The Los Angeles Rams hired Mike LaFleur to be their next offensive coordinator on Friday, weeks after coming to terms with the parting of Liam Coen after one season. It makes sense that Sean McVay would hire LaFleur, a connection not only from the Kyle Shanahan tree but also after working with his brother Matt as offensive coordinator in 2017.
The move also comes two years after the New York Jets hired LaFleur to be their first offensive coordinator under head coach Robert Saleh, another hire off of the Shanahan tree. The two worked together for four years with the San Francisco 49ers, but Saleh had to let somebody go after a disappointing 2022 season for the offense.
We've hired Mike LaFleur as our offensive coordinator. pic.twitter.com/6dLaBjOAsI— New York Jets (@nyjets) January 21, 2021
The move was met with a lot of excitement by Jets fans because LaFleur was off of the Shanahan tree, owning pass game coordinator duties for four seasons.
Robert Saleh: “Nobody in the world knows (the Shanahan system) better than (Mike LaFleur) does.”
In his introductory press conference as Jets head coach, Saleh emphasized that he was bringing in the closest thing to Kyle Shanahan that the world can offer. This means one of two things: Shanahan’s system doesn’t work without great players or there’s nobody actually even close to Kyle Shanahan, so why bother trying?
McVay is banking on the former being the case, because the latter would do him no good. There will be an argument that it could help the Rams beat the 49ers, something that McVay has had a difficult time with, but L.A. still needs their starting players healthy and at their best in order to do that.
Here’s an expectation of LaFleur given by Jets beat writer Ethan Greenberg at the time of the hire: “I’m excited to see how he’ll tailor the Shanahan system”
While he has no prior play-calling experience, he’s been with 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan since 2014, when LaFleur first entered the NFL as an offensive assistant with the Browns. LaFleur, 31, has been tabbed as one of the bright young minds in the NFL and Jets Head Coach Robert Saleh said “nobody in the world knows [the Shanahan system] better then he does.” This offense uses a lot of pre-snap motion, which helps the QB, and the 49ers led the NFL in shift/motion rate in each of the last three seasons. The scheme has helped QBs across the league put up career numbers, such as the 49ers’ Jimmy Garoppolo, the Falcons’ Matt Ryan, the Titans’ Ryan Tannehill and the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, who’s coached by LaFleur’s older brother, Matt. The success of the Shanahan system, as Saleh pointed out on theNFL Hustle and Flow Podcast, dates to Jake Plummer and the Broncos with Mike Shanahan, Kyle’s father. With the success of the system and the knowledge LaFleur has of it, I’m excited to see how he’ll tailor it and what this Jets offense will look like in 2021.
With Zach Wilson starting 22 games in the last two years, 7 starts for Mike White, and 5 starts for Joe Flacco, the system hasn’t mattered. The Jets ranked 28th in points per drive in 2021 and 29th in points per drive in 2022. New York ranked 26th in offensive DVOA in 2022, being equally bad at running and passing the football. They were better when rookie second round running back Breece Hall was healthy, rookie receiver Garrett Wilson was one of the top first-year players in the NFL, but the Jets were the worst offense in the NFL over the final seven games and especially the last three: New York only scored 15 points in their last three games, leading to LaFleur being fired.
Who is LaFleur and what can we expect from him? Here’s something that LaFleur said about offense when he was still with the 49ers: “It all starts with the run game, which sets up the pass”
“It all starts with the run game for us, which sets up the pass,” LaFleur said of San Francisco’s offensive philosophy in a 49ers.com article published last August. “But the big thing we like to say with our offense is they need to marry up with each other, they need to look the same. The way our offensive line comes off the ball in the run game is really no different than how they come off in the passing game, particularly on first and second downs. That’s everything for us and our philosophy in terms of marrying it up and making a defense not really know if it’s run or pass.”
LaFleur will have Cam Akers to work with, probably, but the Rams can’t count on Akers to be their only quality running back. They also don’t know exactly what they have on the offensive line or if they have quality run blockers at receiver and tight end. System won’t matter if the players can’t execute. The Rams have a lot of work to do on their offensive personnel in the offseason.
An integral part of Shanahan’s offense is fullback Kyle Juszczyk, but the Jets never added a fullback, especially not one of that ability.
Offensive line: The Shanahan system requires tackles who can fire out quickly on those “wide zone” runs, and thus, quickness is a must. Despite his large frame, left tackle Mekhi Becton the team’s prized 2020 first-round pick, appears to have that attribute. Right tackle George Fant did a solid job last season after moving over from the left side, where he had played with Seattle, so the Jets should be in good shape here.
Mike LaFleur was a friendship hire for Saleh: “He’s really good with players and he’s truthful”
“Getting to work with him in San Francisco, that’s when my respect for him as a worker — I mean, he’s very, very smart, but he’s an incredible worker and he’s really good with the players and he’s truthful,” Mike LaFleur said.
LaFleur and Saleh worked as grad assistants together at Central Michigan, so it is no coincidence really that the two have had a tight bond in the NFL. I’m sure it was difficult for Saleh to put the blame on one of his best friends by firing him, but that’s the risk you take in the NFL when you hire a longtime friend to be in one of the most scrutinized roles in the league.
This isn’t to say that LaFleur wasn’t deserving, most teams would try to pull off of the Shanahan tree and he had eight years working with him. But there was always that chance that LaFleur would take the fall if the Jets offense failed.
Zach Wilson before his first year with LaFleur: “His offense keeps the defense on their toes”
“The biggest thing that I like about the offense is one play complements another and then another and another,” Wilson said. “And it keeps the defense on their toes.”
And LaFleur called Wilson a film “junkie” ahead of his rookie campaign. If Zach Wilson really studies that hard, with his immense athleticism and arm talent, that’s a really telling sign. Because he has been terrible.
Whether it says more about Wilson or the system or the supporting cast...it is a combination of those things, I’m sure.
The Shanahan Bible: “Maximize the strengths of our players” and “50-50 balance run and pass on first and second down”
In 2021, the New York Post published entries out of the “Shanahan Bible” a booklet given to coaches for Kyle Shanahan. Here are some excerpts:
“The offense must not only fit the personnel,” the entry reads, “it must also be specifically tailored to MAXIMIZE THE STRENGTHS of our players.”
“Our base offense (outsize zone, inside zone, play action pass, keepers, screens, dropback concepts) has to be developed in OTAs and drilled over and over throughout training camp. These set of plays and techniques will be used throughout the year in various game plans based off of the scheme we are going against the players we have available. … TECHNIQUES MUST BE DRILLED over and over to allow players to REACT instead of think, which will MAXIMIZE THEIR CONFIDENCE.”
“We will maintain a 50-50 BALANCE between run and pass on 1st and 2nd down. To succeed in the NFL, you must force the defense to defend the run and pass. … The goal is to force a defense to have to commit to stopping one of these phases, consequently rendering them vulnerable in the other phase.”
Robert Saleh defended LaFleur...weeks before firing him: “It would have been easy for Shanahan to make me the scapegoat”
When fans, media wanted to know who would take the blame for the Jets woes, Robert Saleh cited times that Kyle Shanahan could have fired him from being the 49ers defensive coordinator but that “to his credit” that didn’t happen and that Saleh wasn’t scapegoated. Saleh wanted to make sure that enough blame was also being attributed to Zach Wilson.
However, Saleh doesn’t believe LaFleur is solely to blame for the team’s offensive ineptitude. He said it’s important to “not come away with knee-jerk reactions that would derail what could be a pretty damn good football coach—or a good player, for that matter. That’s where Zach comes into play.”
“I’ve been in [Mike] LaFleur’s shoes,” Saleh said. “It would’ve been very easy for Kyle to fire me, very easy to say, ‘You know what? We went 4-12, you’re the scapegoat, get the heck out of the building.’ But to his credit, we sat down ... he committed to me, and the rest is history.”
Saleh said that he had “full confidence” in LaFleur after the Jets lost to the Seahawks 23-6 in the penultimate game of the season. He said that the Jets were only in year two of a “commitment” that would take longer than that to become great because the team was “young everywhere.”
Eight days later, the Jets fired Mike LaFleur but floated it as a “mutual parting”. Surely couldn’t have anything to do with Saleh’s longstanding friendship with LaFleur or his comments a week before he was let go.
Now he’s with the Rams where at least we know that Sean McVay is calling plays. But he’s got a friend to lean on when he needs to shoulder some of the burden next season. Hopefully this time with more pleasure than pain.