Oh, brother: New York Jets' Mike LaFleur ready to call his own shot

ByRich Cimini via ESPN logo
Wednesday, August 18, 2021
ESPN

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- New York Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur used to be called "Mikey," the little squirt forced to relinquish the TV remote and prime couch space when his big brother and brother's best friend came barging into the house seeking entertainment, nourishment and an occasional dip in the pool.

This was 2004, when Mike LaFleur, 17, was dreaming of a life in football. His father and maternal grandfather were coaches, and the two living-room crashers wound up in the profession, too. As a matter of fact, they have done quite well for themselves -- Green Bay Packers coach Matt LaFleur and Jets coach Robert Saleh.

Mike's big bro and future boss, both graduate assistants for the Central Michigan football team, lived together in a no-frills apartment about a mile from the LaFleur family home in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. They didn't have much -- no cable, a barren refrigerator and a kitchen table with no chairs -- so they jumped in the car and headed to the LaFleurs for some good living.

"I can remember sometimes going to the freezer in the garage and saying, 'Wait a minute now, something's missing,'" said Denny LaFleur, Mike and Matt's father. "A lot of times, especially if we weren't around, they would eat, leave the dishes a little bit and go. They were just young people, waiting for mom to clean up."

They played a lot of video games, watched the Detroit Pistons and visited Doozie's Ice Cream Place, with Mikey and Saleh forming a friendship that has turned professional. Mikey doesn't have to relinquish the TV remote anymore; just the opposite, actually. He has been given the controls of the Jets' offense, entrusted to rebuild a moribund unit and groom rookie quarterback Zach Wilson.

This is Mike's first gig as an NFL offensive coordinator. In fact, he hasn't called plays since doing so at Davidson College in 2013. That season, the Wildcats went 0-11 and averaged 14 points per game in his only season as the coordinator.

If this sounds like too much, too fast for Mike, know this: His brother, Matt, who is 26-6 in two seasons with the Packers, took almost the same career path to one of sports' plum jobs. Sometimes it's not about where you come from; it's about who you know and how much you learn from them.

The LaFleur brothers will be on the same field Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday in Green Bay, as the Jets and Packers will have two joint practices and a preseason game (4:25 p.m. ET, NFL Network). How cool is that? Despite their age difference, Matt, 41, and Mike, 34, are extremely competitive, perhaps best illustrated by their fierce wrestling matches years ago at the family vacation home on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Mike benefited from Matt's quick ascension through the coaching ranks, capitalizing on opportunities his brother created. Matt got attached to San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan, which led to a relationship with Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, and they became two instrumental people in Mike's development as a coach.

About 10 years ago, Mike started hanging out in film rooms with his brother, Shanahan and McVay, back when the latter three worked for the Washington Football Team. All told, Mike spent seven years at Shanahan's side in an official capacity, the past four as a 49ers assistant. And, of course, there has been a lifetime of learning from his older brother.

"There's no one that I've ever been around that works as hard as he does," Mike said. "It's like there's 25 hours in a day for him. Then, at the same time, he doesn't blink. It's like he's never tired, either. I've always said that I wish I could work as hard as him. I don't know if I can. He's wired a little bit different, but I strive to, and it's something I've really always looked up to."

Football was -- is -- the family business. Denny played and coached at Central Michigan, where he met his wife, Kristi, a cheerleader. Her father, the late Bob Barringer, was a high school coach in Kalamazoo, Michigan. When they started dating, Denny would visit Kristi at her parents' house only to wind up downstairs with his future father-in-law, breaking down game tape. He learned a lot and developed a strong affinity for her dad, but football wasn't everything.

"All I kept thinking was, 'All I want to do is be with her,'" Denny said with a laugh.

Kristi, too, got into coaching, as she guided Mt. Pleasant High School's competitive cheerleading squad to championships. Denny was quick to credit his wife, saying the boys learned as much about coaching from her as they did him.

As a youngster, Mike attended Matt's games at Mt. Pleasant and Saginaw Valley State, later following in Matt's footsteps as the Mt. Pleasant quarterback. Denny described him as a "miniature version of Doug Flutie" -- only 5-foot-9, 190 pounds, but full of heart and guts. Mike went to Elmhurst University in suburban Chicago, where he was the backup quarterback until switching to safety his senior year in 2008.

After three years as an offensive assistant at tiny St. Joseph's College (1,100 students) in Rensselaer, Indiana, Mike landed at another small school, Davidson (1,950). How he got there is a "small world" story. The head coach, Paul Nichols, called McVay, who was in Washington at the time, for a recommendation. Nichols knew McVay because they had attended the same high school (Marist School) in Brookhaven, Georgia.

"I didn't know Mike from anybody, but Sean said, 'You need to talk to Mike LaFleur,'" Nichols recalled. "I said, 'Who's that?' He gave me his number."

Nichols made the call and drove from Davidson, North Carolina, to Washington D.C. for the interview. It took two hours to sell him.

"I was like, 'Oh, man, this is done. We want you yesterday,'" Nichols said.

Davidson, a Football Championship Subdivision school, was in a down cycle and didn't win too many games in those days, but Mike impressed with his smarts, organizational skills and drive. Nichols recalled times when he walked past Mike's office and heard music blaring. When he poked his head in, he saw Mike, drenched with sweat, watching game tape on a computer while doing a P90X workout.

There was no time to waste. Mike's career already was in hurry-up mode, and he didn't want it to slow down.

The plan was to remain at Davidson for at least another year, but everything changed when the Washington Football Team coaching staff was dismantled after the 2013 season. Shanahan became the Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator and he wanted to bring along Matt LaFleur for his staff. Thing is, Matt had signed a contract to be a Notre Dame assistant, reuniting with his former Central Michigan boss, Brian Kelly.

Shanahan asked Matt if his brother would be interested. Absolutely, he told him.

"Matt called him and all he said was, 'Hey, dude, pack your bag, you're going to Cleveland,'" Denny said. "Mike goes, 'What are you talking about?' Matt says, 'You just took a job in Cleveland.'"

That's how Mike LaFleur broke into the NFL.

By then, he and Shanahan knew each other. Mike used to visit Washington to hang out and talk ball with him, McVay and Matt. He stayed a year with Shanahan in Cleveland, then followed him to the Atlanta Falcons (2015-16) and 49ers (2017 to 2020).

In San Francisco, he won the trust of Saleh, who made Mike his first hire upon landing the Jets' job in January. Seventeen years after the refrigerator raids and Madden games in the LaFleur's living room, Saleh and Mike are the head coach and offensive coordinator for a team coming off a 2-14 record and in desperate need of leadership and offense.

"I know he's a young coordinator, but he's advanced in terms of what he's learned and the people he's been around since he started coaching," Saleh said.

By the way, Saleh still calls him "Mikey."

Mike LaFleur will operate in New York one of the most successful offensive systems of this generation -- the Mike Shanahan version of the West Coast offense. It's an outside-zone running scheme (think "stretch" play), with a passing attack that emphasizes play-action and rollouts. Mike learned it from Kyle Shanahan, who learned it from "Papa Shanahan," as Saleh calls him. The 49ers, Packers, Rams, Falcons and Cincinnati Bengals all use variations of it.

The system is time-tested, but Mike is not.

He's walking into a start-over situation, with an offensive lineup that could feature four rookie starters. He's responsible for the development of Wilson, which is paramount for the franchise. That job was supposed to belong to passing-game specialist Greg Knapp, who died last month after being struck by a motorist while riding a bike. The loss of an expert voice in the quarterback room puts an additional strain on Mike.

"Without a doubt, it's a tall order," said Denny, looking at it as a former coach, not a dad. "It's going to be a tough thing because of all the uncertainty, uncertainty with the quarterback, a first-time playcaller and all that. But, my God, Saleh believes in him and gave him the green light."

Those close to Mike say he has the smarts and communication skills to pull this off, that he's absolutely ready for this moment. He knows his stuff, but the last time he called plays was eight years ago in a 47-14 loss to Campbell University. The game was played in Davidson, North Carolina, not too far from where the Jets will open the 2021 season on Sept. 12 against the Carolina Panthers.

Todd Haley, a former NFL head coach and offensive coordinator, knows what LaFleur is going through as a first-time playcaller.

"Mike is very comfortable with that system, the terminology, the visual of how plays look and the feel of how they're supposed to come off his tongue as the game progresses," Haley said. "But you still need experience, so I think it's going to be a process of getting more and more comfortable. When I first called plays [with the Arizona Cardinals] ... the first game compared to the last game, it was night and day how much more comfortable you felt with the process."

This isn't uncharted territory for the LaFleur family, as Matt went from Ashland University (Ohio) offensive coordinator to NFL coordinator in 10 years. Mike did it in eight, from Davidson to the crucible of New York. Tough job, the Jets. They go through coordinators the way some people go through sweat socks -- seven in the past 10 years. Most of them had to take demotions in their next jobs.

Mike might be green, but he's ready. All that time with Shanahan, he said, allowed him to "really dive into his mind." He talks to his brother regularly, soliciting advice on many things, including how to handle the 40-second clock.

"I know I'm going to go through some learning curves and stuff like that as we go," Mike said, "but I feel like I have a lot of cool resources that I can try and lean on."

One of those resources will be on the other sideline this week in Green Bay. Anticipating the matchup, Matt couldn't resist a jab at his little brother. Asked about Wilson, he gave a glowing scouting report on the Jets' No. 2 overall draft pick, ending his response this way:

"Certainly he has a lot of talent, it's just he's got to make sure he gets the proper coaching up there. That's the one thing I question, so ..."

Some things never change.

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