Best friends Matt LaFleur, Robert Saleh face off in Packers-49ers showdown


Best friends Matt LaFleur, Robert Saleh face off in Packers-49ers showdown

SANTA CLARA – Matt LaFleur and Robert Saleh are best friends, so it would be no surprise that one had a favor to ask of the other this week.

“I was messing with him the other day,” LaFleur said Wednesday on a conference call with Bay Area reporters. “I asked him to call me. I shot him a text message. I said, ‘Hey, would you give me a call? I have a couple questions about your defense.’”

LaFleur, 40, is the head coach and offensive play-caller for the Green Bay Packers. Saleh, 40, is the 49ers’ defensive coordinator. The two will face off Sunday night at Levi’s Stadium.

“That was the last of the communication,” LaFleur said.

LaFleur and Saleh served as graduate assistants on Brian Kelly’s 2004 staff at Central Michigan in LaFleur’s hometown of Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

Saleh began work for the Houston Texans in an entry-level position in 2005. LaFleur joined the Texans’ staff as a quality control coach in 2008 after Saleh gave him a recommendation for the job.

LaFleur, whose brother Mike is the passing game coordinator for the 49ers, is in his first year as head coach of the Packers. Saleh is being talked about as a person who will receive interest as soon as this offseason for any and all NFL head-coaching vacancies.

Matt LaFleur's offense will be going head-to-head against Saleh’s defense on Sunday in a game with huge NFC playoff implications. The 49ers are 9-1 and atop the NFC West, while the Packers lead the NFC North with an 8-2 mark.

The Packers coach has known Saleh well for more than a decade, and he is impressed with the alterations he has made to his defensive scheme this season with the 49ers.

[RELATED: How 49ers, Packers gave LaFleur bros 'win-win' situation]

“It’s definitely evolved from the background being Seattle, Jacksonville,” LaFleur said of Saleh. “He’s implemented some more two safety looks and changed some of the rules up. I think he’s done a heck of a job with it.

“You talk about one of the more sound systems in this league, I think that’s a big reason they haven’t given big plays. It’s extremely difficult to get those big plays on that defense. That’s a credit to Robert and his staff, and there are some pretty damn good players on that side of the ball, too.”

Tyreek Hill believes 49ers will face one of the most explosive offenses ever

Tyreek Hill believes 49ers will face one of the most explosive offenses ever

MIAMI – NFL history is heavily populated with explosive offenses that couldn’t win a title. All that scoring eventually ran into a stout defense with the right stuff to break down an scoring machine.

The 1999 St. Louis Rams bucked that trend. Then the 2009 New Orleans Saints turned great offense into a Lombardi Trophy.

The Kansas City Chiefs will try to follow suit on Sunday against the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. This matchup offers a contrast in styles, with Kansas City’s high-octane offense versus a potent 49ers defense with an unreal front lead by rookie Nick Bosa and former Chiefs Dee Ford.

You can look at raw numbers, however, and see the 49ers run better and scored more this regular season than Kansas City, but let’s not forget Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes missed two games with a knee injury and took some time to get revved up again.

Make no mistake: the Chiefs are stacked. The reigning MVP is behind center. They have unreal speed on the outside and a bully tight end. While they struggled some earlier in the year, the Chiefs put 51 points on Houston in the divisional round and 35 on Tennessee in the AFC title game.

Even if this year’s stats don’t show it, last year’s do. The Chiefs averaged 35.3 points and 425 yards per game in 2018, a year that ended with a playoff loss to New England.

Receiver Tyreek Hill believes this year’s attack is more talented that one. Kansas City added Sammy Watkins in free agency and Mecole Hardman through the draft, giving them more speed and explosiveness this time around.

They have so much, that Hill thinks this offense might be the most talented collection to reach the Super Bowl. That includes the Greatest Show on Turf.

“We have a 4x100 team on the field,” Hill said. “We have a relay team, man. No disrespect to Tory Holt and Isaac Bruce. They only have a few guys. We have five guys who can run a 4.3. Come on, man. We’re fast.”

And good scoring fast and in several different ways. Hardman wasn’t ready to dub this attack the most talented to reach the Super Bowl, but he has great confidence in what K.C. can do after finding their rhythm.

“There have been a lot of great offenses over the years, with explosive players like Randy Moss [on the Patriots]. What about the Greatest Show on Turf? Those guys were awesome,” Hardman said. “I will say that we have a great combination of speed on the outside, Travis Kelce in the middle and a truly great quarterback like Pat Mahomes. You put all that together and we’re definitely in the conversation, but it won’t matter if we don’t finish the season out right. We think we’re great. Now we have to show everybody why we think that.”

[RELATED: How Alex Smith helped Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes develop in rookie season]

Head coach/offensive mastermind Andy Reid plays a role in all this as well. His creative play designs capitalize on Mahomes’ unique ability and the raw talent at the skill positions.

“His knowledge of offense and this game is off the charts,” Hardman said. “Looking at the playbook and how thick it was, and when you get into it, he’s running concepts I had never seen before. The routes he comes with, especially when he and Pat get to brainstorming, is stuff I had never heard of. It’s so smart and innovative. When you combine his mind with what we’ve got on the field, we can do some crazy things.”

How Alex Smith helped Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes develop in rookie season

How Alex Smith helped Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes develop in rookie season

MIAMI, Fla. -- Patrick Mahomes has it all. The Chiefs star can flick the ball 70 yards without issue. He's thrown passes left-handed, with his eyes closed and with both feet hovering off the ground. 

In only three seasons in the NFL, and two as the Chiefs' starting quarterback, Mahomes has shown the propensity to do the amazing. He transformed himself from risky NFL draft pick to superstar seemingly on the flight from Lubbock, Texas to Kansas City, and now he has the Chiefs on the precipice of a Super Bowl title if they can conquer the 49ers and the NFL's best defense Sunday in Super Bowl LIV. 

For all his otherworldly talent, Mahomes didn't become last year's league MVP and the new face of the NFL on his own. He rode the bench in his first season, holding the clipboard for someone who once was the future of the franchise he faces Sunday: Alex Smith. 

After playing seven seasons with the 49ers, Smith was traded to the Chiefs in 2013. He had four productive seasons in KC, including a career year in 2017 where he threw for 4,042 yards, 26 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He also spent that season mentoring the man who eventually would take his job and the league by storm. 

"He was extremely important," Mahomes said of Smith's impact on his development, "The way he went about his business and being a pro's pro, a great quarterback and also a great human being. He taught me a ton of just the process and how to blueprint your week and how to game plan. And then, how to read coverages by the little things. Maybe how the defensive line lines up and I think it helped me out a lot in the early part of my career, even still to this day of being able to get those invaluable lessons from him."

From the moment Mahomes started his first game in Week 17 of his rookie season, it was clear he was the Chiefs' future. 

Life as the up-and-coming quarterback isn't always easy in the NFL. Brett Favre famously wanted nothing to do with mentoring Aaron Rodgers. While Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo are friends, there were whispers that Brady's fear of losing his job to Jimmy G was one of the reasons the New England Patriots traded the young quarterback to the 49ers. 

Mahomes was lucky to have a guy like Smith to see the writing on the wall and still take him under his wing, giving him crucial advice to weather any adversity that came his way. 

"Alex Smith was phenomenal," Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said Tuesday. "He wasn't asked to do this, but he let Patrick into his world. Patrick handled it the right way. He was humbled around Alex. He didn't try to overstep his bounds with Alex when he competed. With that, Alex let him kind of tag along on the field and off the field, showed him how to be a pro. How to study, your diet, your workout plan, family, how you work your family into the National Football League to be a great player in the National Football League. I joke about it, but it's true. Patrick couldn't pay Alex enough for what he gave him with the experience."

Mahomes took over last season as the Chiefs' starting quarterback and Smith was traded to Washington where he later suffered a gruesome leg injury that has kept him sidelined since. 

During his first year at the helm of the Chiefs' offense, Mahomes took the league by storm, throwing for 50 touchdowns and 5,097 yards. He joined Peyton Manning and Brady as the only three quarterbacks in NFL history to throw 50 touchdowns passes in a single season. His improvisation allowed him to paint with all the grace and beauty of Leonardo Da Vinci. 

Instead of the Mona Lisa, Mahomes was crafting masterpieces rarely seen before in the NFL. 

[RELATED: Sherman identifies what makes 49ers' defense so tough to beat]

His talent popped immediately. His bazooka for a right arm has made jaw-dropping throw after throw as he's ascended to the top of the NFL quarterback hierarchy. He excels under pressure whether that's a defensive end bearing down on him or the Chiefs falling into a deep hole as they did in their AFC divisional-round win over the Houston Texans. 

Down 24-0 in the blink of an eye, Mahomes, icy cool, could be seen rallying his teammates on the sideline. He spoke. They listened intently and believed in their leader's words. Then, the flood gates opened as the Chiefs outscored the Texans 51-7 for the rest of the game, putting an aura of invincibility around someone destined to be an all-time great.

It's rare for young quarterbacks, no matter how talented, to command the attention of their team. Normally that takes time, a learning process filled with bruises and failures. But Mahomes was given a gift not afforded to most about-to-blossom stars: A veteran to show them how to succeed in the NFL before graciously handing them the keys. 

Mahomes came to the NFL with all the tools to ascend to the pantheon of NFL greats. Alex Smith's lessons gave him the road map to accelerate his rise. 

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 9 p.m. Tuesday and 3 p.m. Saturday).

Also tune in at 1 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday for a two-hour special of "49ers Pregame Live" with Laura Britt, Donte Whitner, Jeff Garcia, Ian Williams, Kelli Johnson, Greg Papa and Grant Liffmann. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on "49ers Postgame Live," starting immediately after the game.