Today it is easy for Packer fans to forget the recent past. The 2018 Green Bay Packers had a 4-7-1 record when Mike McCarthy was fired. Matt LaFleur took over a team that had fired a long term winning coach and had just replaced the long term General Manager, Ted Thompson.
LaFleur had a former MVP quarterback, but a completely new offensive system to install. The new head coach kept former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, but fired a highly respected offensive line coach in James Campen. He hired 49er assistant line coach, Adam Stenavich, who’s total NFL resume consisted of his two year assistant role for San Francisco. Stenavich had only coached offensive line at the college level at schools that were not top tier; San Jose State and Northern Arizona. Questions and concerns followed the coach and his staff into their Lambeau Field offices. Fans braced themselves for a rough season. Happily, the worries were wasted energy.
In 2019 the LaFleur-led Packers went 13-3. That record is not THE best ever for a first year coach but it can be debated to be one of the the best ever in NFL history. George Seifert is often held out as the best first year coach. His 49ers went 14-2 and won the Super Bowl. While it is hard to argue with a Super Bowl victory, Seifert took over a dominant Super Bowl winning team and was able to keep in place a winning, Bill Walsh based, offense. The win was also before salary cap restrictions impacted teams ability to keep quality veterans. Other first year coaches who went to the Super Bowl include Don McCafferty (1970 Colts), Red Miller (1977 Broncos), Jim Caldwell (2009 Colts) and Bill Callahan (2002 Raiders). All of the coaches listed above inherited a team with a winning record the year before they became head coach.
Sean McVay took over a 4-12 Ram’s team in 2017 and went 11-5 in his first head coaching year. He won coach of the year. Matt Nagy went 12-4 in his first year as the Bears head coach in 2018. He won coach of the year. Jim Harbaugh won the award in 2019 with a record of 14-2 in 2019 after going 10-6 and winning his division the year prior.
LeFleur’s first year was acknowledged in the NFL as a success, but no awards were forthcoming. His seven game win improvement from the prior year was brushed off by many national football pundits as “lucky” and the 2020 Packers were picked to be the team most likely to regress. (See Bill Barnwell’s ESPN article quoted in previous article) Barnwell was not alone in the media. The underlying opinion of the Packers being less than their record was augmented by a poor playoff showing. While the Ravens lost their wildcard playoff game, the Packers loss to San Francisco overshadowed their playoff win against Seattle. Harbaugh was a known commodity and recognized coach in the NFL. LeFleur was still spelling his last name for national reporters.
The 2020 Packers have proven 2019 was no fluke and they have put LeFleur and the Packers on the award map. The Packers offense is first in the league in scoring, touchdowns, red zone efficiency, and has the fewest turnovers. Aaron Rodgers is the lead MVP candidate. The Packers running game has been a force, they rank 8th in the league in rushing yards per game and have fewer fumbles than any team ranked higher.
The Packer offense under LeFleur has balance. It can hit you with short crossers or long post corners. It can run or pass on third and three. The Packers are not afraid to go for it on 4th down. The offensive line coaching change that many of us saw as either risky or derelict, has born dividends. The offensive line has played through injury and assignment change at an impressive level. They may not have the best talent at every position, but it is hard to say any coach has gotten more out of his players and his coaching staff.
LeFleur deserved the award last year. This year, he once again deserves the recognition for his work with these 2020 Green Bay Packers. There is a growing swell of support for Buffalo coach Sean McDermott. McDermott has been head coach of the Bills since 2017. He has a head coaching record of 38-26 and is 0-2 in the playoffs. The Bills also went 13-3 this year after a 10-6 year last year. Clearly the Bills deserve recognition for a banner year. The Packers and Bills did not have many mutual opponents in 2020. Both teams beat the 49ers. The Bills final score against the 49ers was 34-24 while the Packers was 34-17. The Bills were beaten badly by the Titans 42-16. The Packers defeated the Titans 40-14. Will that Titan victory tip the scale?
Only the voters for the Associated Press know who they will support. Packer fans hope the smallest NFL city’s coach is not forgotten, again.