Already on top, Packers built to stay among elite

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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Coach Mike McCarthy has a championship roster stocked with young talent and playmakers. (AP)  
Coach Mike McCarthy has a championship roster stocked with young talent and playmakers. (AP)  

GREEN BAY -- Seldom has a franchise been more prepared to defend a Super Bowl championship than this year's Green Bay Packers.

It's not that they made a raft of offseason moves because they didn't. It's that they return key starters who were hurt last year and missed the Super Bowl. Plus, this isn't an old team. It's relatively young, with all but one of its significant contributors 27 or younger.

That makes this year's Packers better than the club that beat Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV, which also makes them one of pro football's anomalies -- a defending champion that actually could repeat. It hasn't happened since the 2004 New England Patriots, the longest drought since the Super Bowl began.

People ask if the Packers are more than just a club that got hot at the right time last season, and I tell them to watch this summer's practices. Green Bay is locked and loaded ... or re-loaded. Everywhere you look there is talent and depth, with some of last year's emergency starters -- like running back James Starks -- experienced backups.

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"With what we went through last year, with everyone on injured reserve, there ain't no excuses," said cornerback Charles Woodson. "We have guys in this locker room who were a part of it and saw the way we did it -- the circumstances we rose above -- so there's no excuse for us not to do it again."

I'm with Woodson. Running back Ryan Grant returns. So does tight end Jermichael Finley, and I can't overstate the significance of their additions. Let's just put it this way: When last season was over, people were calling Aaron Rodgers one of the game's elite quarterbacks. Well, adding two of his most effective weapons in the huddle only makes him that much more dangerous.

Now let's turn to a defense that, outside of Pittsburgh, allowed the fewest points, produced 24 interceptions and frazzled Ben Roethlisberger in the Super Bowl. It subtracted four starters plus one other significant contributor during 2010, yet still was one of the league's best. Safety Morgan Burnett is back. So is defensive lineman Mike Neal. Anyway, you get the idea.

When it comes to this year's Super Bowl, the Pack definitely could be back.

  

Offseason workouts

Most teams had informal team workouts during the lockout. Not Green Bay. Instead, each Packer went about his business in the offseason, though offensive linemen sometimes worked out together. It was a different approach, and, considering the length of last season, one that seemed logical.

"I was comfortable the way our players went about it," said coach Mike McCarthy. "It was more so based on the length of our season. A big part of my job is risk assessment, to talk about practice environments, what you're trying to accomplish and so forth. I'm sure there are teams that felt it was very productive, (and) that's great. But based on the length of our season, where we were coming out of that season, I was fine with the way it went down."

  

Draft philosophy

General manager Ted Thompson believes in building through the draft, so it's essential that he drafts the right players. Thompson won't draft for need; he's one of those who subscribes to the "best-player-available" philosophy, one reason the Packers were the team to step forward when Rodgers was available at the 24th pick in the 2005 draft.

He could've been the first.

Thompson pays attention to more than talent; character, intelligence and the ability to assimilate with teammates and coaches factor into decisions. But Thompson is a pragmatist, too. When the Packers switched from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 his first two choices were defensive tackle B.J. Raji and linebacker Clay Matthews -- important contributors to last year's Super Bowl champions.

"Ted Thompson does a decent job of evaluating talent," said Arizona wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald. "He does a helluva job in the draft. The players he finds late in drafts, quarterback evaluations, running backs ... I mean, it's unbelievable.

"You think of Clay Matthews as a first-round pick, but he wasn't on anybody's radar when he was coming out of USC. He was supposedly the third-best linebacker on his college team, and now he's off to an amazing start. I'll say it again: Ted Thompson does a heckuva job evaluating talent."

Thompson is smart enough to understand that if you're fortunate enough to have a franchise quarterback, you do what you can to protect him ... and the Packers have. For the second straight year, they used their first-round draft choice on an offensive lineman. Last year it was tackle Bryan Bulaga; this year it was tackle Derek Sherrod, whom they're trying at left guard.

The moves aren't sexy, but they're necessary to the future of the franchise, basically because quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the future. Rodgers last season suffered two concussions and looked woozy after he was hammered by Julius Peppers in the NFC championship game.

Concussions will drive quarterbacks from the game. It happened to Steve Young, and it happened to Troy Aikman. The Packers want to make sure it doesn't happen to them. So they found another bodyguard for Rodgers, confident that keeping him upright keeps them in the playoff picture for years. I'd second that motion.

  

Approach to free agency

The Philadelphia Eagles added so many luminaries from other clubs that backup quarterback Vince Young dubbed them "the Dream Team." Maybe. But they must go through Green Bay first, and the Packers know it. Trust me, these guys feel good about themselves, even though they barely made a ripple in free agency beyond re-signing some of their own players, like wide receiver James Jones, kicker Mason Crosby and fullback John Kuhn.

"What do you think about all the moves the Eagles are making?" someone asked linebacker Casey Matthews.

"Yeah," said Matthews, "they got Casey Matthews."

The Packers kept the core of last year's team intact, and last year's team won the Lombardi Trophy. So that's good. But this is better: The Packers had 16 players on injured reserve in 2010, including starters like running back Ryan Grant, tight end Jermichael Finley and safety Morgan Burnett.

Now, they're back, and the Packers view them as free-agent additions. Except there's a difference: These guys know the system, know their teammates and know the Packers' way. There is no introduction to anything, which should benefit the club after this year's lockout.

"The NFL is all about windows," said Rodgers. "We have guys signed and guys in the right spots where we can make a three-or-four-year run here. When you have a general manager whose philosophy is to draft players, bring them up in your program, then pay them, you can't help but feel confident we're going to make a run regardless of who's signed.

"We have a guy who believes in drafting players, bringing them up in the system and paying them. That gives you confidence that it's not just a three-or-four-year window. We're going to bring guys in consistently every year and pay them and have an opportunity every year to be successful."

  

Significant changes

There really aren't any. The Packers lost defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins to the Eagles, and that hurt their inside pass rush. They cut tackle Mark Tauscher and linebackers Nick Barnett and Brandon Chillar, too, but all can be replaced.

The biggest moves are the returns of people like Finley, Grant and Burnett. I watched three days of practices, and Finley was nothing short of sensational, once catching two passes at once during a 7-on-7 drill, one with his right hand and one with his left.

Grant looks sharp, too, and, suddenly, the Packers are deep at a position that was supposed to cripple them last year. I watched Grant breeze through the defensive line and noticed how effortlessly he moved to his right, always good when you're coming off an injury to your right ankle.

"He looks like the first year he got here," said coach Mike McCarthy. "He's had three or four cuts where you go, 'Yeah, he's back.'"

Thompson's philosophy is not to leave yourself short at key positions. The Packers last year stockpiled defensive backs, and it paid off in Super Bowl XLV when Woodson and Sam Shields bowed out at halftime. Shields returned in the fourth quarter.

That's why Thompson responded when Rodgers made a public plea for the re-signing of Jones, calling it a "high-priority" move. In essence, Rodgers told management that he needed Jones as a target, and Thompson paid attention. He re-signed him. He re-signed Kuhn and Crosby, too. The message is clear: We have the players here to win.

  

Training camp routine

The new CBA outlaws two-a-day workouts and reduces the number of padded drills, but McCarthy was headed in that direction anyway. So the Packers practice once, at 7 p.m., finishing their two-hour-15-minute workouts under the lights at Nitschke Field, a short walk across the street from Lambeau.

"I actually was going to this format before the CBA," said McCarthy. "We were scheduled to do it last year, but I didn't know if we were ready as a team.

"I believe in one-a-day practices. I've tried it for years, and I'm tired of screaming at the trainer. It's just that after that fourth, fifth and sixth day, you're adjusting your practices all the time. So you're not getting out of it what you think. I found it to be counterproductive. Now, you come out here to coach your team hard, and you're always pushing them through individual drills and practicing once a day.

"So we do strength and conditioning in the morning and practice at night. We do strength and conditioning from 7 (a.m.) to 9, then we go from 9 to noon where we correct what we did the night before, and we walk through it. So they get the corrections, they get it from the coordinator, they get it from the individual coach, then they go and walk through it."

It makes sense. Players stay fresh, their attention span is sharpened and there's a logical progression to the day that promotes recovery and may increase the learning curve.

  

Dealing with expectations

The first move coach Mike McCarthy made when he brought his team together in training camp was to tell them that they're not defending anything. They're the hunted, he said, not the hunter. OK, so it's not exactly a novel approach, but these Super Bowl champions are different. They're coming off a year where they weren't allowed to experience the effects of a Super Bowl, both good and bad. The lockout put a lid on Super Bowl hangovers, and that's good. The Packers should benefit from it.

"There are a lot of positives that go along with that," Rodgers said of the lockout's effect. "I remember being on a real bad team in '05. You go against a top team where the team has a won a Super Bowl, and it's a different mindset (now). There's a mindset of, 'Hey, let's hang around and see what happens,' rather than 'here we go again.' They're going to make a play; you're expecting them to make a play.

"Now we're that team on the other side of the coin. I think the difference between our team and other Super Bowl winners is that we added legitimate players to the mix. We added guys during the season that contributed, but now you're adding someone (Finley) who, in my opinion, is the top tight end in the league and a running back (Grant) who's had a number of successful seasons.

"We know this is a new team because you're adding back players, and you're adding new players to the mix. So I think that, in itself, changes the mindset and the challenge. You're saying, 'Hey, let's repeat with these guys (because) we did it with the other guys.'"

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