New York Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur is struggling mightily
LaFleur is only 34 years old. He is calling plays in the NFL for the first time against defensive gurus like Bill Belichick and Vic Fangio who were working in the league before he was born.
All of those facts are quite obvious based on the Jets’ woeful production on offense thus far. New York is 32nd in points per game (6.7).
Just like with players, coaches typically need time to develop before they hit their ceiling. LaFleur is about as raw as an NFL offensive coordinator can get. He is going to endure growing pains along with his quarterback.
Many coaches who went on to become successful took a similar amount of heat in the early stages of their careers. Here are three great play-callers who endured a rough start similar to that of LaFleur.
Andy Reid was hired as the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1999 after serving as the Green Bay Packers’ quarterbacks coach over the previous two seasons. He was 41 years old at the time.
The results for Reid’s Eagles over his first three games as the offensive play-caller were similar to LaFleur’s Jets. Philadelphia went 0-3 as its offense scored only 27 points, including three points in the second game and a shutout in the third (sound familiar?). The Eagles averaged a puke-inducing 93.3 passing yards per game.
Led primarily by veteran placeholder Doug Pederson (9 starts) followed by number one overall pick Donovan McNabb (6 starts), the Eagles’ offense was ultimately terrible under Reid in his first season. Philadelphia finished the season ranked 30th in points per drive and 30th in yards per game.
From there, the Eagles saw incremental growth from their young play-caller and prized young quarterback each season. In 2000, Philadelphia leaped to 12th in scoring and won 10 games while McNabb made his first Pro Bowl. The Eagles rose to ninth in scoring the following season and made another jump to fourth-best in 2002.
It often takes a few years for a play-caller and his high-upside passing prospect to grow together and fulfill their potential as a duo.
At 39 years old, Greg Roman was hired as the San Francisco 49ers’ offensive coordinator in 2011. He spent the previous two seasons as an assistant coach at Stanford.
Roman’s first three games with the 49ers were ugly. San Francisco was 2-1, but the offense ranked dead last in yards per game through three weeks with a mark of 213.7. That is worse than the Jets’ average of 250.0 through three weeks of the 2021 season.
It is directly after that three-game mark in which Roman hit his stride. The 49ers exploded for 442 yards in a Week 4 win over the Eagles and had a solid offense over the rest of the season. From Weeks 4-17, the 49ers ranked 15th in yards per game (333.3).
Sure, the 49ers had a veteran quarterback in Alex Smith, but Smith had been a consistently subpar quarterback throughout his entire career prior to his breakout with Roman in 2011. Smith led the 49ers to 24th in yards per game the season prior in 2010 – and that was the 49ers’ best ranking out of five seasons with Smith at the helm (although he missed many games due to injury).
Roman plowed through the terrible three-game start to put together a successful four-year run in San Francisco, helping the 49ers rank top-11 in scoring in each of the first three seasons.
Since leaving the Niners, Roman has forged five consecutive top-12 scoring finishes as an offensive coordinator, doing so in Buffalo from 2015-16 and in Baltimore from 2018-20. He has the Ravens ranked 10th in scoring thus far in 2021.
Kevin Stefanski was promoted to the Minnesota Vikings’ offensive coordinator role in 2019 after serving 13 seasons with the Vikings in various assistant roles. He was only 37 years old, having joined the staff at the ripe age of 24 in 2006.
The Vikings’ offense was under scrutiny early in Stefanski’s rookie season as a play-caller. Four games into the year, the Vikings were 2-2, but the offense was a disappointing 24th in total yards per game (324.3) despite having a bevy of talent.
Stefanski’s passing game was especially bad with an average of only 169.0 yards per game, better than only the abysmal Adam Gase-led Jets. LaFleur’s Jets are averaging 170.0 passing yards through three games.
Minnesota laid 490 yards on the Giants in Week 5 and looked much better over the rest of the season. From Weeks 5-17, the Vikings ranked 12th in total yards per game (363.3) while jumping to 14th in passing yards per game (237.3). They finished the year as the NFL’s sixth-most efficient offense based on points per drive (2.29). Stefanski also helped Kirk Cousins post a career-high 107.4 passer rating.
That excellent campaign was enough to land Stefanski the Cleveland Browns’ head coaching job in 2020. Stefanski helped the Browns offense rank 11th in points per drive while leading Cleveland to its first playoff appearance since 2002.
Four games in, Stefanski’s passing attack with Cousins, Stefon Diggs, and Adam Thielen was producing more yards than only the Adam Gase-and-Luke Falk edition of the New York Jets. And look at him now.
Coaches deserve patience, too. That does not mean every one of Mike LaFleur’s mistakes should be excused – some of his blunders cannot be chalked up to play-calling inexperience – but it is fair to give him time to figure things out. Many eventual greats looked similarly bad at this super-early point of their careers.
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