Tom Oates: Players respond favorably to offseason of change
GREEN BAY — The nine-game, injury-forced absence of quarterback Aaron Rodgers did more than keep the Green Bay Packers out of the playoffs last season.
It exposed how thin the Packers roster had become after years of strict adherence to the draft-and-develop philosophy of general manager Ted Thompson and how stale the offensive and defensive schemes had become under what had been an abnormally stable coaching staff.
With a nudge from above, Thompson went back to full-time scouting in January, replaced as chief steward of the team’s roster by Brian Gutekunst, his former assistant. Gutekunst’s initial effort at roster-building, including the unusually high number of five veteran free agents, was on display Thursday when the Packers held their first training camp practice of the season.
Coach Mike McCarthy was less subtle about shaking up his coaching staff after the season. Highly respected Joe Philbin returned for a second stint as offensive coordinator and high-energy Mike Pettine was hired to re-create the success he had as the defensive coordinator at several NFL stops, moves that altered the playbooks and schemes on both sides of the ball.
Replacing Thompson and both coordinators indicated the Packers knew they needed to make changes after a 7-9 season. Rather than take the easy way out and say Rodgers’ injury was the reason their eight-season run of playoff appearances ended, they shook things up. And with Rodgers back and ready to go after recovering from a broken collarbone, it’s time to see if all the changes can put the Packers back on the playoff track in just one year.
The final answer won’t come for months, but if nothing else, the changes are inspiring great confidence in the Packers locker room.
“To get some fresh bodies in here and a new mindset and a new scheme, it kind of rejuvenates the rest of the guys,” wide receiver Davante Adams said. “I feel like everybody has the right mindset right now moving forward and it’s going to be good for us.”
Indeed, change can be good, especially in this case because it attacked the problems that led to a gradual slide by the Packers, who haven’t been a dominant team since 2014. The offense struggled in 2015 when wide receiver Jordy Nelson was lost for the season and the defense fell off badly the past two years as the cornerback position turned into a disaster area.
Without Rodgers on the field last season, the Packers had no chance. But if they can stay reasonably healthy, a return to the playoffs seems likely this season.
“I think we had some good hires, good changes, good additions to the team,” guard Lane Taylor said. “It’s almost a new start for everybody. It’s exciting to have different people in the building that bring a lot to our team.”
It starts with the new coordinators but by no means ends there. Tight ends Jimmy Graham and Marcedes Lewis, offensive lineman Byron Bell, defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson and cornerback Tramon Williams bring 45 years of experience and 541 starts to the Packers, with all but Bell having played in a Pro Bowl. Gutekunst also traded for quarterback DeShone Kizer to challenge backup Brett Hundley after the latter failed miserably as Rodgers’ replacement. Finally, the draft brought two impressive cornerbacks — Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson — to a defense that badly needed help at the position and added three late-round wide receivers to still another depleted position.
“I feel like we definitely have the pieces in place,” nose tackle Kenny Clark said.
Perhaps the best sign that things are changing for the better is the renewed enthusiasm among the players. From one end of the locker room to the other Thursday, they spoke of a new mindset, a new energy, a new start.
Some of that is due to Pettine, who gave a speech to the entire team Wednesday that even got Rodgers, a 14-year veteran, fired up. But the Packers didn’t hire Pettine for his oratory, they hired him to revitalize the defense.
Few on the Packers doubt that the offense will return to normal, especially with the addition of Graham, who showed Thursday he can still run at age 32, and the unexpected news that right tackle Bryan Bulaga is on schedule to start the opener following ACL surgery. But it is Pettine’s aggressive scheme and a suddenly well-stocked cornerback room — in addition to Williams, Alexander and Jackson, the Packers got promising Kevin King back after shoulder surgery — that inspire the most confidence.
“I’ve got to say, it’s exciting,” Rodgers said. “It is. There’s a different mindset. They talk about that word — that’s why I’m using it — but there’s a different mindset on (the defensive) side of the ball. I think an acquisition of a Tramon Williams and bringing (cornerback) Davon (House) back to (provide) veteran leadership in that room and adding two studs to go along with Kevin coming back from an injury (is big). I think there’s some guys that need to step up up front to give us some depth, but I’m excited about that side of the ball, with the expectation that we always have on offense that we’re going to find our rhythm at some point during the season and be really tough to stop.”
Clearly, the Packers’ mindset has changed, which means all the changes they made have already helped.