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Column: Packers’ Matt LaFleur has found most success among new NFL head coaches

Packers rookie head coach Matt LaFleur celebrates with quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
Packers rookie head coach Matt LaFleur has had a lot to celebrate with quarterback Aaron Rodgers.
(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

This tongue-in-cheek observation made the rounds during the football offseason: If you have ever shaken the hand of the Rams’ Sean McVay, you’re undeniably qualified to be an NFL head coach.

In a copycat league, McVay is the cat to copy.

With that in mind, it’s worth taking a look at a couple of Rams assistant coaches now running teams of their own. Halfway through their rookie seasons, those coaches reside at opposite end of the success spectrum.

Zac Taylor, Rams quarterbacks coach last season, is at the helm of the 0-8 Cincinnati Bengals. The club sat on its hands as the trade deadline expired this week, and benched longtime starting quarterback Andy Dalton. The situation is grim.

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Meanwhile, the 7-1 Green Bay Packers are enjoying a resurgence under Matt LaFleur, who was Rams offensive coordinator two years ago. He’s the first coach in franchise history to win seven of his first eight games — and the first in the league to do so since Jim Harbaugh with San Francisco in 2011.

“Everyone is naturally excited about the opportunity,” said Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whose team plays at the Chargers on Sunday. “Us old heads realize how this doesn’t come around all the time. We’re fortunate enough to be 7-1. Guys like myself who have been around a long time realize how special this opportunity is.”

The relationship LaFleur and Rodgers have forged — by all appearances far more harmonious than the constant tension between Rodgers and former coach Mike McCarthy — is paying dividends. So is the reliance on running back Aaron Jones, who is playing like a smaller version of Todd Gurley during his most productive Rams days.

Starting Sunday vs. Green Bay, Shane Steichen — quarterback coach since 2016 — will take over calling plays for the Chargers, his first experience doing so.

LaFleur (Saginaw Valley State) and Taylor (Nebraska) were college quarterbacks, as were three other new head coaches this season: Tampa Bay’s Bruce Arians (Virginia Tech), Cleveland’s Freddie Kitchens (Alabama) and Arizona’s Kliff Kingsbury (Texas Tech). Adam Gase of the New York Jets was a receiver in high school.

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The other two new coaches, Denver’s Vic Fangio and Miami’s Brian Flores, have defensive backgrounds.

The Bengals are one of two winless teams, the other being the 0-7 Dolphins of Flores. Before the season, Miami fans were concerned their team was tanking for better draft picks, and none of the moves the Dolphins have made would suggest otherwise.

Flores remains optimistic, telling reporters this week: “In this situation right now, the goal for me is to help this team improve on a week-to-week basis. I think that is happening, and we’ll just keep going out there practicing. I think this team is getting closer to getting to the point to where we can pull out a ball game.”

That could happen Sunday when the Dolphins play host to the 1-6 Jets — led by Gase, the coach Flores replaced in Miami. The Jets have a minus-107 points differential, worse than every team except the Dolphins, who are a staggering minus-161.

According to the Associated Press, it has been 50 years since there was a Week 8 game featuring two teams with a worse combined record.

Kitchens’ Browns (2-5) have twice as many wins as the Jets, but the mood in Cleveland isn’t much brighter. This season has been a disaster so far for a franchise that came in with such high hopes, and star players on both sides of the ball.

Joey Bosa played a huge role in helping the Chargers pull off a narrow win over the Bears. Will it help him leverage a rich new contract with the team?

“I think 2-5, I don’t know what — everything’s in front of us,” Kitchens said after Sunday’s 27-13 loss to New England. “I don’t know what else to say about that. Everything’s in front of us. So win the games that we’re supposed to win and we’ll be fine.”

The good news for the Browns is they’re playing the similarly struggling Broncos, who are 2-6, coming off back-to-back losses to Kansas City and Indianapolis, and now have lost quarterback Joe Flacco to a herniated disc in his neck.

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Kingsbury’s Cardinals opened the season with a tie at Detroit, then lost three in a row before bouncing back with three consecutive victories. That winning streak ended with Sunday’s lopsided loss to New Orleans, and the Cardinals played host to San Francisco on Thursday night.

During their winning streak, the Cardinals showed they have the capability to rebuild with an innovative offense run through rookie quarterback and No. 1 pick Kyler Murray.

The Chargers fired offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt with the team struggling to score points en route to losing five of their first eight games.

“I’ve always just had that expectation, if we execute and I can call good plays, that we’re going to be successful,” Kingsbury told reporters during that stretch. “When I got here, people acted like I had never called plays before, never coached football before. I have a feel for the game and what I think we can do.”

Arians, who came out of retirement to sign a four-year coaching deal with Tampa Bay, is 2-5 for the first time as a head coach. His previous worst record through seven games came in 2013, his first season in Arizona, when the Cardinals started 3-4.

But he can draw hope from that situation.

Those Cardinals won seven of their last nine games to finish 10-6, barely missing the playoffs.


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