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Matt LaFleur coaching tree? Nathaniel Hackett’s candidacy for head coaching gigs may just be the start for Green Bay’s staffers

JASON WILDE For the State Journal

GREEN BAY — Back in 2019, as Sean McVay was leading the Los Angeles Rams to a berth in Super Bowl LII, the joke going around the NFL was all you needed on your resume was a connection to McVay to get a head coaching job.

Of the eight openings that year, three jobs went to coaches with connections to McVay: The Green Bay Packers hired Matt LaFleur, who’d been McVay’s offensive coordinator with the Rams in 2017 and coached with him (and San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan) in Washington earlier in his career under Mike Shanahan; the Cincinnati Bengals hired Zac Taylor, who’d been Rams quarterbacks coach in 2018 and had yet to be an NFL coordinator (but is ex-Packers coach Mike Sherman’s son-in-law); and Kliff Kingsbury was hired by the Arizona Cardinals, who in their announcement of his hiring stated “Kingsbury is friends with Sean McVay — the 32-year-old offensive genius who has become the blueprint of many of the new coaching hires around the NFL.”

Yes, the Cardinals really wrote that, as Kingsbury had never actually worked for McVay.

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“I’m too young to have a coaching tree,” McVay joked amid all the hirings.

All LaFleur has done is collect the most regular-season victories (39) by any coach in his first three seasons in NFL history, with the Packers (13-3) having wrapped up their third straight NFC North title under him and earned their second straight NFC No. 1 seed — and the conference’s lone playoff bye that comes with it. After Bruce Arians, who is 30-18 in three years at Tampa Bay and led the Buccaneers to last year’s Super Bowl LV title, LaFleur (39-9) is easily the next-most successful coach of those whose tenures began in 2019.

After him, none of the other six has coached in a playoff game, though Taylor’s Bengals just won the AFC North after going 6-25-1 his first two years, and Kingsbury’s Cardinals are 11-5 and headed to the playoffs after going 13-18-1 his first two years.

Miami’s Brian Flores is 23-25 overall and has yet to make the playoffs; Denver’s Vic Fangio is 19-29 and yet to have a winning season; Cleveland’s Freddie Kitchens was fired after one year; and the New York Jets fired Adam Gase after two.

Now, with the NFL’s coaching carousel starting to turn again, LaFleur’s offensive coordinator, Nathaniel Hackett, is among the assistant coaches viewed around the league as among the most promising head coaching candidates. The Jacksonville Jaguars have already requested permission to interview Hackett for their position, though as of late last week Hackett had said no interview had been scheduled.

The Jaguars fired Urban Meyer on Dec. 16, with ex-University of Wisconsin quarterback Darrell Bevell, a former Packers assistant under Sherman, coaching them on an interim basis.

The 42-year-old Hackett has been LaFleur’s right-hand man on offense since LaFleur’s hiring in January 2019 — despite the duo not having worked together or even really known each other that well previously.

“It’s funny how things work out in crazy ways. He’s not a guy that prior to us working together, I had never worked with him before,” LaFleur said. “But (we’re) so fortunate that he’s been a part of this staff. He is as big of a reason as anybody of our success here. I would hate to lose him, but at the same time, I would be so happy for him and I know he’s ready for that opportunity.”

Hackett, who spent four seasons on the Jaguars’ staff (2015-18) and was in charge of the offense when Jacksonville reached the 2017 AFC Championship Game, is one of a host of candidates the Jaguars are looking to interview, and he could have a very busy schedule in the coming weeks as more coaching vacancies pop up.

Among the jobs that could come open are the Broncos (where Fangio may not get a fourth year), Chicago Bears (where Matt Nagy is expected to be fired), and Minnesota Vikings (where Mike Zimmer might be out). The Las Vegas Raiders job also is open after the team parted ways with Jon Gruden earlier this season.

“I absolutely do (think he’s ready), and I’m excited for him,” LaFleur said. “If I was a team out there that had a vacancy, I would absolutely want to get him in a room.”

Hackett, whose father, Paul, is a retired coach who was a longtime NFL assistant and was a college head coach at Pittsburgh and Southern Cal, interviewed last year with the Atlanta Falcons. (Atlanta ultimately hired Arthur Smith, who had replaced LaFleur as Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator after LaFleur got the Packers job.)

At the time, Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers gave Hackett an enthusiastic endorsement.

“I think one of the pre-reqs to being a good head coach is presence in front of a room. You have to have a unique charisma and an ability to captivate your audience,” Rodgers said then. “Part of that captivation is in the way you talk, your cadence, your inflection, storytelling ability. I think those are underrated qualities that a coach can have. Nate has all those things.

“He’s able to captivate the audience, which is usually the offense. Any time he gets up in his meetings, he has great energy. I don’t know how he does it sometimes, but to have a beautiful wife and four kids and all the demands that being a father has on you, and then to be able to bring it every single day at the facility is very admirable. He’s been around football a long time. His dad obviously is one of the legendary coaches of this profession. So he has the pedigree, but his presence. He brings such a great positive energy to a room.

“I think any team would be lucky to have him in their squad.”

Hackett is one of Aaron Rodgers’ closest confidantes, and while he doesn’t call the offensive plays, he has done so in the past with other teams, including the Jaguars. Under LaFleur, Hackett is in charge of the Packers’ red zone planning — he renamed the area inside the opponent’s 20-yard line the “Gold Zone,” in an homage to the Austin Powers villain — and LaFleur credits his organizational skills for being a key ingredient in the offense’s success.

I think you grow as a coach non-stop, every day — from the things you learn from players, the things you learn from Matt every day, from the (other) coaches, everyone,” Hackett said. “And then you take in the ability to interview for Atlanta last year via Zoom, I think that all that stuff, to get that first one kind of out of the way, it just makes it a little more comfortable (with the process). You get to organize your thoughts throughout the offseason, all those things, if that opportunity ever happens again. Every day you grow and every day you get better.”

Hackett isn’t the Packers’ only upwardly mobile offensive coach, as two position coaches who could take over for him on that side of the ball as offensive coordinator if he leaves (or could go with him to be his coordinator if he goes elsewhere) also are up-and-comers: quarterbacks coach/offensive passing game coordinator Luke Getsy, and offensive line coach/offensive run game coordinator Adam Stenavich. And both could become head coaching candidates sooner than later if the McVay phenomenon starts happening with LaFleur’s staffers.

Stenavich has cobbled together strong offensive line groups in back-to-back seasons despite a deluge of injuries each year. This year, the Packers have seen 80% of their preferred starters (left tackle David Bakhtiari, left guard/left tackle Elgton Jenkins, center Josh Myers and right tackle Billy Turner) miss all or part of the season.

“I think there’s no limit for him. He can reach the pinnacle, no doubt about it,” LaFleur said of Stenavich. “He’s got a great mind; he’s got a great work ethic. My job is to try to empower those guys and put them in positions where they can take that next step, and I think he does a great job.”

Added Rodgers: “‘Steno’ is a fantastic coach. He’s not just a good man, but he’s a really bright coach. And I think he’s got a future above offensive line coach, for sure.”

Getsy started his NFL coaching career as an offensive quality control coach under former coach Mike McCarthy in 2014, coached the Packers wide receivers in 2016 and ’17, then spent 2018 as Mississippi State’s offensive coordinator before LaFleur re-hired him in Green Bay in 2019.

“I’ve been very fortunate to learn from some many great coaches and then learn from great players as well,” said Getsy, who turns 38 in February — and is two months younger than Rodgers. “My time here has been second to none, so I’m very appreciative of all the people that I’ve gotten to work with here in this building. And, the opportunity to step back into the college game for a year really opened my eyes to the type of player that’s coming into the NFL.

“I’ve been fortunate to be with Matt and ‘Hack’ every day and continue to learn from those guys. Yes, we’ve had a lot of success, so our guys deserve those opportunities. Hopefully whatever happens in the end, I’ll be a part of that. But I think if you keep dominating your role and the role that you’re in now, I think all that stuff will take care of itself.”

Extra points

The Packers’ constantly evolving COVID-19 situation took an interesting turn Tuesday as safety Darnell Savage and right tackle Dennis Kelly came off the reserve/COVID-19 list just one day after being placed on it. Both are vaccinated, so that means they either had two negative tests or their initial tests were false positives. … Defensive end Kingsley Keke and receiver/returner Amari Rodgers also were activated off the COVID-19 list. … Turner, who has been sidelined since suffering a Dec. 12 knee injury, was placed on the list. … The team reinstated practice squad cornerback Jayson Stanley from the COVID-19 list before releasing him. Ex-University of Wisconsin offensive lineman Jon Dietzen also was released off the practice squad. … The Packers now have five players on the various COVID-19 lists: Turner and cornerback Jaire Alexander from the 53-man roster, and returner David Moore, kicker JJ Molson and linebacker Ray Wilborn from the practice squad.

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