The love of the game of football courses through Mike LaFleur's veins, infused with history that dates to his grandfather's 20-plus years as a high school head coach in Michigan, to his dad's 24-year tenure at Central Michigan, his brother Matt climbing the ladder to now lead the Green Bay Packers -- and advanced through the Jets' soon-to-be 35-year-old offensive coordinator who recently completed his first NFL season in a pivotal position.
Part of the plan promoted this year by Senior Bowl officials was for the participating coaching staffs (the Jets and the Lions) to elevate each team's top assistants. LaFleur took a step back as the young quarterbacks coach Rob Calabrese, 31, took over as the offensive coordinator. Just as the players were part of the showcase, so were the coaches who ran meetings (perhaps for the first time) and the on-field practices.
"It was coming full circle for me," LaFleur said while in Mobile, AL, in a chat on "The Official Jets Podcast," with senior team reporter Eric Allen. "When I was here [in 2019] it was a good experience. My first two years in San Francisco I was the receivers coach and passing game coordinator. When I came to the Senior Bowl [HC] Kyle [Shanahan] said it's 'your show.' When Matt worked here in 2011 [with Washington] he said he put in too much offense and overloaded the players. He said don't make the same mistake, come in simple, play fast. He said it would be good for myself and other coaches to run the room. Then get down here and sometimes you don't know where to stand. It's cool for Calabrese and the others to get a crack at it."
Jets HC Robert Saleh has assembled a mostly young and aggressive coaching staff, believing in a promote-from-within philosophy, but also recognizing that by showcasing his coaching cohort he is also getting closer to perhaps losing some of them as they climb up the ladder.
"I have a lot of confidence in Mike LaFleur getting a head job one of these days, and being able to promote from within is the plan," Saleh said.
Offseason Advice for Zach Wilson
In four words: "Take a deep breath."
"I told him the same when he got hurt for four weeks and had to sit back," LaFleur said. "All rookies, the No. 2 pick to our fourth-round running back [Michael Carter], that's a long year -- 17 games, plus 3 preseason. It's a big deal for rookies, they are nervous, if not you're, cold blooded. It's a long year, the season and Covid in 2020, then the Combine, pro days, rookie minicamp, OTAs, then five weeks in camp. And really the goal is playing until mid-February, at least into early January. It is long.
"I didn't want Zach back throwing by Wednesday after the season. Chill a bit, go on a trip, have an experience. Once you're ready to roll, go roll. We know there's stuff to work on and I don't like to talk to players immediately following the season about what to work on. Give them a few things, let them know how much I appreciate them. Then I step back with my family watching them have fun, and sometimes come up with good ideas. I am excited to get back in contact with Zach. He knows what to work on. I know it will be good."
At Wilson's request, LaFleur spent the early part of the season on the sideline with the rookie quarterback, before moving back to the press box for the balance of the season. It seemed to work better and his playcalling, using some creative plays, if you will, evolved and improved as the season progressed.
"First, you hold yourself accountable," he said. "You have to be willing to show your other coaches and the players that you made mistakes. I hold myself accountable, and that should be a standard process.
"It doesn't matter who's right, it matters what's right."
Senior Bowl 'More Beneficial' Than NFL Combine
Even though LaFleur, Saleh and DC Jeff Ulbrich mostly took advisory roles during Reese's Super Bowl week, LaFleur was clear about the benefit of having the Green & White coaching staff getting those "up-close-and-personal" looks at the players, both on and off the field.
"The advantage for the staff is that you get an up-close view with these guys, see how they're digesting the information you're giving them, and then reciting it back to you," LaFleur said. "Then you come back after practice and coach them up, asking them 'how can you get better?' Stuff that even at the Combine you don't get. This is real football, just one example of why the Senior Bowl, in my opinion, is way more beneficial than the Combine. Here you get full action, not just the practice, and then the culmination of the game."
LaFleur was part of Shanahan's staff as the passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach when the 49ers worked the Senior Bowl in 2018.
"I came here with all those files," he said. "The best advice is to keep it simple. The deal in this league is to see how fast they absorb. You give them a little bit of stuff and can see their brains working, and switch that up every day. Now the players are so prepared with trainers and all and we're working with them to get the information out so fast. And they're asking two weeks in advance about what they'll be doing… We only bring about 5 percent of the playbook and it's dumbed down because there are so many rules about what we can't do in the game. Also, we want to see how fast guys can learn.
"The really unique thing is that we get to be in meetings with them. We get a little bit closer to them and the meetings allow us to see how they process information."
See the Jets coaching staff on the field during the 2022 Senior Bowl in Mobile.
Early Connection to Robert Saleh
The relationship between Saleh and the LaFleur family goes back to the days the Jets HC spent with Matt LaFleur as graduate assistants at Central Michigan.
"It's a small town," LaFleur said of Mount Pleasant, Mich., population about 25,000, which includes 17,000 students], "not much going on. Not much to do. They were GAs not making money of any kind, maybe going to class. They lived a mile-and-half down the street, didn't have any cable, so they came over and hung out with us. My wife, who I had been dating since high school, Lauren got to know Saleh and my brother. It was us four hanging out and watching playoff games. They would come over in the summer because we had a pool and they'd get a little tan.
"Saleh moved on to Texas, and then got my brother in the door as quality control guy/offensive with Kyle [who was the offensive coordinator]."
The Move East
After his years on the West Coast with San Francisco, LaFleur said that he and his family have settled comfortably in North Jersey.
"It is everything I've wanted," he said. "I needed to get out there and challenge myself. I had been with Kyle for seven years. I asked him if I felt it was the right situation and right time. He said 'hell yeah.' I came with a guy I respect. I saw Robert working with the defense for four years. It was no-brainer time. Time for me to go learn about myself and challenge my staff. That this team hasn't been in the playoffs didn't even go into the thought process. It's about winning with the right people.
"There have been ups and downs, but I like how we progressed later in the year. There is still a long way to go, putting in new stuff, we had the most rookies in the league on top of a rookie quarterback. Now the next step is even harder, you have to get better and with urgency.
"It's awesome, we love living in this area, the fanbase is cool. They are thirsty and you can feel it. We want to do it for them. There's really nothing like going out onto the field on Sunday and feeling that energy. It's a cool, cool deal Jets Nation. It's awesome."