GREEN BAY, Wis. — Two hours before the Packers’ evening practice on Thursday, head coach Mike McCarthy sat in a conference room adjoining his office, working on call sheets for undrafted rookie quarterbacks Marquise Williams and Joe Callahan. Green Bay was three days away from its Hall of Fame Game opener with the Colts. With Aaron Rodgers unlikely to get more than a series or two, if that, and backup Brett Hundley on the shelf with a bum ankle, the bulk of the snaps would be going to Williams and Callahan, who played last season for North Carolina and Division III Wesley College in Dover, Delaware, respectively.
The call sheet is that multi-colored, densely coded document that is later laminated and used by the coach as a shield to foil would-be lip-readers. The sheets for both rookies went about two-thirds of the way down a single page.
These call sheets, McCarthy said, are “for rookies who’ve never played an NFL game. I’ll show you what a real one looks like.”
He then produced an eight-plus-page, binder-ringed beast beside which a T.G.I. Fridays menu would seem streamlined and understated. This was McCarthy’s call sheet from last January’s cardiac-arresting 26–20 divisional-round loss to the Cardinals. After Rodgers tied the game with yet another truth-is-stranger-than-fiction Hail Mary—this one to Jeff Janis—McCarthy approached his quarterback on the sideline.
“So, I’m thinking about going for two,” he recalled telling No. 12 on the sideline. Rodgers responded with a raised eyebrow expression communicating a healthy measure of skepticism. With Randall Cobb having left the game in the first quarter with a bruised lung, the Packers were unable to field the receiver groups used in their two-point conversion plays. Yes, they could’ve shifted people around and flown by the seat of their pants, but then guys would’ve been running a play they’d never practiced. The Packers kicked the point and lost in overtime.
Cobb had been a “huge part” of that game plan. “This is the page I wanted to be on,” says McCarthy, pointing to a chunk of plays designed for No. 18. “And this is the page I had to live on.”
On which page will the Packers play this season? Much of that will depend on the health of the men running under Rodgers’s passes. Cobb is back. So, we thought, was Jordy Nelson, Rodgers’s most effective deep threat. After a torn right ACL last August sidelined him for all of 2015, Nelson seemed on schedule to rejoin the team for its 2016 training camp. Alas, a self-described “hiccup”—a minor off-season issue with his left knee—resulted in him being placed on the PUP list.
When asked about the hiccup, Nelson was pleasant but not forthcoming. “We’re doing good,” he told me, standing in his stall late Thursday afternoon. Neither he nor people in the Packers building seem overly concerned about his return. McCarthy is among the NFL’s most progressive coaches when it comes to resting players, giving them down time. (Rodgers was given that Thursday night practice off. Nobody practiced the next day, with the team observing its customary “STAAA Friday.” That acronym stands for Soft Tissue Application and Activation, meaning the guys get massages, contrast treatments—heat and cold—basically devoting a day to reducing swelling, and regenerating tired muscles.)
But how is everyone else recovering from the many injuries that plagued the team last year? After a subpar 2015 season marred by an ankle injury, No. 3 receiver Davante Adams is healthy and making plays in training camp. Yes, he’s had some inexplicable drops, but overall, says McCarthy, he's “having a good camp.”
While Jared Abbrederis has caught everything in his area code over the last two weeks, he needs to show that he can stay healthy. Like last year, Jeff Janis isn’t having a great camp. Still, he’ll probably make the roster based on his heroics in that OT loss at Arizona, alone. If Ty Montgomery, whom McCarthy calls “intriguing,” returns from the ankle injury that ended his ‘15 season, he'll leapfrog Janis and Abbrederis, but he's yet to take a snap in camp.
Beneath them, fifth-round pick Trevor Davis—who spent the last two seasons hauling in passes from Cal teammate Jared Goff—is showing well. The staff is likewise intrigued by undrafted rookies Herb Waters (“a good player,” says McCarthy,) and Geronimo Allison.
“This is by far the most competitive group of receivers we’ve had,” says Nelson. “Guys understand the playbook extremely well, so they’re playing with confidence, giving themselves opportunities.”
But the ravaged receiving corps wasn't the only reason the Pack averaged just 334 yards of total offense last season, better than only nine other teams. Eddie Lacy was a spectator Thursday night; he’d tweaked an ankle the previous day. The sight of him standing around served as a reminder of the team's other problems. Last year, you’ll recall, Lacy reported for camp looking like a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. He never did find his mojo. While he’s still a dozen or so pounds north of the wishful number assigned to him on the roster—5’ 11”, 234 pounds—he’d been moving well, until that nuisance injury. McCarthy, who called him out after last season, is happy with him.
He is less pleased with his tight ends. “That’s the group we really didn’t get enough out of [in 2015],” says the coach. That’s why GM Ted Thompson dipped a rare toe in the free agency waters last March, bringing in 6’ 5”, 246-pound Jared Cook, who immediately became the fastest, most athletic tight end on the roster. But Cook underwent foot surgery in early June, and hasn’t practiced yet in this camp. That’s why, this Sunday, Green Bay is working out 33-year-old Kellen Winslow II, who’s been out of the league since 2013.
If Cook mends quickly, if Lacy can get down to a svelte 240, if Nelson can get rid of his hiccups, then this club will do serious damage to opposing defenses. They’d damn well better, goes the thinking among a large swathe of impatient Cheeseheads, who aren’t mollified by the fact that their team is coming off its seventh straight playoff appearance; that Green Bay has made the postseason 18 times in the last 23 years. All they know is that they haven’t won a Super Bowl in six seasons, and that Rodgers is 32. His window, they fear, is closing.
“I don’t see that,” says McCarthy of the now-or-never narrative. “I mean, the way [Rodgers] is playing right now, he’s got at least six years.” Bolstering his longevity: recently adopted rules focused on player safety.
That said, some Packers definitely feel a sense of urgency. “We’re not getting any younger,” Cobb allows. “Especially Aaron at quarterback. Your team changes every year. You hope it doesn’t change drastically, but we have a lot of veteran guys getting up in age. Contracts are coming up. You can’t control some of those things.”
“I don’t want to say the window’s closing,” Nelson mused. “But we won the Super Bowl in my third year, and now I’m in my ninth.”
During their run to the Super Bowl XLV, “we won three playoff games on the road, and had some very fortunate things happen. A couple years ago we had some very unfortunate things happen.” Two debacles spring to mind: the Pack muffed an onside kick, then allowed what amounted to Hail Mary of a two-point conversion from Russell Wilson to Luke Willson, in the NFC title game in Seattle.
“You have to play your best football at the right time,” Nelson concluded. “And you have to get a little lucky.”
And stay a little healthier.