Having fallen one step short of reaching their first Super Bowl since the 2010-2011 season, the Green Bay Packers have suffered defeat two consecutive seasons in the NFC Championship Game. Last season was at the hands of a strong San Francisco 49ers team, and this season ended with a shocking defeat to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Things need to change in Titletown, especially if they want to keep filling up their trophy cases to justify their championship-themed moniker. Especially for Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the window of being able to field a competitive team is closing quickly, so this team needs to figure things out, and fast.
With the impending salary cap crunch, which will most likely be situated around the $180 million mark, Green Bay will have a lot of tough decisions to make this offseason, including if star running back Aaron Jones ends up fitting in the team’s long-term plans. Easily justifying being brought back based on his production alone, the former UTEP back has most likely priced himself out of wearing green and gold next season, meaning that head coach Matt LaFleur will need to find another starting-caliber back to take over his high-powered scheme.
Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s contract was allowed to run out and he will not be returning, and coupled with special teams coordinator Shawn Mennenga being fired, LaFleur has cleaned house in one of the most important offseasons in this franchise’s history.
This team has no other choice but to continue to press ahead with championship aspirations in mind, yet their defense has been the focal reason that they have been held back lately. Pettine’s now ex-unit, which has a bunch of star power on it, failed to live up to expectations during his tenure, repeatedly putting the offense in losing situations that were damn near impossible to dig themselves out of.
With Pettine gone, the choice of the team’s next DC will be the biggest of LaFleur’s young head coaching career, and one that will very easily define his legacy for the Packers.
According to Rob Demovsky of ESPN, these are the confirmed interviewees that LaFleur has chosen to bring in to potentially fill the role now vacated by Pettine: Joe Barry (LAC defensive passing game coordinator), Matt Burke (PHI DL / run game coordinator), Ejiro Evero (LAR safeties coach), Jerry Gray (GB DB coach), Chris Harris (WAS DB coach), Chris Kiffin (Browns DL coach), Jim Leonhard (Wisconsin Badgers DC), and Bob Sutton (Falcons senior assistant).
Of this list, Barry, Evero, Harris, and Sutton have all been interviewed, and Sutton has taken a senior defensive role under new head coach Urban Meyer with the Jacksonville Jaguars, so he can be officially ruled out.
Of all of these options, the following three are the three that LaFleur and his staff should consider the most, based on their coaching acumen and what they would bring to the table for the Packers.
The lone internal candidate on this list that LaFleur is slated to interview, Jerry Gray has previous DC experience, having held that role while a member of Buffalo’s (2001-2005) and Tennessee’s (2011-2013) staff. Before coming to Green Bay, he was the DB’s coach up in Minnesota, where he helped guide Xavier Rhodes, Harrison Smith, and other members of that secondary.
Both Rhodes and Smith earned their first respective trips to the Pro Bowl under the guidance of Gray, and he has helped expedite the growth of safety Darnell Savage and cornerback Jaire Alexander for the Pack, results that LaFleur certainly has to like.
While Gray was in Tennessee, he showed variants of a 4-3 scheme, with a 5-2 base look also sprinkled in as well. But Gray also utilized what was called the ‘Ruby package,’ which was a 3-2-6 scheme that utilized an even split of three corners and three safeties all on the field at the same time.
The 3-2-6 scheme is a variant of the dime package, which also includes six DBs on the field (although dime is a four CB / 2 S look), which would potentially help play to GB’s strengths. Having that additional safety on the field, which would project to be Will Redmond, could help cover up some of their CB deficiencies after Alexander.
Being an in-house option should give Gray solid footing, plus with his experience as a DC in the league, LaFleur knows what he would be getting from Gray, making him a likely choice.
Between both Chris Kiffin and Matt Burke, these two current defensive line coaches bring varied resumes to the interview table. Working in Burke’s favor is his two-year stint as a defensive coordinator (2017-2018) with the Dolphins and his work with the DL for the Eagles, and Kiffin has bid his time at both the collegiate and professional levels, even coaching on the offensive side of the ball.
Kiffin will get the slight edge here, and it may be a recency bias, but his work as the pass-rush specialist for San Francisco from 2018 to 2019 stands out, as he helped get Nick Bosa up to speed at the NFL level, as well as having the SF defense boasting the league lead in forced fumbles.
If the last name sounds familiar, yes, he is a part of the Monte Kiffin (father) and Lane Kiffin (older brother) line of Kiffin’s, so football is practically in his blood. While there do not seem to be any prior connections between Kiffin and LaFleur, he seems to fit the timeline of LaFleur, which may be helpful.
In 2019, the Browns allowed the ninth-fewest rushing yards (1,773) under Kiffin’s watch, and they forced the most fumbles on rushing plays last year (12), a stat that has followed Kiffin throughout his time in the league.
While relatively new to the NFL coaching scene (three-plus seasons in the league), Kiffin seems to know what it takes and would be some fresh blood for the Packers. Working with the Smith Bros, as well as Kenny Clark and Rashan Gary, would be great for Kiffin, and he would be a sneaky solid hire for LaFleur.
The real eye-opening interview is currently a defensive coordinator in the same state, just at the collegiate level. Former NFL safety Jim Leonard, who returned to his alma mater, has created a defensive monster for the Badgers, and a likely jump into the pro ranks is one of the likeliest outcomes for him moving forward.
Leonard played a solid chunk of his time in the league under Pettine, as he was a safety for the New York Jets while Pettine was leading that team, so a full-circle approach certainly seems to be in the cards here if he were to replace the guy he used to play under.
The kind of 3-4 scheme that Leonhard employs, which utilizes edge (hybrid OLB/DL) players filling ‘overhang’ roles (players that cut-off gaps to drive offensive movement inside/out of favorable gaps) would be a transition of sorts from the 3-4 scheme that Pettine used, but would not be a monumental change for a unit already accustomed to running 3-4.
Leonhard’s biggest crutch will be not having any NFL coaching experience under his belt, but the hometown boy from Tony, WI would be an excellent fit with LaFleur and would be treated with (hopefully) more care than what previous Packers’ DC’s have been given by the fanbase.
The most logical choice may not want to leave where he feels the most comfortable, but being able to coach the defense of the team in the state he grew up in hopefully is too tempting to pass up – Leonard is the choice that LaFleur should make.