NASHVILLE, Tenn. – The man entrusted with pumping life back into the Titans' offense has earned a well-deserved reputation as a teacher over the years, mentoring the likes of Robert Griffin III, Matt Ryan and Jared Goff.
But as he prepares for his first season as the Titans' offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur is learning as well as instructing.
It starts with his relationship to head coach Mike Vrabel, as the two had no direct ties with one another before Vrabel hired him for the position here.
Choosing LaFleur was an impressive out-of-the-box move for Vrabel, considering many NFL head coaches – especially new ones – tend to favor hiring someone with whom they've coached in the past. That LaFleur earned the position here speaks highly of both the impression he made on general manager Jon Robinson – who interviewed him for the Titans' head-coaching position – and the impression LaFleur's style of offenses left on Vrabel in past meetings.
So far, so good when it comes to the two personalities meshing.
“He's been great,” LaFleur said of Vrabel. “I think as a coaching staff, we definitely respect him. He's an extremely intelligent person. He also has that player perspective, which I think is unique, and it's really good for us.
“I think he's a heck of a leader. I'm just excited to have a chance to work with him.”
LaFleur is also accustoming himself once again to working with a mobile quarterback like Mariota, after coaching pro-style quarterbacks Goff and Ryan over the past three years. But LaFleur did have plenty of success when he served as Griffin's quarterback coach in 2012-13, helping Griffin pile up over 4,000 yards of offense and claim the NFL's rookie of the year award in 2012.
So as much as LaFleur plans to work on the mechanics of Mariota's passing game -- in order to help him get the football out quicker in all situations -- LaFleur has no plans to curtail Mariota's abilities on the ground.
“The hardest thing is you don't ever want to take that element, that creativity, his ability to create off schedule,” LaFleur said. “You never want to take that away from a quarterback that has the athleticism that Marcus has.”
Then there is the team's receiving corps, one that appears to have plenty of untapped potential, though not necessarily a great deal of experience. LaFleur describes his route-running tree and scheme as “pretty different” from what the Titans ran in the past, so he's learning just how much he can throw at talented youngsters like Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor and Tajae Sharpe in the very early going.
“I think OTAs and this offseason program kind of affords you the opportunity to see what these guys do well,” LaFleur said. “Ultimately, that's our job, to figure out what routes they run well, improve upon things they might struggle a little with. Ultimately, we want to put those guys in position so we have success in the passing game.”
Without a doubt, of course, LaFleur's biggest challenge this season will be taking over the role of play-caller for the first time in his career.
Though he had a big hand in assisting the offense at previous stops, even serving as the Los Angeles Rams' offensive coordinator last season, LaFleur has never been the key decision-maker.
What better way to help learn that role than by simulating game play-calling conditions during practice? That's why Vrabel has made extensive use of unscripted periods during OTAs, forcing coordinators to adjust their plays and personnel on the fly – while the play clock is ticking away.
“They've been very good for me,” LaFleur said of the unscripted sessions. “Just having that (play clock) going pretty fast … so you have to think on your feet fast. Anytime we have one of those unscripted periods, I'm going to treat it very much like a game.
“I'm not just going to come out here blindly calling plays. I'm going to do my homework so when we get out here, just like on game days, we're prepared to put these guys in good position.”
LaFleur has passed every test on the coaching ladder thus far, guiding Griffin to his best season, mentoring Ryan to an NFL MVP year, and helping to completely transform Goff and the Rams' offense last year.
This latest challenge will be LaFleur's greatest. But if he learns as well as he teaches, expect good things to happen.
-- Reach John Glennon at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @glennonsports.
The Titans take the field for Tuesday's organized team activities (OTA) at Saint Thomas Sports Park. (Photos: Gary Glenn, AP)