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Dougherty: Give up play calling? Doing so could help Matt LaFleur see big picture

GREEN BAY - San Francisco's Kyle Shanahan and the Los Angeles Rams' Sean McVay, two of Matt LaFleur’s former bosses, call plays for their teams.

So does Sean Payton in New Orleans, Jon Gruden in Oakland, Frank Reich in Indianapolis and Andy Reid in Kansas City, though in at least Reid’s case he’s the “primary” play caller, with offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy the secondary.

In fact, by my count, of the 15 NFL head coaches returning from 2020 whose background is on the offensive side of the ball, 11 call plays. Only four – Tampa Bay’s Bruce Arians, Dallas’ Mike McCarthy, Carolina’s Matt Rhule (who has coordinated offenses and defenses at different times in his coaching career) and Chicago’s Matt Nagy – do not. And Nagy joined that list only about halfway through last season.

So Matt LaFleur is very much in the majority among his peers in calling plays for the Green Bay Packers. In his two years as a head coach, he’s 28-8. He also finished last season with the NFL’s top-scoring offense, so there’s that too.

Yet, as he conducts the important search for his new defensive coordinator, LaFleur also needs to take some time to think hard about whether he should give up play calling on offense so he can best manage games. Maybe he should hold onto it, maybe he shouldn’t. But he’s got to do some hard, honest self-appraisal before deciding. Because the outcome of big games is on the line.

For instance, there was the fateful miscommunication with former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine on the disastrous call that allowed a 39-yard touchdown pass with one second left in the first half of a 31-26 loss to the Buccaneers in the NFC championship game.

My colleague Tom Silverstein reported this week that according to one source, LaFleur instructed Pettine to call “two-man” coverage (that is, two-deep safeties) but Pettine only heard “man” and made the call that left his defense vulnerable to a deep shot in a situation that screamed for zone coverage. 

When asked about the play in his season-closing news conference Monday morning, LaFleur didn’t specifically say what happened but at least suggested the report was correct.

“That was just a flat-out miscommunication,” LaFleur said. “Ultimately, any time something like that occurs, that 100 percent falls squarely on my shoulders. I've got to make sure that I'm crystal clear with our communication, and those mistakes can not happen -- especially when the stakes are so big.”

It’s hard not to wonder whether giving up play calling would cut the chances of that happening again. Without the preoccupation of calling plays, would LaFleur have been quicker and more clear in his communication, or been more aware that he could pop a timeout if he didn’t like what he saw as the defense lined up.

Same for the back-to-back series early in the fourth quarter when the Packers, down only five points, got away from their identity and had two three-and-outs in which they tried six straight passes. Or in the game’s final minutes, when on third-and-goal from the Buccaneers 8, quarterback Aaron Rodgers didn’t know he’d have to pick up at least a few yards to get another shot at the touchdown on fourth down.

If you want to go back even further, maybe LaFleur would have seen something to help Pettine get out of the defensive disaster that was last year's NFC championship game in San Francisco if he hadn't been locked into running the offense that day.

Now, there’s nothing easier than picking a couple of plays from a big loss and saying this or that has to change. Obviously, an awful lot went right for the Packers this season. And obviously, there are good arguments for a head coach to calls plays. Among the best is, LaFleur got the job in the first place because of his offensive acumen, including play calling, and to give that up defeats one of the purposes of hiring him. If he’s among the best in the league at calling plays, he probably should call plays.

A high-ranking scout in the league told me he takes the coach-as-play-caller case by case and pegged LaFleur as one who can both call plays and manage a game. When asked what he's seen to think that, his response was, "I see a 26-6 career record."

But there are plenty of people in the league who think managing a game is a big task in itself, and doing it while also calling plays puts too much on one person.

You might remember that McCarthy gave up play calling with the Packers in 2015 to take a more global approach after the catastrophic final five minutes of the NFC championship game at Seattle the previous season. But it's hard to draw any worthwhile conclusions from that, because he took it back in the middle of the season and then failed to noticeably improve things. Seems play calling wasn't the main problem in that instance.

“It’s really hard to do both,” said a longtime NFL assistant coach who has spent most of his career on teams whose coach didn’t call plays. “… It’s better to have somebody who is managing the game on offense, defense and special teams. You’re a head coach. You’re not the offensive coordinator, you’re a head coach. If you want to call the plays then you better get somebody on your staff to monitor the game.”

Among the arguments he offered was that along with game management, being freed from calling every play also helps with in-game adjustments. When you’re not in the weeds of thinking about the next play or the next offensive possession, you have a more panoramic view of what the defense is trying to do to you, and you can share that with your play caller.

“The idea here is to sit back and be an evaluator of what’s happening, not after the game but during the game," the coach said. "… It’s a hard thing for head coaches to give up, but I do think they can give it up and monitor it, ‘This is what I’d like to get done in this game plan, and then these special deals, third and one when the time is right we want to run this play.' ”

Said another longtime offensive assistant in the league: “It’s extremely hard if not next to impossible to call the plays from the sidelines and make in-game adjustments.” 

LaFleur on Monday said he remains open to giving up play calling and would have complete faith in offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett handling those duties – “If it's best served for me to give that up for the benefit of the team, that's exactly what will happen,” he said – but he also sounded like it’s unlikely.

“Yeah, absolutely, I don't think that,” he said when asked later if he was going to relinquish play calling.

And maybe that’s the right call. It’s certainly in line with most of the rest of the league, and there’s no arguing with his record in two seasons as coach.

But it’s something LaFleur should still think hard about first.

He got this job because he knows offense, and he has won in part because he has built a simpatico relationship with Rodgers. Hands-on has worked so far.

But LaFleur also has a whole team to run during the week and especially on game day. Somehow or other, he has to make sure that's in sync, too.

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