Imagine being an NFL head coach entering just your third season on the job and being forced to deal with a quirky and high-maintenance Hall of Fame quarterback who, for all intents and purposes, holds your team hostage for the entire offseason. For Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur, that imaginary scenario was the nightmare he experienced in the months leading up to the 2021 NFL season. As a result, it would’ve been reasonable to project the Packers to have a down year because of all the distractions and dysfunction caused by Aaron Rodgers.
But here we are, 11 games into the Packers’ season, and they’re in the hunt for the No. 1 seed in the NFC and have all but locked up the NFC North. Green Bay is three games ahead of the second-place Minnesota Vikings with six games left to go. You can crown them, and it may be time to consider crowning LaFleur as this season’s Coach of the Year.
LaFleur is no stranger to success in his brief but impressive tenure as head coach in Titletown. He boasts an incredible 34-9 regular-season record and has two playoff wins on his resume too. While it’s true he has the luxury of coaching a team with a generational quarterback, the league’s best all-around wide receiver, a two-headed monster in the backfield, and a top-notch offensive line, it’s also fair to say that that quarterback hasn’t been a joy to coach. Rodgers’ offseason soapbox morphed into a regular-season COVID-19 controversy, yet LaFleur has kept Green Bay’s season on track along the way.
Leadership is often the most overlooked aspect of coaching in today’s data-driven analysis. Team rankings on offense and defense, analytics, grades, or any other numbers-based assessment tool are useful in adding context to a team’s performance, but in situations like LaFleur has dealt with in 2021, maintaining a team’s confidence and trust in the system is usually what makes or breaks a grueling season. Regardless of where the Packers end up in those year-end rankings, there’s no doubt LaFleur is at or near the top of the league’s generals. The Packers are going to battle for him.
Granted, there’s a lot of season left to go and if the wheels fall off the Packers’ 2021 season in December, LaFleur’s candidacy will take a big hit. But if Rodgers’ trade demands and viral infection haven’t knocked Green Bay off course by now, it’s hard imagining anything will.
The biggest challenge for LaFleur will come in 2022 when it’s expected the Packers will move on from Rodgers and officially turn to his hand-picked first-round quarterback, Jordan Love. How LaFleur fares without Rodgers, who’s so rare he even made Mike McCarthy look like a good coach, is what will really define his legacy.
At just 42 years old, LaFleur is one of the best young head coaches in the NFL, and whether he’s the Coach of the Year in 2021 or not, he’s a fair bet to eventually win one or more of those awards before his career is over.
For now, LaFleur is at the top of his game. And he may just be the top coach in the game, too.