GREEN BAY - In fairness, Mike McCarthy did get in free.
But between the work his team did and the entertainment value he saw during Family Night – even without it being a true scrimmage -- the Green Bay Packers coach felt Saturday night was time and money well-spent for the record crowd of 67,336 who came to watch Installation Practice No. 7.
"I'd pay to watch that performance tonight," McCarthy said afterward – before rushing out to catch the post-practice fireworks with his family. "The opportunity to see your favorite football team and be a big part of trying to make us better. The environment the fans created for us was as good as it's been.
"I was a little curious to see what the flow was going to be like because it was totally different to the fans. But the energy from where I was standing was unbelievable. I thought it was awesome."
Unlike past years, when there were more unscripted, competitive move-the-ball periods with live tackling of everyone except quarterbacks, the night was simply a typical practice that the team would hold at Ray Nitschke Field behind the Don Hutson Center – only it was moved west into Lambeau Field and televised statewide.
And with constant music, fans doing The Wave, a post-practice jersey giveaway and the fireworks to close the night, it didn't feel all that different than past years. After all, this is more about giving folks celebrating being a Packers fan – on a warm summer night instead of a frigid winter afternoon – at $10 a ticket rather than full face-value game-day ducats.
"This is my sixth Family Night, but every year, it never ceases to amaze me with the turnout and just how people are so passionate about just practices and intrasquad football," said nose tackle B.J. Raji, who left the practice early with an ankle injury that he deemed minior. "It's just an intrasquad play – it's just us against ourselves. But just the atmosphere [beforehand], guys were out there tailgating, people have been here the whole week, just excited for Family Night. I guess it always amazes me how big it is."
While the practice structure made for a tricky broadcast for Green Bay/Fox Cities FOX affiliate WLUK, Packers president/CEO Mark Murphy said the decision on whether next year's event will return to the scrimmage structure or be a regular practice will be up to McCarthy and what he needs the night to be.
"I think it's still a good value for a family event. It wasn't bait-and-switch," Murphy said with a chuckle, pointing out that the team did warn buyers before tickets went on sale that the format was changing. "Some of the 11-on-11 sessions give you some of the same [action]. I bet fans enjoyed seeing what a practice is like, some of the different aspects of it. Obviously they like seeing quarterbacks trying to throw into rings."
Asked if he'd like to return to the scrimmage structure, Murphy replied, "That's really a football decision. The most important thing is getting the team ready for the regular season."
And that, McCarthy felt, was what happened Saturday night, even though most of the 11-on-11 periods were scripted. The only ones that weren't were the 2-minute drills, which were directed by backup quarterbacks Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien – neither of whom led their groups to touchdowns – while starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers called it a night early.
"I liked tonight," said McCarthy, whose team opens preseason play next Saturday at the Tennessee Titans. "I thought the environment was incredible, the fans were phenomenal. The players really felt the juice. It's a practice versus a scrimmage, but the energy was tremendous. The quality of work I'm sure I'm going to be pleased with watching the tape. It's kind of nice having the JumboTron so you can watch the play live and get a replay right there. It's almost like you're studying the film.
"I felt like we improved as a football team."
There was also a value in exposing the players to that atmosphere – and not just the youngsters. While 13-year veteran Julius Peppers called it "a fun night for the fans" but downplayed the unique nature of the event – I think it's pretty much commonplace around the league," he said – veteran linebacker A.J. Hawk said having so many people attend a practice helps everyone, including the older players, get into game-day mode early.
"I think it's more about getting in the stadium, feeling that the first couple plays. It's pretty easy to overreact the first time you get in front of the crowd," Hawk said. "I think it's valuable for everybody. You get into your first game action after banging with each other for so long, you get all excited and they throw a bootleg at you the first time and you're 6 yards deep in the backfield. That happens to me, I know. I need to be part of every game atmosphere I can."
And that's one thing the crowd delivered, even if it took public-address announcer Bill Jartz pleading with them for more noise during the final period, when kicker Mason Crosby connected on six straight field goals to end the night.
"Playing in games in college is completely different than playing games in the NFL. You can't really compare the two," said rookie wide receiver Davante Adams, a second-round pick from Fresno State, whose home stadium seats 41,031. "I had some great games in college, and obviously you cherish those, and it was unbelievable, but being at Lambeau Field, it's just a different feeling. There's just a little something extra to it. You're a pro now, and people are counting you to make plays, and that's what I'm planning on doing."
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on "Green & Gold Today" on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.
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