GREEN BAY, Wis. -- This is the time of the year in the NFL when the defending Super Bowl champions always get a little smoke blown up their you-know-whats. They're back at work again, and everybody loves them. All day long they're told how great they are by the fans and the media alike, they're treated like conquering heroes, and they hear the word "repeat'' uttered at least 30 times a day in various contexts.
It's a trap, of course, and the goal is always to ignore all that, refusing to buy into any sense of accomplishment or complacency. But it's not easy, and that trip through the proverbial minefield is just one of the reasons the last Super Bowl champion to repeat were the Patriots (2003, 2004). In fact, no defending champion has even won a playoff game the following season since the 2005 Patriots beat Jacksonville in the wild-card round before losing at Denver in the divisional round.
I just spent parts of two days in the training camp of the defending champion Green Bay Packers, and so far they're certainly saying all the right things and setting the right tone in the wake of their memorable Super Bowl title run after barely making the playoffs as the NFC's No. 6 seed last January. In Green Bay, the talk is all about looking ahead and not back, and staying on the hunt instead of giving in to the defensive mentality of being the hunted. It all sounds good, but I'm almost certain that if I went back and checked what the Saints, Steelers and Giants were saying at this same point in the past three preseasons, coming off their Super Bowl wins, it'd be a pretty similar mantra.
But that said, I don't think it's just the same old Super Bowl champion talk in the case of these Packers. You can't talk your way to back-to-back, you have to earn it on the field. It's what you do, not what you say. But this is a young, deep and ridiculously talented Green Bay roster, with solid coaching and a quality front office. And that means the premise of the Packers having an extended Super Bowl window of opportunity isn't just some baseless preseason storyline to fall back on. This team is loaded, and it knows it.
"I don't think we're a one-hit wonder,'' Packers safety Nick Collins said Sunday afternoon, on the second full day of Green Bay's camp. "We're a young veteran group who knows how to play the game. Instead of teams trying to hunt us, we're going to hunt them. We're going to bring the fight to them, and attack before we get attacked. That's our plan. We feel like in previous years, the Super Bowl winners maybe went out there and played content with that bull's-eye on their backs. But it's the opposite mentality for us.''
Packers head coach Mike McCarthy set the "staying on the hunt'' tone in the team's first meeting of the season Saturday morning, and that's the right call for a defending champion. Stay aggressive, stay hungry and don't let the script get flipped from us-against-the-world to the-world-against-us. After all, it's worth remembering that Green Bay was 8-6 and in danger of missing the playoffs until it went on that season-ending, glory-earning six-game winning streak. So dominance really wasn't the calling card of the 2010 Packers.
But let's be real, this is no 10-6 team with 10-6 talent. Last year's club did lose those six games, but two were in overtime and Green Bay didn't get beat by more than four points all season long. With the exception of 34-year-old cornerback Charles Woodson, Green Bay is rife with young stars in key spots: quarterback Aaron Rodgers, 27; receiver Greg Jennings, 27; tight end Jermichael Finley, 24; linebacker Clay Matthews, 25; nose tackle B.J. Raji, 25; and Collins, 27.
The return of Finley and running back Ryan Grant, 28 -- both of whom missed almost all of last season on IR -- gives the Packers offense realistic hopes of being far better. And just this weekend, Rodgers successfully lobbied general manager Ted Thompson for the re-signing of free agent No. 3 receiver James Jones and fullback John Kuhn -- two key role players in the Packers' championship drive.
While the Packers rarely make a free agency splash other than re-signing their own, the pipeline that Thompson has established with the draft is well-respected throughout the league, and just keeps supplying more fuel for the Packers' title hopes. This year's draft class includes several expected contributors: first-round pick Derek Sherrod, an offensive tackle who is already working at first-team left guard; second-round slot receiver/return man Randall Cobb; third-round running back Alex Green; and keep an eye on D.J. Williams, a fifth-round steal out of Arkansas who will only add to the Packers' disgustingly deep tight end depth chart.
"The NFL is all about windows, and we have guys signed and guys in the right spots where we can make a three- or four-year run here,'' Rodgers said. " I don't think anyone's going to overlook a certain year, that's just not how we're put together. But when you have a general manager whose philosophy is to draft players, bring them up in your program, and then pay them, you can't help but feel confident that we're going to have an opportunity to make a run. And it gives you confidence that it's not just a three- or four-year window. We're going to bring in guys consistently every year, and have an opportunity every year to be successful.''
Going to the Super Bowl back-to-back is kind of a Green Bay tradition. The 1966-67 Packers won the first two Super Bowls, and the Brett Favre-Mike Holmgren 1996-97 teams won a ring and then lost in the return trip, falling prey to Denver in a sizable upset in Super Bowl XXXII. (That defeat prompted then-Packers GM Ron Wolf to produce my all-time favorite postgame quote, when he likened his heavily favored club to "a fart in the wind'' in terms of fulfilling its dynastic intentions.)
While eight franchises have repeated in the NFL's Super Bowl era, the league has gone longer without a back-to-back champ (six seasons) than it ever has before from 1966 on. And the specter of the so-called post-Super Bowl letdown seems to grow stronger by the year.
Collins actually has a unique take on why the Packers won't fall victim to that syndrome, believing that the vagaries of the NFL lockout actually might help motivate Green Bay this year.
"I think we didn't get the full benefit of being the Super Bowl champions because of the lockout,'' Collins said, citing the fact that the team still hasn't had its ceremonial trip to the White House, and the delayed team ring ceremony that was impacted and somewhat overshadowed by the lockout. "It robbed us of a little. So we want the full experience. After you win the Super Bowl, you have the parade, you go to the White House, and we want to experience all of that at the right time. We want that kind of post-Super Bowl experience, and that's our mentality.''
I get that, but it's possible the lockout also aided these Packers in some way. Though it went on far too long, the lockout may have given Green Bay something of the respite it needed after playing into early February, five weeks after 20 other NFL teams had closed up shop for the season. It's a refrain you hear almost every year from the two Super Bowl teams, how quickly the offseason program arrives and how condensed everything feels after the long playoff run. The Packers certainly got their breather during the lockout -- they were one of the teams that chose not to organize wide-scale player-only workouts -- and that time to recharge and refresh might wind up aiding them in their title defense.
Another potential benefit to the Packers? The Philadelphia "Dream Team'' Eagles have already been christened the NFC team to beat by fans and some in the media, thanks to their eye-popping string of acquisitions of the past week. But it was Green Bay that beat the Eagles twice last season in Philadelphia, once in Week 1, essentially knocking Kevin Kolb out of the team's future, and again in the first round of the NFC playoffs. So the Packers have taken note of the consensus building around Philadelphia's Super Bowl hopes.
"I know one Dream Team and that was with Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley,'' Woodson said Sunday, with more than a hint of sarcasm. "That's the only one I know. They were unstoppable. Now, if they (the Eagles) do that, that's fine. But this is, is it even August yet? Forget about all that talk. The Dream Team beat everybody by 40 points. That was really a dream team. This is the National Football League, and there's going to be a lot of people who have something to say about that.
"I know we've got a good team, and we look to be there at the end. So they can grab the headlines, that's fine. Does it help us in any way? Nah. What helps us is what we do out there on the field. There's no excuse for us not to do it again. Yeah, we've lost a few pieces, but of course we'll gain a few. With the guys we have in place, there's no excuse for us not to do it again.''
With five nationally televised games, including three on the major holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's, the Packers will be getting the full post-Super Bowl spotlight this season. And it starts Thursday night, Sept. 8 at home against the New Orleans Saints, in the NFL's showcase kickoff game of the year. Some defending champions welcome that exposure and pressure, and some shrink from it. The Super Bowl champs always get everyone's best shot the following year, and much of it plays out on the biggest of stages, week by week.
"Our thing is, everyone's going to get our best shot too,'' Jennings said. "We want to deliver it before we take it. But we put ourselves into this position, and that's the treatment we get. We know the spotlight's going to be on us all year. We understand that. But I think from what we've put together here, from top to bottom, we'll have the pieces for a few years that allows us to contend at a high level. Now, whether we come together as a team and get it done, that's a different story.''
It's a story that people in Green Bay, aka "Titletown,'' can't wait to see unfold. But we're at that point of the year when people are only talking about the strength of football teams on paper, not on the field. We're only in the opening days of learning whether the Packers title defense will follow the expected script.
"It's fair to say we'll be a good team,'' Woodson said. "I think it's about capitalizing on that. Every team looks good on paper, and as young as we are, yeah it sounds great. But it's about the hunger factor. Who's going to stay hungry from year to year? I don't think guys here are satisfied with one (ring). So do I think we'll make another run this year or two? Absolutely. What happens after that, I don't know. If we go on a five-year run, I'm going to be here. You can write that down.''