Packers ready to bloom
General manager Ted Thompson has been building this team for five years.
Coach Mike McCarthy has been running it for four.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers has been in the system for five years and starting for two. He has young targets who have been growing with him in tight end Jermichael Finley, receivers Greg Jennings, James Jones and Jordy Nelson and running back Ryan Grant.
Few key Packers have left through free agency as Thompson and lead negotiator Russ Ball have extended the contracts of Jennings, receiver Donald Driver, safety Nick Collins and offensive tackle Chad Clifton, among others.
“The great thing about our philosophy in upper management is we keep our guys,” Rodgers said. “We have a lot of younger guys who … have grown up in this offense and are certainly understanding it well. They’ve done the same thing over and over again, the same reps year after year. There starts to be a lot more chemistry and continuity on the field.”
So the feeling here—from Kroll’s restaurant across from Lambeau Field to the Ray Nitschke practice field—is this team might be ready to hit its sweet spot.
“We’re due to bring that Lombardi Trophy back here,” Finley said. “I think we’ll be in Dallas dancing.”
Even the head coach does not shy away from the feeling.
“It’s the best group of men I’ve stood in front of in my five years,” McCarthy said. “Hopefully that equates to a championship team.”
McCarthy unabashedly likes this team. And there is much to like.
“I don’t have concerns about offense, defense or special teams,” he said. “I clearly am confident we have the opportunity to win the Super Bowl if we stay on the path that will be created for us. I felt that in prior years, but I feel it the strongest coming into this season.
“But you have to take it one day at a time. It’s nice when people think highly of your team, but it’s such a long year. So much can happen.”
It’s not as if the Packers have no concerns. Al Harris, a mainstay at cornerback for seven years, has yet to practice and will be trying to come back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament at 35.
The Packers are emphasizing special teams in camp after having issues a year ago. McCarthy is spending more time with the kicking, coverage and return teams. Coaches have made scheme changes, particularly on punt protection. And Thompson plans to weigh special teams play heavily into roster decisions.
But the most questionable area might be the pass rush. The Packers ranked 30th in sacks per pass play last season and since have lost outside linebacker Aaron Kampman. And Clay Matthews, their leading sacker in 2009 with 10, is out with a hamstring injury that has bothered him for a year and a half.
The Packers would have liked to have added another pass rusher in the offseason, but there were better values at other positions in the draft, Thompson said. And most of the best free-agent pass rushers were 4-3 ends who would have projected as outside linebackers in the Packers’ 3-4.
So the Packers have to hope Brad Jones, who started seven games last year when Kampman was hurt, and unproven Brandon Chillar and Frank Zombo can contribute. They have reason to be hopeful because defensive coordinator Dom Capers has been able to create a pass rush with marginally talented players in the past.
“We have to create one-on-ones with our players,” McCarthy said. “We feel we’ve had a very good offseason to evaluate our scheme and our players, so we have more opportunities for more people. We’re doing more schematically that is tailored to our players.”
Say this for the Packers: They have a plan, and they are following it.