If the decision to dismiss coach Mike McCarthy with four games remaining wasn’t strong enough evidence of a regime change in Green Bay, if parting ways with longtime assistants James Campen and Joe Whitt Jr. failed to register on the seismogram, and if the free-agent splurge by general manager Brian Gutekunst left any doubt surrounding this revitalized era of Packers football, those questions were erased Tuesday by the newest face of the organization.
One day after Gutekunst reflected on his cash-rich refurbishment of a depleted roster, an infusion that cost $56 million in signing bonuses alone, new coach Matt LaFleur announced several overhauls of his own. LaFleur, who spoke with reporters at the annual coaches breakfast and later held a side session for Wisconsin media, outlined a number of changes to imprint himself on a franchise that has missed the playoffs two consecutive years. He plans to implement joint training-camp practices with another team, a revised in-season schedule and a commitment to discipline that should appease veterans who had grown frustrated with apparent laxities that marred the tail end of McCarthy’s tenure.
LaFleur, it seems, was serious when he stressed the importance of embracing change.
“I think there’s a standard and you hold everybody to that standard regardless of ability,” LaFleur said, “and that’s the way it is.”
Here’s a breakdown of his proposed alterations:
New practice schedule
LaFleur: We’re going to practice Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, the traditional model. I just think you get so much more out of that from my perspective, my background. We certainly taper back on Fridays, and we adjust accordingly as the season goes. If you look at the data, when you practice three days in a row, it’s the third day in a row, especially if the intensity level is a little bit moderate to high, that third day is typically when injuries occur. So you have to be mindful of that.
One thing I learned being out in LA, where we didn’t have very many injuries, we would adjust. That’s a basic training principle. What I mean by that is, as the season progressed to the bye week, we would make Wednesday almost a walk-through day, it was just above the neck, almost all mental. You’d get a ton of reps in that day, to be honest with you, and I thought it was really good for our players. Thursday was your normal typical Thursday where you punched it, and then Fridays became a combination of your red-zone periods, (which) were fast, and then your other two periods following the red zone were full speed. Then we’d go to more your jog-through-type tempo the other two periods. We did something similar to that last year in Tennessee.
I just think that’s the most comfortable and most efficient in terms of coaching. If you do want to make an adjustment, then you have Saturday to do that. If you go through Friday practice and you don’t like something in your red zone, you still have time to adjust that and at least get walk-through in on Saturday and jog through some of that stuff. To me, you’ve got to have your whole plan and everything done before Thursday because there’s no time to make an adjustment (if you practice Saturday).
Analysis: Ever since 2014, the Packers had followed a nontraditional practice schedule instituted by McCarthy. Their typical pattern involved a light practice Wednesday, a padded practice Thursday (adhering to the number of padded sessions outlined in the collective bargaining agreement), a rest-and-recovery program Friday and then a final practice Saturday morning.
At the time of the change, McCarthy cited the importance of tweaking the “neurological clock” to maximize energy levels on Sundays. The driving factors behind the change were GPS data gleaned from microchips implanted in the pads worn by players and various scientific studies of bodily performance.
“I’d like to think the training of our football team has worked over the years,” McCarthy said at the time, “and we have made adjustments. But how we’ve handled the end of the week going into a football (game), we have stayed consistent with that throughout, and this is the change. It’s really the last 48 hours of how you go into a game.”
In lieu of Friday practices, the Packers held what they called an STAA (rhymes with stay) day — soft tissue activation and application — that featured massages and the Graston Technique to stimulate the muscular-healing process. Practices were shorter and more streamlined when players returned to the field Saturday, the day before a game.
LaFleur plans to implement similar recovery processes this season, though they would likely be doled out in piecemeal fashion throughout the week rather than shoehorned into a specific day.
“You have to look at that data,” LaFleur said. “Player workload is so important. The whole goal is to get them to Sunday and they’re peaking, that’s the goal. How can you do that yet get all the work you need to get in in the practice setting? You absolutely 100 percent have to use that data and have people in place that know how to not only digest that but also give us all the necessary information so that we can go forward and plan practice.”
Joint training-camp sessions
LaFleur: I don’t want to break the news too soon, but we’re planning on it. We’re trying to arrange to practice against another team in the preseason. … I’ve done it the last two years. In Tennessee, we scrimmaged versus Tampa before our second preseason game, which I thought was awesome. You can get so much good-on-good work. And quite honestly, you can practice your guys and not have to play them as long in the preseason game.
Analysis: This would constitute a significant departure from the McCarthy era, which never featured a joint practice in 13 seasons. In fact, the last time the Packers participated in joint sessions came in 2005, with Mike Sherman as head coach, when the Bills traveled to Green Bay ahead of the annual practice inside Lambeau Field.
If such an arrangement comes to fruition, the sessions would once again be held in Green Bay. LaFleur assured reporters the team would never practice outside of Ray Nitschke Field, where thousands of fans line the sideline each day in training camp, so the Packers will be searching for a partner willing to spend a few days in Wisconsin.
“We can’t take the practices away from Green Bay,” LaFleur said.
In terms of timing, LaFleur said the joint practices will be held in advance of the first exhibition game in early August. Then, after several on-field sessions, the two teams would play each other in their preseason debut.
Packers president Mark Murphy confirmed the team’s interest in holding joint practices and reiterated they would only take place in Green Bay.
“As long as it’s at home, I think it makes sense,” Murphy said. “Because for us, training camp is so important in terms of our fans and the economic impact on the local community. But yeah, I think that will probably work out. We’ll probably announce it fairly soon.”
Nothing sparks competition in practice like an actual opponent.
A disciplined approach
LaFleur: We had a quote in LA: “The standard is the standard.” You have to make sure everybody is well aware of what those standards are. Certainly, as a coach, you don’t want to fine guys. But if they’re late to a meeting, hey, guys, (the rules are) right here for you. There’s going to be no gray area with that. I certainly don’t want to take guys’ money. I just want them to do what they’re supposed to do.
I’m not a big rule guy, but the rules we do have, I think it’s just about being a pro and doing things the right way. Again, upholding the standard.
Analysis: One of the more jarring moments from Murphy’s introduction of LaFleur in January came in response to a question about feedback provided to the search committee by the player-leadership council.
This group, composed of one player per position group on the active roster, had spoken to the search committee in advance of LaFleur’s hire, and the representatives questioned the collective commitment of coaches and players toward the end of McCarthy’s time in charge. Murphy shared this tidbit with reporters inside the media auditorium at Lambeau Field.
“I think they wanted somebody that would hold players accountable,” Murphy said at the time. “And the other thing — and Brian (Gutekunst) can speak to this as well, he was there — they talked a little bit about how they felt a complacency had set in among some players and coaches. So in my mind, that was something that as we went through the process was kind of in the back of my mind: Is there something we can do that can shake people up so we don’t have the complacency?”
The idea of organizational stagnation has been expanded on in the months since Murphy’s initial comment, most notably by multiple members of the offensive line. Left tackle David Bakhtiari spoke most poignantly in a radio appearance on ESPN Wisconsin earlier this year.
“The one thing that always rubbed me the wrong way, and I guess it can kind of parallel with complacency, is accountability,” Bakhtiari said in the interview. “The one thing that would really grind my gears was guys being late for the plane (before road games) and no one holding those guys accountable or even fining them for being late.
“(Someone should be saying), ‘Hey, we’re leaving at 1:30 p.m. You’re not there, the door is closed.’ That’s how it needs to be.”
He added: “There needs to be that fear of guys across the board that, hey, your job is consistently judged and based, and you have to perform. That’s ‘what have you done for me lately’ … that’s the NFL.
“If complacency is being talked about, that’s one (sign) someone’s been in a place for too long. I’ve always told myself that the day I’m complacent is the day I don’t have a job. So I’m pretty sure if I don’t have a job anymore, I’ve been complacent.”
In that regard, LaFleur’s professed commitment to discipline should be warmly received by veterans who previously expressed frustration to the search committee. New coaches tend to be strictest upon arrival as they work to develop their preferred culture.
The notion of holding players accountable was something discussed quite frequently in the months following defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s arrival last winter. Pettine carried a reputation of being ruthless during film sessions and refusing to tolerate repeated mistakes on the field. Frequent substitutions in the secondary and inside linebacker throughout the season seemed to validate his intolerance for subpar execution.
LaFleur’s primary challenge will be extending that critically to all three phases.