SANTA CLARA, Calif. — San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and Matt LaFleur were roommates at Central Michigan 15 years ago when they both served as graduate assistance for the Chippewas under head coach Brian Kelly.
As LaFleur — the current head coach of the Green Bay Packers — began to prepare for the NFL’s second-best defense, which he’ll face on Sunday, he decided to jokingly text his old friend.
“I shot him a text message,” LaFleur said this week in a teleconference with San Franciso media. “I said, ‘Hey, would you give me a call? I have a couple questions about your defense.’ That was the last of communication.”
The friendship between LaFleur and Saleh is just one of many ties the first-year head coach has to the current 49ers staff. His brother Mike LaFleur serves as San Francisco’s quarterbacks coach, and Matt LaFleur himself worked under Kyle Shanahan early in his career. Sunday’s primetime matchup between the Packers and 49ers will be a reunion of sorts, one with massive playoff implications.
“There’s a lot of people that I care a lot about on that staff,” Matt LaFleur said. “But at the end of the day, this is the National Football League and to us it’s another game against one of the top teams in the National Football League.”
In his first year as an NFL head coach, Matt LaFleur has the Packers (8-2) leading the NFC North, half a game up on the Minnesota Vikings (8-3). It’s an experience far from what Shanahan endured, winning nine games in two seasons, including a 3-13 campaign last year.
Matt LaFleur was Shanahan’s protege in 2008, when the then 29-year-old was hired by the Houston Texans as an offensive quality control assistant. He was recommended by Saleh, who was also an assistant in Houston.
For eight of the next nine seasons, Matt LaFleur worked under Shanahan with Houston, Washington and Atlanta, learning the intricacies of Shanahan’s offense. He now uses a version of it in Green Bay.
He also learned how to conduct himself with players and how to be honest with those around him within an organization.
“That was the biggest advice my dad always gave me, just be honest,” Shanahan said. “To me, it’s not just players, it’s what 95% of people in life want.”
Shanahan stuck to his honesty when LaFleur requested to interview his own brother, Mike, for a non-play-calling offensive coordinators position in Green Bay. Shanahan responded by blocking the inquiry.
Matt had recommended Mike to Shanahan in 2014 during his only season with the Cleveland Browns, and Mike has since followed Shanahan to the Atlanta Falcons (2015-16) and now to San Francisco.
“I was never tempted,” Shanahan said regarding the interview. “I looked forward to saying ‘No’ very quickly. I did it as soon as I could.”
Shanahan has repeatedly mentioned Mike’s value to the team over the last three years, as he’s developed quarterbacks like Jimmy Garoppolo and Nick Mullens. He added that he plans on having the younger LaFleur brother on his coaching staff until he fields a head coaching job of his own.
“He’s my coordinator,” Shanahan said. “He’s a really talented guy, and we put a lot of work in together. I feel very fortunate to have him.”
Shanahan’s gamesmanship hasn’t affected LaFleur’s relationship with his sibling. In fact, LaFleur’s wife, BreAnne, and their two sons left Green Bay early to stay with Mike and his family during the week leading into the game.
In the meantime, LaFleur has focused on the actual game — a matchup between two of the best teams in the NFL which could have a major effect on playoff seedings.
The Packers have won five of their last six games, averaging 30.8 points points per game in that stretch. Green Bay is the first of three 8-2 teams that San Francisco will face in as many weeks.
Saleh’s defense ranks as the best against the pass in the NFL this season, allowing just 142.5 yards per game through the air, but this week, they’ll be tasked with slowing down a generational talent in Aaron Rodgers.
“They’ve been real tough to beat,” Shanahan said. “[Rodgers] is never out of any game, no matter what’s happening.”
With a one-game lead over the Seattle Seahawks (8-2) in the NFC West and a one-game lead over Green Bay and the New Orleans Saints (8-2) for home-field advantage and a first-round bye in the playoffs, Sunday’s results could change the playoff picture as a whole.
For Saleh, that’s what he’s focussed on. Not his friendship with LaFleur or the bond they forged as up-and-comers in the NFL coaching ranks. Its why he didn’t reply to his former roommate’s text and its why he won’t see LaFleur until the actual game on Sunday.
“There’s an old saying, ‘You love your family, you love your friends, you love all that, but when it comes to competition you can throw it all away,’” Saleh said. “It’s that mindset. It doesn’t matter who you’re going against, friend, non-friend, it really doesn’t matter. You’re always trying to do your absolute best.”