Matt LaFleur has made fast rise since time with Falcons

Even after spending a year working with him, running back Todd Gurley is still surprised at how quickly Matt LaFleur rose up the coaching ladder.

In 2017, after he concluded a two-year stint as the Falcons' quarterbacks coach, LaFleur took a job as the Los Angeles Rams' offensive coordinator under new coach Sean McVay. Although LaFleur didn’t call plays, he was still involved in game-planning and held a coordinator title for the first time in his career. In that season, Gurley totaled 2,093 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns en route to earning the NFL’s Offensive Player of the Year honor.

Before that point in his career, LaFleur had been only a position assistant or a position assistant’s assistant.

As it turned out, this stop in Los Angeles proved pivotal for LaFleur. A year later in 2018, he ended up calling plays as the Tennessee Titans' offensive coordinator. And then last year, he became the 15th coach in the history of the Green Bay Packers.

“It’s crazy,” Gurley said. “It came fast.”

Only three years ago, in early 2017, LaFleur was a 37-year-old quarterbacks coach wrapping up his second season with the Falcons. He was part of a coaching staff that took the franchise to its second Super Bowl appearance, which was lost in painstaking fashion. With offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan getting the job to coach the San Francisco 49ers, it seemed somewhat possible that LaFleur might have an opportunity to take this position because he knew Shanahan’s system inside and out. After all, in addition to the two years spent working alongside Shanahan with the Falcons, LaFleur also spent time with him in Houston and Washington.

What ultimately kept LaFleur from being among the top contenders was that he didn’t have play-calling experience at any level. Inside the Falcons' franchise at the time, there was a sense that LaFleur might not be ready for such an important role. While he was indeed on the list of candidates to replace Shanahan, he wasn’t near the top.

To replace Shanahan, Falcons coach Dan Quinn hired Steve Sarkisian, who had plenty of play-calling experience at the collegiate level.

“(LaFleur) was definitely a person I discussed with at that time,” Quinn said. “We had Sark, who had some (play-calling) experience, and then Matt ended up going out to L.A. He’s somebody who I’ve obviously kept up with and definitely hold in high regard.”

Although he wasn’t offered the offensive coordinator position with the Falcons, newly hired Rams coach Sean McVay interviewed and hired LaFleur for that particular position with his club. The one catch was that LaFleur would not call plays. McVay, who previously was Washington’s offensive coordinator, would handle those duties. Considering it was a promotional title, it was a job that LaFleur couldn’t pass on. And to the Falcons' credit, they didn’t block LaFleur from interviewing with the Rams.

As fate would hold, this move proved to be the big break that allowed such a quick rise up the coaching ranks.

“It’s not every time somebody allows you that opportunity, so for that, I’ll forever be grateful to (Quinn) and to (owner Arthur) Blank and (general manager) Thomas (Dimitroff) for allowing me to expand my horizons and take on a new opportunity,” LaFleur said. “I had a great time in Atlanta. I’ll always cherish my time there.”

After the 2017 season, LaFleur was hired to be the Tennessee Titans' offensive coordinator. Although the Titans finished 25th in total offense in 2018, his experience with Shanahan and McVay was enough to get him a look with the Packers' organization after it fired Mike McCarthy.

A hiring that was questioned by critics immediately, Green Bay’s decision has worked out so far.

In 2019, the Packers went 13-3 and advanced to the NFC Championship game, where they lost to Shanahan’s 49ers. Thus far in 2020, the Packers are 3-0 and rank first in the NFL in scoring offense (40.7 points per game), second in total offense (459.7 yards per game), second in rushing (171.1) and sixth in passing (288.0).

LaFleur became the first Packers coach to reach the postseason in his first season. His 13 first-season wins beat the previous team record of nine set by Mike Holmgren (1992) and Mike Sherman (2000). Entering Monday’s tilt against the Falcons, LaFleur boasts a career 16-3 record, which is better than what Sherman (12-7) and Packers legendary coach Vince Lombardi (12-7) posted during their first 19 games.

McCarthy was 11-8 in his first 19 games.

While LaFleur was a young quarterbacks coach with the Falcons, Ryan saw the makings of a future head coach during the two years he worked with him.

“I always knew he was very good in terms of situational football,” Ryan said. “We talk about those things all the time in the quarterback room, what we’re going to do in situations and how we’re going to handle them. He was always spot on. That was always a trait that transitions well to being in that spot. I always thought he had a clear idea of what he wanted from guys in terms of his offense and what he expected at certain positions. I think you’re seeing that with what they’re doing in Green Bay.”

Even if the characteristics were there, no one within the Falcons could have predicted LaFleur’s meteoric rise to this type of destination job. Not many people throughout NFL circles probably could have either. And even Gurley, who spent that season with LaFleur in Los Angeles, didn’t seem to see this coming. Green Bay took a risk and has been handsomely rewarded.

Under LaFleur, the Packers have picked up where they left off in 2019 as one of the NFL’s better teams. Green Bay’s once perceived risk has been handsomely rewarded.

“You see what he’s doing now,” Gurley said. “Hats off to coach LaFleur. Good dude. I know he’s happy. No one’s going to complain about being the head coach of the Green Bay Packers. Big congrats to him. It definitely was cool being around him for one year.”