Packers coach Mike McCarthy surrendered play-calling duties after Green Bay's devastating loss to Seattle in the NFC Championship. Jerk reaction or wise choice?
Site: Practice fields adjacent to Lambeau Field.
What I Saw: Morning practice, Friday, Aug. 7. Low 70s and gray skies, occasional mist. Refreshing. However practice was cut short after about 90 minutes as coach Mike McCarthy looks to shield his already injury-bitten team from a wet field.
Three things you need to know about the Packers:
1. Mike McCarthy is not calling the shots. This is the biggest change for a team that was a botched onside kick away from reaching the Super Bowl. In fact, it’s the biggest structural change for the organization since firing defensive coordinator Bob Sanders in 2009. McCarthy enters his 10th year in Green Bay; he has a Super Bowl, a street named after him in town and twice in the last four years has directed the NFL’s top-scoring offense. Making such a drastic change after one aching loss? Said Mike Holmgren of McCarthy’s choice: “What’s wrong with you? You never give up play-calling!” There’s nothing necessarily wrong with McCarthy’s play-calling, but rather something problematic with the machine. The coach felt that other parts of his team — specifically special teams — suffered because he focused so intensely on minutia of the offense, so he tapped longtime assistant Tom Clements to navigate game days. When you have a quarterback as mechanical as Aaron Rodgers, and an offensive line as dependable as the Packers, you don’t need a lot to keep the engine oiled. And so the new chapter of McCarthy’s tenure begins. “I don’t see him as much now,” says wide receiver Randall Cobb. “He’s not with the offense as much as he used to, but he’s definitely there. You feel his presence everywhere.” What we’ll find out quickly: if this will help Green Bay in a larger sense or is simply a jerk reaction to one loss — a decision with potential to implode.
2. The Packers have lost two of their top three corners. Left cornerback Tramon Williams inked a three-year, $21 million deal with the Browns while Davon House, who was used mostly in dime, “wanted to be the number one guy” and signed on for four years at $24.5 million in Jacksonville. Suddenly, Green Bay found itself a bit thin in the secondary. Sam Shields became the sole returning corner, and at 27, the oldest player in the defensive back room. I wouldn’t be surprised if Shields takes on a larger role this season, shifting away from his regular right side to shadow the opponent’s No. 1 receiver at times. “I don’t know what the coaches think,” “Shields says. “But I’m willing to do it. I’d like to be that top guy.” Casey Hayward will likely start in the other spot. General Manager Ted Thompson spent his first two draft picks on potential corners in Damarious Randall (first round) and Quinten Rollins (second round). Randall was one of the most intriguing players in the draft, a free safety with the speed and size of a cornerback, and should figure in the rotation this season, mostly in dime. One wild card to look out for: LaDarius Gunter, an undrafted free agent, who has had great offseason reviews. However the one play I noticed Gunter in Friday, he overplayed wide receiver Jimmie Hunt and got beat badly.
3. This team needs to get healthy — especially at outside linebacker, where there are currently just four healthy bodies. Of course most Packers fans are concerned about one linebacker in particular: Clay Matthews, who has missed four-straight practices with a sore knee. Matthews, wearing compression leggings and a t-shirt, plead that reporters not worry about him. “This is the best I’ve felt the entire offseason,” says Matthew, who is continuing his transition to inside linebacker (when he’s on the field).
What will determine success or failure for the Packers: That they don’t have an epic collapse again. All kidding aside, there is not reason the Packers shouldn’t return to the NFC Championship game. Their division is a cinch, and as long as Aaron Rodgers is in his prime, dominance is the expectation.
Player I saw and really liked. Cornerback Casey Hayward, the favorite to take Tramon William’s starting spot. Hayward actually underwent a minor foot surgery at the end of last season, and was limited during the offseason program, but looked just fine when I saw him on Friday. During an 11 on 11 drill, Hayward read a throw by Matt Blanchard perfectly. In the back of he end zone, he cut in front of Jeff Janis for what should have been an interception but it bounced off Hayward’s chest.
Five dot-dot-dot observations about Green Bay. Nate Palmer proves you can totally play football with a club hand (take notice, Jason Pierre Paul). With a cast on his left hand, Palmer batted down a ball from Scott Tolzien….. I like rookie wideout Ty Montgomery a lot. He reminds me of Randall Cobb — overall similar skillset, with Montgomery perhaps a tad stronger — and should be used in a variety of ways on offense, plus contribute right away by returning kickoffs….. Secondary coach Joe Whitt is one of the most animated assistants I’ve seen yet. He wouldn’t stop yapping in positional drills (mostly words of encouragement) and jumped up and down on the sideline when Randall broke up a pass in 11 on 11s….. It was my first time at Lambeau, and I’ll admit, I spent a few minutes simply in awe of the place. Coolest fact I learned: When they moved the tunnel during reconstruction, they brought a patch of cement from the old tunnel, so that players could step on the same ground that Vince Lombardi, Bart Starr, Forrest Gregg, and so many great Packers once walked….. I’ll just let Aaron Rodgers’ Tweet from Friday speak for itself. It’s wonderful:
Can't wait to see what my Espn QBR was from practice today. Glad they factor in clean handoffs and walk thru td passes b/c I was on point— Aaron Rodgers (@AaronRodgers12) August 7, 2015
The one name on the roster I’d forgotten about. Richard Rodgers. The Packers achieved all of their offensive accolades last season with very little production from their tight ends. Rodgers, the 2014 third-round draft pick, barely registered as a blip last season, but we should probably know better than to overlook a Packers draft pick from Cal-Berkeley. I'd expect this Rodgers to take on a larger, pass-catching role in 2015.
The thing I will remember about Green Bay: The Game That Shall Not Be Named isn’t talked about much in this building, although the painstaking loss still lingers. “I haven’t watched it, I can’t watch it, really, I have no interest in watching it,” Eddie Lacy told me. “But I remember the pain, and I never want to feel that pain again.”
Gut feeling as I left camp: Aaron Rodgers is going to be automatic and he returns pretty much every offensive weapon from a team that scored 30.4 points per game last season. Given the team works through its injuries, and the Mike McCarthy no-play calling experiment pans out, say hello to your 2015 NFC (and Super Bowl) favorites.