The Fault for That Loss Lies Squarely On Matt LaFleur

Earlier this season I wrote about all the reasons Matt LaFleur deserved to win the coach of the year award. In that post, I also detailed the argument against LaFleur for COTY:

Really, the case against should be that when faced with a bottom of the league special teams and middle of the league defense at the end of last season, LaFleur blinked. He promoted an internal special teams’ coach to coordinator and hired a familiar face as defensive coordinator.

In the end, that flaw turned out to be fatal. There were plenty of other reasons for the loss, and we’ll go over them here, but put any competent coach in charge of the special teams’ unit and Green Bay is onto its third straight championship game right now. Let’s go over it all and why, like LaFleur mentioned in his press conference, it comes down to him.

The Special Teams Disaster

LaFleur reportedly wanted to offer Darren Rizzi the Special Teams gig three years ago, but Rizzi was low-balled by Packers’ admin and chose the Saints instead. Hiring Shawn Mennenga and then Maurice Drayton has been an unprecedented disaster. We all thought the special teams were bad under Ron Zook, but they were never this bad.

To compound the problem, LaFleur didn’t make an in-season change despite weeks of evidence that Drayton wasn’t up to the job. It’s understandable. It’s hard to replace a coordinator mid-season and it’s hard to fire someone who you’ve worked with for three years.

But when former NFL kickers and punt returners can easily identify the issues live from their couches, there’s an obvious problem with the coach’s competence. It’s LaFleur’s responsibility to identify that and make the change. There were ten guys on the field for the last field goal for crying out loud.

Starting Dennis Kelly over Yosh Njiman

When asked about this decision in the press conference last night, LaFleur said, “I understand that it’s part of it when you don’t get the results that you want, that everything is going to be second guessed.”

It’s reasonable to make the semi-galaxy brain coaching decision to play Billy Turner (who hadn’t played in weeks) out of position, Lucas Patrick at a position he’d only played once in months against the type of defender he always struggles against, and to start Dennis Kelly over Yosh Njiman, who is significantly more athletic. The coaching staff obviously knows these players a lot more than we do.

The problem is not adjusting. It was clear starting on the third drive that those five weren’t going to cut it. Kelly couldn’t block Bosa. Patrick couldn’t block Armstead.

What is the downside of bringing in Njiman to play left tackle while Turner moves to either right tackle or right guard? How could the offense have possibly gotten worse with that change in the second half? And if they weren’t going to make a change, why did they stick with the same offensive game plan that wasn’t working?

Gameplan Problems

In the first matchup, the Packers put up 30 points, despite being down a few guys on the offensive line, because they relied on the quick pass game and offered chip help to tackles to slow down the edge rush. Rodgers was able to quickly make decisions and move the ball.

In this game, the team moved right down the field with the same quick passing game on the first drive and a half (until Marcedes Lewis fumbled to the surprise of no Packers fan; isn’t it up to the coaches to make sure players don’t hold the ball the worst possible way every single time they possess it?) and then stopped.

Quick passes on first down turned into one yard runs or five step drop passes with no hope of success. Only one receiver was even targeted other than Davante Adams. Too many drives failed because runs on first and second down turned into third and long and hope. No pocket was safe. No throw was accurate. No run had a real chance.

In LaFleur’s defense, when the other team can stop the run and pressure the QB with four guys. It allows them to double Davante and play with two high safeties. At that point someone needs to step up. Allen Lazard had the one target. Randall Cobb had none. I doubt LaFleur was standing on the sideline the whole game with the radio turned off making no adjustments. Either way, changes are necessary for next season.

Game Management

LaFleur has been pretty good at game management over his tenure with Green Bay. He usually goes for it on 4th down when he should. He doesn’t run too much. He’s aggressive. In this game, however, he too often played not to lose.

It started with a punt in the second quarter. The Packers had the ball around midfield, and it was 4th and 2. Instead of going for it they made the most loathsome play call in football – the one where the offense half heartedly acts like they’re going to snap the ball to try to draw a phantom offsides that never happens. Timo Riske put it best:

In the playoffs you have to play to win. You can’t run on first and second down. You have to go for it on fourth a down a lot, especially if your special teams plays like they just learned that football existed yesterday.

Instead of going for it, the Packers punted and gained about 30 yards of field position. Big whoop.

Moving On

There’s a lot of negativity in this article and it’s warranted. But I’m not as negative about the Packers future prospects as others. I would guess Rodgers and Adams contract extensions are coming and they’ll run it back again.

A lot of players will be gone (likely Z, Billy Turner, Randall Cobb, Marcedes Lewis, Robert Tonyan, De’Vondre Campbell, Whitney Mercilus, Rasul Douglas and maybe Jordan Love), but Gutekunst deserves the benefit of the doubt that he’ll do well building the backend of the roster with cheap free agents (extremely cheap in this case) and the draft and the core (Gary, Preston, Jones, Dillon, the whole, when healthy, o line, Amos, Jaire, Stokes, Clark, and Savage) is excellent.

Additionally, LaFleur really is one of the best coaches in the league. He and is team have designed a creative and innovative offense. They usually put Rodgers and his receivers in a good position. We’ll never know how much four Nate Hackett interviews last week negatively affected this game plan, but I do trust that LaFleur knows how to hire the right kind of offensive coaches to keep the momentum going. Even if Jordan Love is the QB.   

Mike Price is a lifelong Packers fan currently living in Utah. You can follow him on twitter at @themikeprice.

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