The Lass Word: Frustrated LaFleur Remains Loyal to Barry
Game ending failures ratchet up pressure for change.
Dec 14, 2023
It was the day after his team suffered a damaging loss to the New York Giants. Matt LaFleur stood at the podium for his news conference. He was asked about the inability of his defense to stop the Giants on the game’s final drive. Specifically, he addressed the backbreaking 32 yard completion to Wan’Dale Robinson that put New York within range of a walk off, game-winning field goal.
“Joe called man coverage, and we’re playing way off, which we shouldn’t be in that situation. We called another man coverage, and that’s when we got beat” the head coach remarked, referring to defensive coordinator Joe Barry. The reporter then followed up with the more pertinent question. Did the corners play off coverage in error, or is that where the coaches wanted them to line up?
LaFleur paused for three or four seconds, knowing he had to choose his words carefully. Would he point the finger at his coordinator? Or would he blame the players? He chose to do neither. “Well, we’re going to have to get that corrected” he answered generically. “If we’re calling man, we’ve got to be tighter.” He ended the comment abruptly, anxious for the beat writers to change the subject, which they did.
It’s not the first time LaFleur has publicly made remarks which could be interpreted as a clear message to Barry. There have been other post game reactions from the head coach critical of the positioning of pass defenders in clutch situations. Surely LaFleur understands that, whether the defensive play call is poorly schemed, or the players are just lined up in the wrong place, the responsibility falls on Barry.
But while LaFleur seems willing to openly acknowledge the repeated problems on defense, he remains fiercely loyal to his defensive lieutenant. He gave Barry unequivocal support for a third year at the helm last off season, despite two years of what was widely regarded as under achievement on that side of the ball. And truthfully, the defense does have its good moments. Against the Giants there was an impressive stop on fourth down, and four tackles for loss. The unit has hovered around the top ten in the league in points allowed per game.
Yet what doesn’t seem to change is the defense’s inability to close out a game, to come up with a stop when the team needs it the most. Until Monday night, that weakness was somewhat muted during this campaign because of a handful of fortuitous breaks. In the week three game against New Orleans the Packers rallied to score a touchdown giving them an 18-17 lead with 2:27 left to play. However, the defense then allowed the Saints to drive 47 yards in eight plays, setting up a very makeable 46 yard field goal to win the game. Rookie kicker Blake Grupe missed the kick.
In week eleven Green Bay scored with 2:33 remaining to grab a 23-20 advantage over the Chargers. With thirty seconds to play, rookie receiver Quentin Johnston got behind cornerback Carrington Valentine deep and was wide open. Justin Herbert dropped a perfect pass over Johnston’s shoulder for what should have been an easy, game-winning touchdown. Johnston dropped the ball.
In week thirteen the defense was trying to protect a 27-19 lead over the Chiefs. With 19 seconds left Patrick Mahomes launched a deep pass over the middle to Marquez Valdes Scantling. Valentine climbed over MVS’s back in an effort to get to the ball in what was universally acknowledged by all observers as pass interference. All observers, that is, except the officials, who called nothing. The penalty would have set the Chiefs up with a first and goal in the closing seconds.
Had those three situations gone the other way, the spotlight on Green Bay’s late game defensive shortcomings might be much brighter. To be sure, the breaks don’t always go in favor of the Packers. They have had their share of bad or missing calls. The point is, Joe Barry’s defensive teams have had consistent difficulty in holding off opponents on game-ending drives. They regularly cough up big plays by the opponents in critical circumstances, and the problem usually boils down to scheme and positioning. No doubt Matt LaFleur is aware of this. He has frequently shown obvious frustration about it on the sideline and in media gatherings.
Through it all, he remains faithful to the man he picked in 2021 to replace Mike Pettine as coordinator, after Jim Leonhard reportedly turned the job down. Maybe it’s pride. Maybe it’s friendship. Maybe LaFleur feels Barry has done as much as can be expected with what he has to work with, considering injuries and a trade wiped out his entire starting secondary. If LaFleur has any regrets he is keeping them private. But as devastating failures such as the one against the Giants continue to pile up, the drumbeat to replace Barry gets louder.
Retaining Barry is looking even more dubious now considering the division rival Vikings’ defense under Brian Flores is developing into a top notch unit, having held six opponents under 17 points, including a shut out of the Raiders last weekend. Flores was available last off season.
LaFleur likely won’t make any change during the season, but when the curtain comes down on 2023 he would be wise to cut ties with his long time friend, before Barry takes LaFleur down with him.