"I don’t know if he’s a scotch drinker ... so we’ve got to get down to it.”
-- Aaron Rodgers, May 21, on what he needs to find out about first-year Packers coach Matt LaFleur
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It began, the relationship between the ambitious new coach and his headstrong quarterback, over something they both love.
No, not a glass of scotch.
As Rodgers would soon discover of his new coach: "He’s not a big scotch drinker."
Rather, it was in Arizona, in the comfort of a home owned by Rodgers’ girlfriend, retired race car driver Danica Patrick, where LaFleur and Rodgers first met as coach and player -- while watching sports.
Sure, the two had hung out once before -- on a chance meeting in Santa Monica, California, a few years back. Rodgers was out with his then-quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt when they ran into LaFleur, then the Los Angeles Rams offensive coordinator. LaFleur knew Van Pelt but had never met Rodgers until that day, when they had a few drinks together.
"I hadn’t had much interaction with him," LaFleur recalled recently. "There was that one time I ran into him and Van Pelt where we hung out for, I don’t know, an hour or two."
This, however, was a planned meeting to start an arranged marriage -- one orchestrated by Packers president Mark Murphy, who fired coach Mike McCarthy in December and hired LaFleur in January after just one round of interviews.
Yes, there would be plenty of time for LaFleur to get to know his quarterback once he arrived in Green Bay to start offseason workouts on April 8, but he felt an offsite meet-and-greet would prove beneficial. Just days after LaFleur attended his first NFL meetings -- where team owners, general managers and head coaches assemble annually, this year at the Arizona Biltmore resort in Phoenix -- a much more important get-together took place.
So there sat the 39-year-old first-time head coach and the 35-year-old two-time NFL MVP who had played for one head coach his entire time as a professional starter.
With the NCAA basketball tournament as the television backdrop, the two sports junkies spent the day together. Their player-coach relationship began over the Michigan State-Duke game in the Elite Eight.
"It was the first time I had hung out with him," LaFleur said. "We had talked on the phone a bunch, but it was the first time because there’s nothing like ... you can talk to somebody on the phone, but it’s so impersonal. You just want to see their face and just sit there man to man and talk. We sat and watched the NCAA tournament."
More than two months later, as the offseason program concluded, LaFleur and Rodgers conveyed how important the beginning was to their relationship-building.
Both said the most critical thing, especially at the start, was listening.
"Two things I think are really important: listen and communicate," Rodgers told ESPN at the conclusion of last month’s minicamp. "Everybody, in general, wants to know that what they’re saying is important and that people care about what they’re saying, and the best way to do that is listen. I wanted to get to know who he is and what makes him tick and what’s important to him."
However, if both wanted to listen, somebody needed to talk.
"He is a really good listener," LaFleur said in an interview with ESPN. "I feel like he absorbs everything."
Rodgers took his turn to speak, too. He felt it was critical to "clearly communicate expectations on both sides."
"What I’m expecting from him and what can he expect from me," Rodgers continued. “What kind of approach do I have? What do I like? What do I not like? What has worked for me in the past? What maybe hasn’t worked as well in the past and just what kind of guy I am.
"But at first, I think it’s just really important to listen and to listen a lot, not just to who he was but what his philosophy is, what the offense looks like, how he sees it through his eyes, and kind of take it all in and kind of let him know what he’s getting. I’ve got a lot of experience; I’ve played a lot of football, and I thought it was important in a super-respectful and honest way [to say], ‘Hey, look, this is what I’ve done, what I like doing, I think this can work,' and then communicating on where we have crossover and where we have to come together in certain areas."
‘Somebody’s going to have to change something’
Come April 8, when players returned to Green Bay for offseason workouts, Rodgers and LaFleur already had a basic understanding of each other.
So they went to work on the specifics of LaFleur’s offense, which was mostly new to Rodgers.
“It’s a foreign language, it really is,” Rodgers said.
With LaFleur as the playcaller, it also meant he stood in front of the room and taught the offense -- first to his coaches, including offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett and quarterbacks coach Luke Getsy, who will work most closely with Rodgers, and then to the players.
"He was the one that was talking through everything, and that was important because it’s his offense," Rodgers said of LaFleur. "It’s not Nathaniel’s offense; he’s been in different offenses, Luke has been in different offenses. So to have those two in the room, it needed to be him because it’s his offense and it’s through his eyes, and I needed to hear how he sees things."
There were, however, some bumps along the way. While Rodgers has to adjust to LaFleur’s system, the coach also altered some things to make it easier for the quarterback.
"There was just good dialogue back and forth about how we can do things," LaFleur said. "We worked together on calling things, because what was interesting is, here’s a guy that has 13 years of experience, and he’s ran some of these plays before. I’ve called them one thing, he’s called them another. It’s how do you marry that and who do you pick? Somebody’s going to have to change something, so just working through that and see what names made the most sense. There were certain things that we kept calling the same as he’s always called it and some things we changed.”
The audible issue
For years, Rodgers enjoyed wide-ranging freedom to change plays at the line of scrimmage. Some believed Rodgers had too much freedom, while others felt he abused it.
Either way, LaFleur made it clear that his offense isn’t built that way.
He has what he calls "can plays," as in the quarterback can occasionally change the play.
"There’s a lot of things he’s taught me," LaFleur said. "That’s what I told him in terms of how do we make this offense the best for us, because in our system, there hasn’t necessarily been a lot of true audibles and things of that nature."
They still need to figure out how they can marry those differing philosophies.
"Some of that, you just have to figure out ultimately, but the most important thing is trust," Rodgers said. "It’s a real, true trust. And I think it just comes from conversation, him understanding that I’m just trying to win, and I have to trust my instincts, and me trusting him, that he’s calling what he thinks is the best play in that situation and that he needs me to make it work."
On the same page
Rodgers hasn’t played much during the past few preseasons: one series for a total of seven plays last summer and 26 snaps the previous two years.
That might change this August.
How else will Rodgers and LaFleur get on the same page?
"I don’t see everything, but just from what I have seen, it seems like they’re working to get on that same page," receiver Davante Adams said. "It’s been pretty good as far as what I’ve seen in meeting rooms and team meetings or whatever it is, just how they communicate with one another. Matt is really open, so it helps with a guy like Aaron, who obviously has been doing things a certain way for a really long time. So it helps with us being able to carry over some things the way we did before. That’s a big thing -- just being open and communicating. That’s two things that he preaches a lot."
If it’s trust Rodgers values from a coach, what do LaFleur and his staff need from their quarterback?
"I expect him to be an extension of the coaching staff," LaFleur said. "I expect him to be a leader, to communicate and be the commander out on that field, and I think he’s demonstrated a really good job of that. It’s hard to learn a whole offense in an offseason, to have the ownership that you’re looking for, but I think he’s got a really solid foundation."
Said Hackett: "As much as possible, you want the quarterback, when he’s out on that field, you want him to be able to anticipate the call before the call has even come in. I think that’s huge. ... I think right now, just watching those two guys get on the same page is so critical. We want to be sure that Matt and Aaron, more than anybody, they’re thinking the exact same way."