When the Green Bay Packers returned to work for the start of their offseason program in April, Mike McCarthy felt a bit like an overmatched substitute teacher in a class full of unruly high schoolers. With perfect attendance — all of the 63 players under contract at the time were present for the first day of workouts — the Packers coach struggled to get the room to settle down.
“You often judge how the team’s feeling — whether it’s after a game or on a first day — in the team meeting. And when Mike has to kind of quiet guys down, when it’s not just quiet right when he walks in, you know there’s a good energy in the room,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers says. “It’s fun. We’ve got a lot of new faces. We have some new players, new coaches, new responsibilities. Some people have moved on, and that’s the nature of the business. So it’s always fun to get back here and get re-acquainted with the guys, catch up on what they did in the offseason and start working together.”
Hope springs eternal for every team before the games start to count. But for a team that is now more than five years removed from its Super Bowl XLV title and is looking to bounce back from watching its last two seasons end in gut-wrenching fashion in back-to-back overtime playoff losses, the optimism is real — and with good reason. Pro Bowl wide receiver Jordy Nelson is back after missing all of last season with a torn ACL in his right knee; running back Eddie Lacy has shed the weight that slowed him last season; Rodgers’ offensive weaponry has expanded with the free-agent addition of tight end Jared Cook; and a defense that took a colossal step forward a year ago believes it can be championship caliber again.
“I agree with Aaron. It’s a great vibe,” McCarthy said following the draft. “When you walked into the team meeting room there on [the first day], you would have thought we were preparing for a playoff game. It felt like they never left.”
While there are plenty of quarterbacks who’d happily take Rodgers’ numbers in 2015, it was a decidedly off year for him, as the NFL’s all-time leader in quarterback rating recorded the lowest of his time as a starter (92.7). Though he still threw 31 touchdown passes and only eight interceptions, the offense struggled without Nelson, and no one missed him more than Rodgers, his BFF and airport car-pooling partner before road games. Whereas he and Nelson, who set a franchise record for receiving yards (1,519) in 2014, had developed an ESP-like on-field connection, Rodgers lacked that with his other young receivers.
Randall Cobb, the team’s No. 2 receiver, should also benefit from Nelson’s return, having seen his production plummet in the first year of a four-year, $40 million deal. Cobbs’ receptions went down by only 12 (91 to 79), but his yardage totals dropped by 458 (to 829) and his touchdowns were halved (12 to six). Third-year receiver Davante Adams was a disappointment when he was promoted into the starting lineup after Nelson’s injury, and he’ll be expected to bounce back in a big way with less pressure on him. Youngsters Ty Montgomery, Jared Abbrederis and Jeff Janis must prove themselves to Rodgers and earn more playing time. Cook gives Rodgers an athletic vertical receiving threat at tight end, something Richard Rodgers, who has great hands but does very little after the catch, hasn’t provided.
Lacy, meanwhile, took McCarthy’s harsh postseason criticism to heart and slimmed down working with P90X founder Tony Horton. After back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons during his first two years in the league, Lacy enters a contract year coming off his worst season (758 yards and only three touchdowns) and so much to prove. It’ll be a season-long audition for either a contract extension or a lucrative free-agent deal elsewhere.
The offensive line went from having one starter miss one game in 2014 to having only one starter make all 16 starts last season. McCarthy believes the starting five — left tackle David Bakhtiari, left guard Josh Sitton, center Corey Linsley, right guard T.J. Lang and right tackle Bryan Bulaga — make up the best line he’s ever had, but it could be the unit’s swan song. Bakhtiari, Sitton and Lang are all headed for free agency after the season.
McCarthy minced no words this offseason, praising the improvement he saw from the defense while challenging that unit to make further progress. “We need to be a championship defense,” he said in February. “We took a step toward that last year, but we need to take another step.” The group kept the Packers in games when the offense struggled, but in the end, it must do more.
Up front, they’ll rely on Mike Daniels, who signed a $41 million extension in December, and first-rounder Kenny Clark, a need pick after veteran B.J. Raji’s unexpected retirement. But the biggest move is with five-time Pro Bowl linebacker Clay Matthews, who after a year-and-a-half playing inside will move back outside, where he will do what he does best: rush the quarterback off the edge. Ageless Julius Peppers will line up opposite him and draw attention, too.
The secondary remains the unit’s best group. Top corner Sam Shields and 2015 first-rounder Damarious Randall will line up outside with Quinten Rollins and Micah Hyde manning the slot positions. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix enters his third NFL season on the cusp of being one of the league’s top safeties.
Veteran kicker Mason Crosby has been stupendous the past three seasons. He’s made 84-of-98 during the recent stretch, including 13-of-19 from 50-yards-plus. Meanwhile, punter Tim Masthay has been up-and-down. The Packers are hoping last year’s strides on returns continue. Hyde has been excellent as a punt returner, and Montgomery broke free for several big returns before a season-ending ankle injury. Janis came on late, but a healthy Montgomery would give Green Bay’s offense a head start on field position.
The Packers’ four-year run atop the NFC North came to a crashing halt last season, with the Minnesota Vikings’ division title leading some to think there’s been a changing of the guard. But with a healthy Nelson, a slimmer Lacy, a returning-to-form Rodgers and better health — and the NFL’s easiest strength of schedule based on 2015 winning percentage — there’s no reason to believe the Packers won’t be in the Super Bowl conversation once again. This team feels like one that could exorcise its demons — even if Rodgers isn’t making any bold predictions. “
You put those goals out there and you start talking about what you have to do to put yourself in a position to be the last team standing at the end of the year,” Rodgers says. “But you want to finish on top every year, and only one team does. So every other team, if you’re not the Super Bowl champ, you’re falling short. And last season didn’t live up to expectations because we all want to be in that last game.”