The road signs say Green Bay, and a Brett Favre's Steak House sign still lurks next to Lambeau Field ... but it sure doesn't feel the same as the last time I visited here, in 2006. The Pack still practice at the Don Hutson Center, directly adjacent to Lambeau Field. It's a two-field plot with a two-lane boulevard running along the west sideline. Fans squeeze into metal bleachers along that side or nose up to the north end zone fencing, and they still get to share the post-practice walk from Hutson to Lambeau with players if they want.
But those fans are confused. I was in Milwaukee a few weeks ago when Favre decided to unretire, and I was in Green Bay when the Packers told him "no thanks." When asked about the atmosphere, I can only report: People just don't know what to think; it's like they're about to collectively implode. How do you take a side? What do you do when Primary Directive A (worship the Packers) conflicts with Primary Directive B (worship Brett Favre)?
Even after The Trade, I don' think that has changed. At best, people have compartmentalized their frustration. Most fans will rip General Manager Ted Thompson and quietly support Aaron Rodgers. Meanwhile, they've already ordered their Brett Favre Jets jerseys online. My brother, who works in Milwaukee and was raised a Jets fan, is suddenly the most popular guy in his office. Local television stations are looking into broadcasting Jets games. It's just plain silly.
1. As recently as this Tuesday, this offense looked inept, lost. Tons of dropped passes and interceptions; plenty of false starts and penalties. The intrasquad game was atrocious. (Rodgers was 7-of-20 with a pick.) And fights were rampant -- I saw more during two days in Green Bay than I had seen in five at Bears and Lions camp. Altogether typical stuff for early August, but a new quarterback lent even more urgency. Things seemed to be spiraling out of control fast. From an outsider's perspective, when Brett briefly reported to camp it would have been easy to think: Well, they gave Aaron a shot and just look what happened; now they're going back to Favre.
But that wasn't the case, and on Wednesday Favre packed his bags for Hattiesburg. He hadn't been traded yet but it was clear by that morning: Aaron Rodgers is undoubtedly the Packers' starting quarterback. With that taken care of, things have turned around.
For one, the heckling we all heard about last week has faded. Save for a lone screamer on Friday morning ("J-E-T-S, Brett, Brett, Brett!") the crowd is complacent. They even muster a golf clap for Rodgers every now and then. And on the field, play has improved, coach Mike McCarthy having acknowledged as much following Wednesday's and Friday's practices. Receivers finally started making the catches they're supposed to make. Donald Driver and Greg Jennings have been taking bows or dancing after particularly spectacular grabs. Rodgers had two particularly solid practices on Wednesday; and his Friday morning included two hurry-up series that resulted in touchdowns. The first was a pretty "In" route to James Jones; Rodgers placed the ball where only his receiver could touch it. The later included a goal-line shovel pass to Brandon Jackson that the quarterback casually flipped from his wrist. Either play could have been No. 4. You wouldn't have known the difference. (Eight hours later, he had an interception-riddled practice in pads. So goes the rollercoaster ride.)
2. Rip G.M. Ted Thompson all you want for the way he handled the Favre situation, but from Rodgers on down the line this team is built to last, and Thompson is largely responsible. When he arrived in 2005, Thompson was condemned for letting guards Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera go. Fine. Then he rebuilt the interior with two '06 draft picks, Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz (rounds two and three, respectively), and added depth with two fifth-rounders, Junius Coston and Tony Moll ('05 and '06). The Packers' notably deep wide receiver corps comes thanks to Thompson as well. After Donald Driver, the Packers' next two leading receivers are Thompson draft steals: Greg Jennings (round 2, '06) and James Jones (3, '07). Driver is 33, meaning that those two plus Ruvell Martin and Donald Lee, who are both free agent acquisitions of Thompson's, should be handling all the ball-catching in the near future. Add Ryan Grant (free agent, '07) to that mix and perhaps you'll see Thompson in a different light.
3. A few weeks ago I was worried about the Packers' defensive line, what with tackle Corey Williams taking his 17 career sacks to Cleveland and the other tackle, Johnny Jolly, sweating a possible league suspension for a drug arrest. Then Pickett and Justin Harrell, two players who could have filled their shoes, showed up to camp with hamstring and neck injuries. Things looked grim. But the Packers have shuffled and are responding nicely. Colin Cole, who at 330 pounds weighs more than Williams did, has been playing some tackle; and defensive ends Cullen Jenkins and Michael Montgomery have occasionally been pushed inside, a la Justin Tuck in New York, for passing downs. Pickett told me his return is coming in a matter of days, and no one -- not even the coaches -- seems worried that Jolly will actually be disciplined. Again, credit Thompson with the depth. Jolly and Montgomery were both sixth-round picks of Thompson's, and Pickett came unheralded to Green Bay in free agency in '06.
The Packers didn't have a first round draft pick. Their highest selection, receiver Jordy Nelson out of Kansas State, is buried in a deep crop of receivers. And Green Bay doesn't really do big-name free agency. No projected Packers starter played elsewhere last year. With that in mind, and considering Rodgers' relative inexperience, Brian Brohm has been getting the attention expected of a first round pick. But he has yet to live up to it. A month ago, I predicted Brohm would be the big winner in the Favre-Rodgers hubbub. He's the guy behind the guy behind the guy. If Rodgers slipped mid-season, Brohm would swoop in and coast through the year without expectations. Maybe he'd learn a thing or two on the fly. Having watched him in camp, I don't see it happening. Brohm looks lost at times. He dumps off to his backs when he probably shouldn't be. And he loses a lot of balls to bat-downs. Which is fine. He'll change in due time. Remember, no one loved Aaron Rodgers two years ago.
The Packers face just six '08 playoff participants; and did I mention they play in the weak NFC North? But that's just one way to see it. The Vikings are clearly on the rise, plus New Orleans and Carolina look fit to compete in '08. That's ten tough games, plus the rival Bears (who Green Bay lost to on both occasions last year) twice. The Packers should have a pretty good sense of how they'll fare after Week One, a Monday nighter at home against Minnesota. The Vikings' defensive line, which ranked No. 1 against the run last year, will plug up the lanes, forcing Aaron Rodgers to throw; and then they'll bring the heat with newly acquired defensive end Jared Allen. Rodgers could win over a ton of fans by eking out a win and a game-and-a-half head start in the division race. Thirteen wins is a lot to live up to. Packers fans should be happy if Rodgers gets 10.
Post-practice Wednesday. Brett Favre's Steakhouse, I'm sitting at the bar. On the TV, coverage of Brett's plane waiting on the tarmac in Green Bay and a reporter muses, "It may be a long, long time before Brett ever comes back to Green Bay." With that obvious statement, the life was sucked out of the place. A grandma in a pink No. 4 jersey just threw her arms up and sighed. The looks on the Steakhouse employees' faces were priceless, as if they were somehow representing Favre but just didn't know what to say. I swear, one bartender said, aloud, "I'm sorry."
• With Rodgers replacing a quarterback who spent 16 years in the offense, you could imagine all sorts of changes: the playbook gets scaled back; receivers have to get used to a lighter touch, perhaps; linemen acquaint themselves to a different style of scrambler (read: less chaos)... "Nope. Not really," says tight end Donald Lee. "You'd think maybe [the playbook] would shrink, but there's more new stuff than ever this year." Again, Thompson is partly to thank. Because most of this team is homegrown, Rodgers has played with the majority of his offensive teammates on scout or second team units, including Lee. (That's partly why Rodgers had so many younger guys on his side over the past weeks.) Lee thinks the transition should be seamless. No pressure, Aaron.
• Remember the name Ruvell Martin when you get to the late stages of your fantasy draft. (Or, if you don't play fantasy, just remember the name, period.) The 6'4" third-year receiver from Saginaw Valley has shown flashes of brilliance, and he's tight with Aaron Rodgers to the extent that it's become a joke. Against Dallas last year, Rodgers tried to cram a ball into Martin and got chewed out for it on the sideline. When coach Mike McCarthy asked for an explanation, Rodgers quipped, "Ruvell, that's my man." Now teammates mimmick that line almost every day. It'll be tough to pass Jones, Jennings and Driver on the depth chart -- and he'll have to overcome some inconsistency issues to stay ahead of Nelson and Chris Francies -- but for now he's one injury away from being a solid contributor.
• If the meeting of 1st Street and First Ave in Manhattan is the nexus of the universe, then what does that make the intersection of Holmgren Way and Brett Favre Pass in Green Bay now?
• Used to be that Aaron Rodgers looked just like Ryan the intern (now Michael Scott's boss) on The Office. Now that he's a legit NFL starter, I imagine it'll be seen the other way around. (The analogy ends there, by the way. Rodgers' has been the definition of respectful as he takes Favre's spot. No coke binges or attitudes here. Addressing the heckler Friday, he literally said, "some day I can only hope I have fans like that." Aww shucks.) Nevertheless, the resemblance is uncanny.