Packers added talent in offseason
The Packers might not be a playoff team, but it's apparent they have added a number of talented players, writes John Clayton.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- When Brett Favre said this Packers team is as talented as any he's been a part of, the national reaction was like he had just thrown another crazy interception.
You'd think after 15 seasons, people would learn to understand Favre, who might be pro football's most honest quote. He releases thoughts as quickly as he releases passes from a three-step drop. Critics jumped on the beginning of the quote and ignored the important ending.
|Inside Packers camp|
How did second-year QB Aaron Rodgers look? What's the status of RB Ahman Green? Those are just two of the things John Clayton touches on in his observations from Packers camp.
• Inside Packers camp
At Raiders camp a week ago, former Packers defensive lineman Sean Jones was saying roughly the same thing. Those Mike Holmgren Super Bowl teams had some great players, but they went to Super Bowls because their experience came together to win key games.
A visit to Packers camp proved Favre hasn't lost his vision. The Packers have a pretty good group of athletes. Second-round choice Greg Jennings should be at least the No. 3 receiver. Guards Daryn Colledge and Jason Spitz may be rookies, but they have plenty of talent. Linebacker A.J. Hawk is already a starter and a fan favorite. Free-agent acquisitions Charles Woodson (CB), Marquand Manuel (S) and Ryan Pickett (DT) should all be upgrades.
No, let's not start "The Pack Is Back" campaign yet, but it's clear that the franchise isn't dead. First-year head coach Mike McCarthy is restoring life to a proud team that hit the wall last season. Favre's mind wandered as he struggled through a 4-12 nightmare. Lambeau Field lost its ability to intimidate opponents. As the weather got cold, the Packers turned colder.
McCarthy is warming them with up-tempo practices. Padded evening practices are almost at full speed, missing only the tackling. Drills are lively. Compared to the reduced workload in other camps around the league, the Packers are probably doing as much hitting as any team. There are a lot of talented athletes on the field and it's clear the Packers have gained team speed.
It's also clear the Packers aren't as bad as those outside Lambeau think. Of course, Bill Parcells said it best: A winning coach has to pick the best 53 players, not the best 53 athletes. The Packers have athletes. McCarthy has to test them to see who the best players are.
"I saw Brett's interview on TV and everything he said word for word is the same thing I see," tight end Bubba Franks said. "This is the most athletes we've had here, and I'm in my seventh year. If we can get these young guys on the same page with the vets, we're going to surprise some people."
If interceptions count in your league, and you owned Brett Favre last season, you couldn't have been pleased. Things might not get a whole lot better in 2006, as the Packers remain challenged on the offensive line, Ahman Green's days of stardom are over and Donald Driver is the only receiver of note. Favre will throw, but let someone else take the chance in fantasy that he returns to glory. Unless, of course, interceptions don't matter to you.
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If the offensive line can't come through, the offense could be a disaster.
What's exciting the Packers the most is the athleticism of the defense. Hawk showed his athleticism at practice, making a Brian Urlacher-type pursuit of a ball carrier to make a tackle. He has the speed to close on tackles and drop into coverage from the weakside linebacker position. Teaming Hawk with middle linebacker Nick Barnett puts the Packers two-thirds of the way toward having a top linebacking corps. The competition on the strong side is between Ben Taylor, Abdul Hodge and Brady Poppinga. Unlike the past couple of years, the Packers have options at linebacker.
The Packers have enough athletes on defense that they won't fall into the Cover 2 trend that's taking over the NFC North. Cornerbacks will be playing mainly man-to-man. Linebackers will be aggressive. Defensive linemen will fire up the field. The Packers are carrying over the aggressive Jim Bates defense from a year ago.
"We're using about 95 percent of last season," Barnett said. "It's the defense that allowed Jason Taylor to get all of those sacks [in Miami]. There will be a lot of third-down blitzing."
The addition of Woodson solidifies the Packers' pass coverage for the first time since the team traded Mike McKenzie to the Saints during the 2004 season. Woodson teams up with Al Harris, moving the oft-penalized Ahmad Carroll into the No. 3 cornerback role.
"Everybody is buying into everything here," Harris said. "We are going to be better than people think. Coach McCarthy is doing a lot of the things Andy Reid did when he first got to Philadelphia. He practices the same way as Coach Reid. It's fast tempo. Good teams have fast tempo. And I love the chance to man up on everything in coverage."
Under Bates last season, the Packers finished seventh on defense and No. 1 against the pass. The addition of Hawk, Woodson, Manuel, Pickett and others has upgraded that unit.
"This is going to be an attacking defense," Woodson said. "The defense is going to be man-to-man. I think we've got talent. We definitely have talent. I've been on talented teams that didn't win a damn thing because we couldn't get everybody on the same page all the time. The most important thing here is getting everybody on the same page."
McCarthy's biggest task -- and one of the reasons he was chosen as head coach -- is to rebuild the confidence of the franchise. General manager Ted Thompson knew McCarthy when he was in Green Bay as the quarterbacks coach. Favre likes McCarthy and vice versa. That was an important element, because it helped in getting Favre back for another season.
The Packers' offense has talent but the unit lost its confidence last season, scoring less than 20 points a game. Interceptions topped touchdown passes, 30 to 20. The offensive line was a mess, decimated by injuries and players leaving for other teams. The poor play of the line and injuries to Ahman Green and Najeh Davenport took away the running attack. Favre, playing from behind too often, forced too many interceptions.
Longtime Packers like McCarthy's fresh approach to the offense. In some ways he's giving Favre a little more freedom than Holmgren and Mike Sherman did. Though the system is still the West Coast offense and McCarthy teaches it in its purest form, McCarthy isn't as rigid with the progression system. He's allowing for more playmaking.
"Now, we are going deep," wide receiver Donald Driver said. "We're airing it out past 20 yards instead of just the short, underneath routes. He's trying to jump on people from the beginning. It's not more one, two, three progressions. Whoever wins against the defensive backs gets the ball."
One of the staples of the Packers' West Coast offense has always been the decoys. In most routes, one receiver would go deep to clear out an area for the intended receiver. With McCarthy, all the receivers are in play.
Naturally, the Packers don't have a receiver talented enough to replace Javon Walker, who was traded to Denver for a second-round choice. But his replacement on the roster is Jennings, who has been the early star of camp. He has deep speed and great hands. There's a chance he could challenge Robert Ferguson for starting time once the season begins.
"He's nice," Franks said of Jennings. "He's picking up the system like he was a veteran. We are going to score a lot of points. Our practices are tough, but what we went through last year, we needed it. We need to get that edge back. We don't lose on Lambeau. Guys were coming in here last year not scared to play on our field."
An opening home game against the Bears should be the perfect motivation. It gives the veterans incentive against a hated rival. It gives the rookies a quick understanding of the rivalries and tradition that come with playing for the Packers.
Favre's statement from earlier this week might not be that crazy. The Packers have talent. The challenge will be putting it all together.
"I think Brett sees some of the young guys and the speed," Thompson said of Favre's comments. "I wouldn't presume to compare us to the teams of the 1990s. You don't see Santana Dotson, Sean Jones, Reggie White and others. But you do see some pretty good players."
Maybe there is hope.
John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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