| The Detroit News
Without Robert Saleh, Matt LaFleur probably isn’t coaching the Green Bay Packers. He might not even be working in the NFL.
It was Saleh who helped get LaFleur’s foot in the NFL’s door, starting him down a path that would land him in Green Bay last season.
The two first met in 2004, as a pair of graduate assistants for Brian Kelly at Central Michigan. There they became fast friends and roommates. The bond was so close that LaFleur served as the best man in Saleh’s wedding.
After a year in Mount Pleasant, Saleh moved on to the University of Georgia for a season before taking a coaching internship with the Houston Texans in 2005. That turned into a quality control position and, eventually, a job coaching the team’s linebackers.
And when the franchise was looking for a low-level offensive assistant in 2008, Saleh suggested LaFleur for the job.
“He’s the reason I got into the National Football League,” LaFleur said Wednesday, during a video conference call. “It was basically because of the work that he did when he was in Houston. So he was the guy that kinda recommended me for a very entry-level position.”
Over the next 10 years, the two Michigan natives have rocketed up the league’s coaching ranks. LaFleur got an extensive offensive education working for the likes of Gary Kubiak, Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay before the Packers came calling last season.
Saleh, meanwhile, left Houston and blossomed in Seattle under Pete Carroll, before getting his shot to coordinate San Francisco’s defense, where Shanahan is now captaining the ship.
And there’s a chance, maybe even a premature presumption, that things will come full circle for LaFleur and Saleh next season as the latter is considered among the early favorites for the Detroit Lions coaching vacancy. There the two friends would square off twice each season as NFC North rivals.
And it’s hardly a surprise LeFleur is quick to offer a glowing endorsement of his good friend.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for everything he’s been able to accomplish throughout his career and what a great person, first and foremost,” LaFleur said. “I think that’s always the No. 1 quality you’ve gotta look for in a person, is their intentions and their heart. And he’s got so much energy. He’s one of the smartest people I know and it shows. You can see just the energy, the effort that the defense in San Francisco plays with over there, as well as just the scheme is really tough to go against. I’m real confident he’ll be a head coach somewhere in this league in the near future.”
That recommendation extends beyond words and squarely into on-field results. The Packers played the 49ers twice last season, when LaFleur went 13-3 in his first year at the helm. In the first meeting, the 49ers held the Packers to a season-low eight points in a 29-point blowout victory.
It was closer when the teams met again in the NFC Championship, but the 49ers and Saleh’s defense again came out on top, 37-20.
LaFleur did get a small measure of revenge this season, when the Packers bested the 49ers, 34-17, but it’s worth nothing San Francisco was missing its starting quarterback, running back, No. 1 receiver and All-Pro tight end for the contest.
Interestingly, if the Lions were to hire Saleh, one of the possibilities for offensive coordinator would be San Francisco assistant Mike LaFleur, Matt’s younger brother.
The 49ers rejected the Packers’ request to interview Mike when Matt took the job in Green Bay. And he didn’t have nearly as much to say about his brother’s future opportunities, in Detroit or otherwise.
“My brother is my brother,” Matt said. “That’s all I’m going to say about that.”