GREEN BAY — Matt LaFleur tends to go into self-deprecating mode a lot. Sometimes, it’s not all that convincing, like when it was recently pointed out to him that he’s a pretty smart guy with a high football IQ.
“Well,” LaFleur replied, haltingly, “there might be some objections to how smart I am.”
But when the Green Bay Packers coach was asked in the aftermath of his team’s season-opening 38-3 shellacking at the hands of the New Orleans Saints on Sept. 12 to explain his impressive track record of having his team ready to respond to such defeats — so far in his tenure, the Packers have yet to lose back-to-back games — LaFleur’s reply didn’t sound like false modesty at all.
“Well,” LaFleur began, “I don’t think it’s anything that I’ve done.”
But it may very well be because of what LaFleur hasn’t done — both in the past, and in the days that followed a performance against the Saints that LaFleur used phrases like “absolutely embarrassed,” “all-around poor performance” and “very humbling” to describe and said he did “a pretty bad job” himself.
“I think it’s just our process. We trust our process,” offensive line coach Adam Stenavich said as the coaches shifted their focus from evaluating the loss to the Saints to prepping for Monday night’s game against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field. “And I think the biggest thing is just not panicking, just hunkering down and doing your job.”
Of course, there are other variables, like the quality of the opponent next up on the schedule, whether the game is at home or on the road, the health of your team, etc. And it’s probably helped LaFleur’s record a smidge that he’s had Aaron Rodgers, who also has an impressive post-loss track record, at quarterback.
When asked about his history of playing well after losses, Rodgers made no effort to be self-deprecating.
“I’d say (it’s) percentages,” Rodgers said. “I’ve been pretty damn good for a while, so when you have a game like that, you usually bounce back to average things out.”
Of course, all of this will be put to the test against the Lions, a team in rebuilding mode with a new coach in Dan Campbell, a new coaching staff, a new starting quarterback in Jared Goff and a ton of roster turnover.
“Whether you win or lose, it’s onto the next game. Period,” said LaFleur, who got mildly annoyed with reporters late in the week over lingering questions about his team’s performance against the Saints. “There’s a period of time there where right after the game that you can reflect, on both wins and losses. But as soon as that next day comes, it’s, ‘How do we get better for this week?’ And that I think is the mindset our guys have taken. And I think it’s going to be a great challenge for us against a Detroit Lions team that I think a lot of people underrate.”
It is instructive to compare LaFleur’s two-year post-loss track record with the other successful coaches who came before him during the Packers’ renaissance that began in 1992. Because even Super Bowl-winning head coaches Mike Holmgren and Mike McCarthy had to weather tough times, including during their championship seasons.
In seven seasons in Green Bay, Holmgren lost back-to-back games 10 total times, including having a three-game losing streak during each of his first three years as head coach. Two of his best teams also endured back-to-back losses, although in fairness, both of those instances came on the road, with the 1995 team losing at Detroit and at Minnesota in successive weeks, and the Super Bowl XXXI-winning team of 1996 losing at Kansas City and at Dallas before reeling off eight straight wins (including the Super Bowl) en route to the title.
McCarthy, meanwhile, began his tenure in 2006 with back-to-back losses to open the season, then had a three-game losing streak and another instance of back-to-back losses as the Packers went 8-8 that year. And during Rodgers’ first year as his starting quarterback following the upheaval of Brett Favre’s departure that summer, McCarthy’s 2008 team had a three-game losing streak, one instance of back-to-back losses and a five-game losing streak on its way to 6-10.
After that, though, as long as Rodgers was healthy, McCarthy’s teams didn’t suffer consecutive defeats very often. Of the 19 instances of losing a game immediately following another loss (including losing streaks) during his final 10 seasons as coach, seven came during 2013 and 2017, when Rodgers was out with a broken collarbone. Even so, the Super Bowl XLV-winning team of 2010 lost back-to-back games twice that year, and the 2016 run-the-table team had a four-game losing streak before reeling off eight straight wins to reach the NFC Championship Game.
(And in case you’re wondering, after a five-game losing streak in the middle of his first season as the Packers coach in 1959, Vince Lombardi saw his teams lose back-to-back games only four times over the next eight seasons, including back-to-back losses at the end of the 1967 regular season before that team went on to win Super Bowl II in his final game as coach.)
“One of the things that Matt has been big on during camp this year and just since we’ve all been together as a team is trying to embrace positivity, especially in the face of adversity,” veteran right tackle Billy Turner said. “Growing up around football and knowing a lot of football coaches at high levels and being around a lot of athletes that have played at that level, I know what coaches and I know what players can be like in the heat of the moment when it comes to the high stressors of an NFL football game. And, I know how they can be a couple days after that.
“Everyone is completely different in regard to wins and losses and how they handle adversity. But over these last 2½ years, Matt has definitely made a point to be more positive in the face of adversity this year, and I think he’s doing a good job at it so far.”
Of the Packers’ six regular-season losses under LaFleur before last week’s stinker against the Saints, four were on the road and two were at home. Of the six victories that immediately followed those losses, two wins were at home and four were on the road.
Also, of the six losses, three were by a touchdown or less, three were by double-digits. The average margin of defeat, thanks to a 29-point loss at San Francisco in 2019 and a 28-point loss at Tampa Bay last year, has been 14.7 points. The Packers’ average margin of victory in the six wins after those losses has been 14.
“I think it’s the collective effort with everybody in this building — with our personnel department, with our coaches, with our players — just having a resilient mindset, getting back at the task at hand,” LaFleur said. “You’ve always got to turn the page and you’ve got to focus on the next game. Because every game in this league is a challenge. And if you don’t out everything into it, each and every week, you’re going to get beat. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing, when you’re playing, where you’re playing. You have got to put everything you can, every ounce of energy into the next upcoming opponent.”
Certainly, Rodgers’ ability to bounce back has helped, and that was especially true last season, when he was 69 of 94 (73.4%) for 799 yards with 12 touchdowns and no interceptions (138.3 passer rating) in the Packers’ three post-loss victories.
And while the law of averages may be part of it, even Rodgers pointed to the stay-the-course approach LaFleur has taken.
“We’re not going to be held prisoner mentally by that poor performance,” Rodgers said. “We’re not going to change a ton of things. I don’t think there needs to be wholesale preparation changes, schematic changes. We had a clunker, and we’ve got to play better. And I expect that we will, on both sides of the ball.”