Mike McCarthy sat in his third-floor office at Lambeau Field Tuesday afternoon, a couple of hours after telling the world what a good vibe he’d been getting from his team throughout the offseason.
The Green Bay Packers coach was talking about opportunities wasted, and opportunities still in front of his team. While he was clearly looking ahead, he also was acknowledging the lessons of the past.
After the team’s final open organized team activity practice, in his final press conference until training camp starts in late July, McCarthy had said this from the media auditorium podium: “Frankly, I feel this – and I’ve thought it since I came back in April; it started in the weight room – this team has a different edge to it, a higher sense of urgency than I can recall. I don’t know how to sit down and measure it and put it on a scale each year. Maybe it’s my higher sense of urgency.”
Quantifiable or not, McCarthy said, he felt it. Why? Well, the explanation was easier than the measurement.
“I think it’s a number of things. I don’t think it’s just one reason,” McCarthy said, leaning back in his black leather chair. “Obviously there’s motivation from opportunity missed. There’s motivation from the fact that we have a lot of people here who know what it takes to win a championship and know that we have that ability.
“Also, it’s the reality of our sport. Every team, every player, every coach, there’s a window for your career. To talk about the window to be at the top of the league, that window’s open. And it’s important for us to take advantage of that opportunity.”
McCarthy was adamant about the Packers’ window still being open, but it has been for the past three years, and McCarthy sounded as if winning only one title in that span was a disappointment. According to quarterback Aaron Rodgers, this year’s attitude adjustment in the wake of back-to-back playoff disappointments starts at the top, with McCarthy.
“I think Coach is doing it and he’s leading by example. I think he set the tone when we came back in April, and he set the tone when we came back in May off our break,” Rodgers explained. “We sat down, we talked about the direction of the OTAs and what we did last year didn’t work and what we’d like to see. I think you have to give him credit for the schedule and the tempo and setting the direction. He’s done a good job with that, and the guys just follow his lead.
Since winning Super Bowl XLV after the 2010 season, the Packers have made two ignominious exits from the postseason. In 2011, after a 15-1 regular season, they lost at home as the NFC’s No. 1 seed to eventual the Super Bowl-champion New York Giants in a game where the defense gave up 420 yards – including a backbreaking Hail Mary touchdown at the end of the first half – and the offense lost three fumbles in a 37-20 NFC Divisional Playoff loss at Lambeau Field that wasn’t that close.
Then, last January, the Packers were blitzed by quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers, as the defense had no answers for the San Francisco offense. Kaepernick rushed for an NFL single-game quarterback record 181 yards, including a pair of touchdowns, and the 49ers finished with the fourth-most total yards ever gained in an NFL postseason game in history (579) in a 45-31 NFC Divisional Playoff loss at Candlestick Park.
After the loss to the 49ers, Rodgers expressed concerns on his weekly radio show on WAUK-AM in Milwaukee about the vibe he got from the team in the two seasons after the Super Bowl victory.
"I think there (were) two things in particular that most people would agree with: One, there was a very strong appreciation (in 2010) for the opportunity, and for whatever reason the appreciation wasn’t the same this year," Rodgers said two days after the loss to the 49ers. “The guys just really were thankful to have a job in some cases, but also thankful to be able to get into the playoffs and to be somewhere where they felt special and felt important. That it was a very united group, more than we’ve had in any of the eight years I’ve been a part of.
“And the second was, we were hungry (in 2010). We hadn’t done it before, there were a lot of doubters out there and we just (fed off that). It’s hard, I think, when you have success to be able to have the same amount of hunger that you had when you haven’t had that success before, so we need to be able to figure out how to get back to that place.”
The Packers’ practices that have been open to the media have appeared more spirited than past offseason workouts, in part because there is greater competition on the roster. Several familiar names departed during the offseason – wide receiver Greg Jennings signed a free-agent deal with the Minnesota Vikings, all-time leading receiver Donald Driver retired and veteran defensive leader Charles Woodson was released – leaving voids that must be filled in the locker room and in terms of on-field production.
“There's a lot of guys here that have things to prove,” said wide receiver Jordy Nelson, who’ll lead the receiving corps along with James Jones and Randall Cobb. “You can look at James and (me) and Randall. Everyone's going to talk about missing Donald and Greg -- which we will, it will be an adjustment -- but we know we have an opportunity to step up and we have beliefs in what we can do.”
Nelson said the players believe they had Super Bowl-caliber teams each of the past two years and failed to deliver.
“Guys know there's a short window for a team to be as good as we are,” Nelson said. “You've got to make the most of those (years) and that's by winning championships. We know we've been close. We know we've had the team, but came up short.”
In an effort to avoid that same fate, the Packers have made some changes. McCarthy reconfigured his offensive line, taking four starters and moving them to four new positions. Now, they’ll like up with Bryan Bulaga at left tackle, Josh Sitton at left guard, T.J. Lang at right guard and Marshall Newhouse at right tackle. The defensive coaches not only spent much of the offseason working on solving the read-option that the 49ers used to burn them, but also emphasized increasing takeaways, especially forcing more fumbles.
And with the addition of two big-name running backs in the draft – second-rounder Eddie Lacy of Alabama and fourth-rounder Johnathan Franklin of UCLA – McCarthy insists that the running game will improve, which would help Rodgers and the aerial attack.
“We’ll be better, I promise you that,” McCarthy said of the run game. “You can write that down. In big letters.”
Whether their renewed sense of urgency leads to an overall improvement and another Super Bowl berth remains to be seen, but McCarthy insists the team is in a good place with the opening day of training camp 45 days away.
“You learn from your past experiences,” McCarthy said. “Every team is different, every year is different, every challenge that we’ll face will be different. There are opportunities to look back to the past that will help us encounter and conquer those challenges that are in front of us.”
And the feeling around the building is palpable.
“Obviously, we know we have the team, and we want to get the job done,” cornerback Tramon Williams said. “That’s why it’s so devastating when you lose. You didn’t get it done. That’s what the offseason is for – to be able to clear your head and refocus. Year after year, that’s what you do. Obviously we’ve turned it up a notch. I definitely see it out there at practice. I feel it. It’s a great environment. Hopefully when we go into camp, it continues and it shows up.”
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.