GREEN BAY, Wis. — A reboot at 1265 Lombardi Ave. was needed. This much, most knew. Green Bay Packers President/CEO Mark Murphy held down the power button by opening a head-coaching search before the 2018 regular season concluded — one that ended with Matt LaFleur’s hiring in January 2019.
The result was a franchise-record seven-win turnaround and trip to the NFC championship game despite the raw numbers defining an average team. So how did one of the more successful, and perhaps surprising, seasons in the long history of the organization develop?
More than three dozen members of the team and coaching staff broke down the coding, which perhaps created the program for sustained success: an ideal blend of personalities that led to an earnest buy-in of the reset.
“Brotherhood can take you further than you can imagine,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “When you have that, it’s the outcomes you get …”
The head coach
Matt LaFleur was introduced on Jan. 9, 2019 as the 15th head coach of the Packers but was already a couple of days into his plan, which had 10-, 30- and 100-day markers in advance of players arriving for workouts April 8. They were the first steps to create accountability and erase the complacency Murphy said had crept in.
So LaFleur went about creating a shared mission for a return to prominence.
The meeting rooms and player lounge were upgraded with new color, photos, signage. There is a century of tradition at Lambeau Field but LaFleur wanted his team to set its own course. So, each of the Packers Hall of Famers kept their rightful place in their respective position rooms, but large photos of the current players joined them on the walls. Once the season began, the players were given those photos after every victory.
“For us, and this football team, it’s about making history,” LaFleur said.
The Packers were being moved into the 21st century in some ways. A TeamWorks messaging app was used not just for formal communications but also practice music requests. Player videos were made. The organization’s social media accounts were emphasized. New effects inside Lambeau Field were introduced. Season-long captains were player-elected but rotating week-to-week captains were also voted on.
External focus was on the head coach, his offense, a largely unknown and unproven coaching staff and his relationship with his quarterback. LaFleur’s goal was to make the focus about the players.
“It was very clear that he had a plan,” Murphy said. “He knew what he wanted to do and I think all with an eye toward changing the culture.”
On April 8, the players arrived. In a sharp white quarter-zip, long-sleeve shirt, an understated green “G” over his heart, LaFleur gave an opening address in the team meeting room lasting about 20 minutes. Each of the Packers’ 13 world-championship teams were represented, but high over his left shoulder on the opposite white wall with a large “G” painted in gray was a regulation basketball backboard. That caught the players’ eyes.
His overarching message was about “the team.” Within that were expectations. His standard. There would be communication, consistency and competition. There had to be football character and an expectation to play for the man next to you. There were simple rules: Be on time and prepared, make no excuses and make it about the team.
The points were emphasized quickly. He had the players change out of long-held seats. Aaron Rodgers moved for the first time in over a decade. Offensive linemen sat next to receivers. New neighbors, literally. Then a shooting competition was held. Competition began day one. Buy-in happened day one.
“They bought into that right away. And to me, that set the tone for the rest of the way,” 10-year veteran right tackle Bryan Bulaga said of his teammates. “It was just something about the way his first talk went. You left the room believing.”
There was another set of actions LaFleur took in the spring that resonated. He had torn his left Achilles tendon playing basketball on Wednesday night, May 29. He addressed the team first thing the next morning.
On June 1, the day before his surgery, he fulfilled a promise to Davante Adams and Blake Martinez to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the team’s annual charity softball game.
Through the spring, his message was about accountability and performing for the man next to him. These small things were him doing the same.
“Most importantly, it felt like support,” wide receiver Geronimo Allison said. “He’s in this thing with us, just like we’re in it with him. For him to come out, walk with a walking boot and support, that’s love. That’s love.”
It built important capital.
“We were together on this thing from day one,” Bulaga said. “And then the veteran guys kind of just took that and made that law.”
LaFleur turned up the music in training camp and built in competitive periods that required max effort. So when he pulled the starting offense off the field after a three-and-out, stopped drills to talk to Rodgers about proper technique, pulled safety Josh Jones out of a practice for tackling, dressed down rookie running back Dexter Williams for a botched play or publicly disagreed with Rodgers’ assessment over the value of joint practices, everyone fell in line behind him.
And when the season began, LaFleur would first address his own failings and areas needing improvement. So while players may not have liked their place in the game plan, a public critique, practicing in pads late in the year or not being given the entire playoff bye week off, there was no break in the chain.
“Matt’s the same guy every day,” Rodgers said in November. “I appreciate that about him and I think everybody does when he gets up in front of the room and starts with himself. I think what that does is create an environment of true accountability where, when we put on plays in that Monday meeting and good ones and bad ones, there’s an expectation of guys taking ownership of mistakes — whether it’s me on a delay of game or a bad read, or anybody else.”
A lesson in chemistry
The Ashwaubenon Bowling Alley was this season’s site for a player-initiated event that has become a tradition during the offseason program, but this one was different. In the recent past maybe a dozen or so players showed. This one drew about 50, a group that included Rodgers and edge rusher Za’Darius Smith.
“(LaFleur) really needed, I think, myself and ‘Z’ to be deep in his corner to get this thing where it goes,” Rodgers said in late December.
If players individually had bought in back in early April, the whole team realized its leaders were on board with this one gesture.
“Everyone that was in that locker room knows Aaron and they know his presence,” Bulaga said. “When he does come to things, and he shows up and he puts the time in to just do that, simply just show up, it does send a message and it sets a tone and it shows that he’s wanting this team to be closer.”
Of all the events the team held in 2019, this one stood out for most of the locker room for that reason.
Rodgers’ early off-field involvement helped create immediate chemistry with the newest additions to the team, from the four free agents signed in March to those brought in later. It erased possible preconceived notions and, by Rodgers’ own admission, got him more involved in group events.
“It just assured me that like whatever was going on in the media at that time was wrong, just about him and his personality,” safety Adrian Amos said. “Around his guys, around the teammates, he’s one of the teammates. He’s one of the brothers in the locker room. I don’t think anybody in the locker room would say that there’s not a time he ain’t really have people’s back.”
The total commitment extended to the leadership in each position group and was a conscious decision made in the spring, reinforced through training camp and carried into the regular season.
Nearly 50 players attended the team-sanctioned charity softball game in June. Tight end Jimmy Graham flew teammates in his helicopter and sea plane. There was an outing to a rodeo. Rodgers arranged a screening of “John Wick 3” before the movie’s release. There were trips to Chicago and Milwaukee.
Then at the end of training camp, another large contingent packed into the Green Bay Distillery for dinner. Rodgers, who sensed something special was building in the spring, acknowledged all of this was different.
“I think the coolest part is like in any of those events it wasn’t one side of the ball, one group,” Patrick said. “It was a lot of cross-rooms, cross both sides of the ball. I think that’s important.”
Za’Darius Smith and Martinez coordinated a standing Thursday night defensive dinner, but offensive players would swing by. Amos initiated group celebrations. Billy Turner made jackets for the team. When Jake Kumerow broke down the layout of his place for a receivers gathering, Adams asked if there was room for significant others. When Kumerow sheepishly admitted no, Adams said OK — guys only and the bigger outing would be elsewhere. The offensive line created cutups of Rodgers’ career quarterback sneaks and essentially egged on him — and LaFleur — to do it in a game.
Of the 30 players PackersNews.com interviewed, every one struggled to define this chemistry. Inevitably most shrugged to allow that it just was.
“It’s tough to get close like that unless it’s genuine,” tight end Marcedes Lewis said. “But we genuinely have an appreciation for each other.”
The coaches helped foster competition and camaraderie with playbook quizzes, spelling competitions and formal outings, but every player had gone through team-building exercises before. That was not unique. This outcome was.
It’s a championship ingredient which created a selflessness that, perhaps, helped them hit their ceiling. There was no grumbling over roles, playing time or statistics — things that can loosen adhesion in a professional locker room.
When it came to this chemistry, LaFleur applied no brake. He maintained early that the best teams he’s ever been a part of were player-led.
He didn’t know about the defensive celebrations or what sparked the desire for a Rodgers sneak but embraced it. He told players to bring teammates out with them on road-trip dinners. Players were encouraged to bring ideas and concerns to him, but the hierarchy was always in place. He may not agree with something or implement it — but he would always listen.
It’s why after Week 3 Adams could talk to him about his usage, and why LaFleur could talk to Adams about fighting for extra yards. Or why in late November the 10-player leadership council asked to meet with LaFleur, and it became part of the routine after every Wednesday practice.
What did all this mean?
It created a fair sense of accountability and ownership from the very beginning of the season.
LaFleur felt the players taking ownership in July as Rodgers led the quarterbacks in post-practice wind sprints during training camp, which gradually attracted others to the exercise. During the year, position groups instilled their own fines for indiscretions. Special teamers were highlighted in the full team meetings to emphasize their importance. Coaches took blame for poor plans.
“For you to be a great leader, you have to know how to follow, too,” Preston Smith said. “We’re open here when we talk to the guys. We make sure that everything can be tabled if there’s ever a problem. We talk about everything. If we feel like it’s an issue, we talk about it as a team.”
To a man, all said this translated to the field.
Validation for LaFleur
The season began in Chicago, a game so important to the league that it sent the Packers to Soldier Field to celebrate its centennial season. The energy felt very much like the air around the 2010 NFC championship game, only Grant Park was filled with statues, stages and events.
Late that night, after what would become cliché as the months wore on — an ugly win — general manager Brian Gutekunst and LaFleur hugged in celebration before heading into a victorious locker room.
“That really shows, man, we can play like this,” Clark said. “We can do this.”
Winning usually creates chemistry. It can subdue selfishness. Who can complain when the “W’s” are stacked? In the postseason, even LaFleur acknowledged “there’s nothing like reinforcing it, then going out and winning games.”
And make no mistake — it did.
“I think for Matt, it legitimizes everything he’s been talking about from day one when he got here,” Rodgers said after the Packers moved to 2-0 by winning their home opener against Minnesota.
Players can like each other, crash in each other’s houses unannounced, bestow gifts, have snowball fights at practice and host Monday night football watch parties, but string six losses in a row and it might not matter.
For instance, in the season’s opening week the other seven teams led by first-year coaches went 0-6-1 and 0-3 in one-score games. On the season, all finished with losing records. Five finished with losing records in one-score games. Culture and chemistry are not headlines there. People get fired instead.
Which is why, to a man, the Packers felt their overall record and especially the 8-1 mark in one-possession games was chemistry incarnate.
On a weekly basis they could look at a teammate and see some sort of sacrifice for the whole. Cornerback Josh Jackson and kicker Mason Crosby competed after the deaths of family members, insulated and uplifted by the locker room. Playing through injuries is expected but talking about them is taboo — except this season teammates often acknowledged another’s heart. Professional sacrifices were celebrated in the meeting rooms, like defenders giving up their bodies so the man behind could make the play or offensive players giving up touches so another could score.
“I think in past years,” Martinez said, “it was 60% or more were the selfish aspects of like, oh, this is how I’m going to be, I’m by myself. Our team, I feel like I don’t even know — like 90 or above percent of guys all they care about is winning because ultimately it’s going to help us all in the end.”
For the team, the weekly talking points of a defense that somehow made plays or the “whose turn is it?” question on offense were manifestations of commitment to each other and the coaching staff.
“You realize how difficult it is to get here but the beauty in this sport is it’s a true team sport,” Rodgers said after the 37-20 loss in the NFC championship game. “You’re relying on so many other people. As we move into the offseason, the reliance is on guys doing their responsibilities and doing their part to be ready for next season.
“Who knows what can happen? It’s a long year but this one will always be special because it became fun again.”
Can Packers do it again?
Maintaining and handling success are arguably much tougher than first reaching it. This is the charge of Gutekunst and LaFleur, as culture creation is not a fixed thing — it’s always changing.
“Their leadership is one of the main things that gives me confidence going forward,” Murphy said. “Obviously last year was a little bit unexpected. I think we were optimistic and hopeful we’d have a good year, and I’ve seen some of the things, the breaks did go our way. But each year is a little different. I have great confidence that we’ve laid a foundation that will allow us to have success going forward.”
The foundation is key, as parts of the house will be remodeled.
There were two coaching changes in January. Players will exit and more will enter — though Gutekunst acknowledged the culture created will play into the type of players he seeks to add this offseason. The team probably will not be as healthy as it was this past season. Some players may have a harder time with their roles than others did in 2019. There will likely be more losses and adversity.
But now, LaFleur has experience to draw on whereas at this time last year he could only theorize. And regardless of who is back on offense, the belief across the board is that it will be far more productive in year two.
“The one thing that is constant in this game, as you all know, is change,” Rodgers said at the end of the season. “I know there’ll be some changes this offseason but the exciting thing is I really have a lot of faith and trust in Brian and his staff, and I think Matt deserves a lot of credit for the way that we performed week in and week out. He would set the vision every week — very simple messaging. With his leadership and empowering guys the way that he did, and with Brian adding pieces as he did this offseason and will continue to do — I said it last week, the window is open for us.
“That’s the exciting thing. It doesn’t make this feeling any easier but that is very exciting moving forward.”
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