Dougherty: Matt LaFleur must walk tightrope with approach to Aaron Rodgers
GREEN BAY - Coaches and high-ranking executives around the NFL will invariably tell you the most important relationship in an NFL building is between the head coach and quarterback.
Especially when that head coach runs the offense.
In the Green Bay Packers’ case, the chemistry coach Matt LaFleur so carefully fostered with Aaron Rodgers last year is in jeopardy because the team selected Jordan Love in the first round of this year’s draft.
We don’t know exactly what role LaFleur played in the Love pick, because general manager Brian Gutekunst has final say over the draft and roster. But Gutekunst has made clear he wouldn’t give LaFleur a player the coach didn’t want.
There also was LaFleur’s reaction on the TV broadcast of the draft. In a 10-second clip from his home office shown only minutes after the pick LaFleur looked happy enough. His smile certainly appeared genuine.
When Rodgers made his first public comments since the Packers picked Love in a 38-minute teleconference with reporters Friday, he wasn’t asked about how the pick might affect his relationship with his coach. But really, his answer for public consumption wouldn’t matter much. He’s too smart and has had too much time to absorb the decision to say something inflammatory, though he did cop to not being thrilled by the pick and what it says about his future with the team.
“I think it was more the surprise of the pick based on my own feelings of wanting to play into my 40s and really the realization that it does change (my) controllables a little bit,” Rodgers said.
A couple weeks earlier, though, we got a better sense of Rodgers’ initial reaction from Brett Favre, who talked to Rodgers in the days immediately after the draft. In an interview with NBC Sports Network’s Rich Eisen in late April, Favre said he’d talked to Rodgers and shared some of the sentiment of their conversation, even if he didn’t ascribe any comments directly to Rodgers.
“I think (the Packers) burned a bridge that's going to be hard to overcome,” Favre said. “At some point, I think it will rear its ugly head.”
To be fair, Favre’s conversation with Rodgers and comment to Eisen came when the Love selection was still fresh. Time can change perspectives and salve feelings. Rodgers might feel differently in August than he did in late April or does now.
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Also, being unhappy with the pick now doesn’t destine an imminent blowup with the team. Favre, for instance, was angry when the Packers picked Rodgers in ’05 – former team executive Andrew Brandt has spoken publicly of taking a call or two from Favre’s irate agent, Bus Cook, not long after the pick – yet he remained the Packers’ quarterback for three more seasons.
In the coming months don’t be surprised if reports leak out both ways on this matter – that LaFleur would have preferred getting immediate help from a first-round pick, and that he was proponent of the Love selection. Regardless of what any reports say, if you’re Rodgers you have to suspect at minimum LaFleur was on board with the pick. That wouldn’t sit well with any star quarterback who plans on playing four or five more years.
So what does that mean for Rodgers, LaFleur and the Packers going forward?
This could go any of several ways. An instructive recent example in the NFL is when the New England Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round in 2014. Tom Brady, like Rodgers now, was 36 at the time.
Garoppolo wasn’t a first-round pick, but coach Bill Belichick selected him as Brady’s potential successor, and it set off a volatile dynamic between coach and quarterback that nevertheless produced three more Super Bowl wins and a fourth Super Bowl appearance. The pick spurred Brady to some of the best football of his career, and Belichick eventually traded Garoppolo, though this offseason, six years after the fact, Brady finally left the team in free agency.
“Ever since (Belichick drafted Garoppolo), Brady was worried that Garoppolo was going to take his job at some point,” said Ian O’Connor, author of “Belichick: The Making of the Greatest Football Coach of All-Time,” in an interview on "The Stephen A. Smith Show" in 2018. “Clearly, Belichick fell in love with Jimmy G as a young player. … Brady felt that. He elevated his game. He outplayed the plan.”
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Will the drafting of Love have a similar effect on Rodgers? That will be determined in part on how the daily interactions go between a coach who calls the offense and the quarterback who implements it on the field. This will test LaFleur’s emotional IQ. Rodgers’ too.
LaFleur went to great lengths last season year as a rookie coach to establish a harmonious relationship with Rodgers. The coach attended all quarterback meetings and even changed his offense to bestow Rodgers with more autonomy at the line of scrimmage than the Kyle Shanahan scheme normally allows.
Now, the second-year coach faces the challenge of managing his relationship with a future Hall of Fame quarterback who very well might harbor resentment for him. I don’t want to parse Rodgers’ comments to death, but it jumped out from his teleconference Friday when he publicly acknowledged the Love pick makes it unlikely he’ll retire with the Packers. Considering it’s been his stated desire to finish with the team he started, that has to hurt.
“If I were to retire in the organization's timetable, then it's an easy decision,” he said “But if there comes a time where I feel like I can still play at a high level and my body feels great, you know, then there's other guys that have gone on and played elsewhere.”
If Rodgers’ mind is inclined to find slights real and imagined as motivation, as Favre’s and Brady’s have before him, he won’t have to try hard to find one now. The question is whether it will spur him to a big run with the Packers or rupture his relationship with his coach to the point that Rodgers departs as early as next year.