at the line of scrimmage. Rodgers, who'd enjoyed that privilege under previous Packers coach Mike McCarthy, had told me, "I don't think you want to ask me to turn off 11 years (of recognizing defenses)."
As it turned out, LaFleur didn't ask Rodgers to do that.
"He definitely has free rein," LaFleur said. "So, if he sees something and can get us out of a bad play, yeah, he will get us out of a bad play. And he's done a great job of it."
A quarter of the way into his second season in Green Bay, LaFleur seems to be doing a pretty good job in his own right.