Most summer nights on the Nitschke practice field, in front of thousands of loyal Packers fans, the best player in the NFL is on display.
Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is the man, and he’s come back from his Super Bowl run actually physically stronger than he’s ever been. Whenever he has to fit a pass into a tight space, it’s a bullet, smack on target. And he still has that Brett Favre-like touch to drop in a deep throw whenever necessary.
“You know I’m prejudiced,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said when asked directly if he’s developed the best.
“But I have too much respect for what Tom Brady and Peyton Manning have accomplished to say Aaron’s the best. But I know Aaron’s very good. When you don’t see players for months like we did (because of the lockout), I was really impressed with how he showed up in camp in such great shape. He’s ready to go.”
What is most critical about Rodgers’ emergence is how much he has improved when the pocket breaks down.
In 2009, he was sacked 50 times and struggled to find escape routes. McCarthy figures there are 90 plays a season when a quarterback has to transition out of the pocket. Last season the sacks were down, but Rodgers also made many positive plays with either his legs or his accurate arm while escaping the rush.
“We practice those plays all the time — what to do, where to go, and that’s an area in which Aaron really improved last season,” McCarthy said.
Rodgers, who has passed for 86 touchdowns in 47 starts, took off 64 times last season for a career-high 356 yards. He has scored 13 touchdowns while on the run.
The other special thing about the Packers, although this may sound impossible, is that they seem to have found more rookies who are as fast as their elders. They appear to have had another great draft class thanks to GM Ted Thompson and his personnel department.
McCarthy will only keep five receivers, and during any practice, at least eight guys look capable of fulfilling that roster requirement, starting with second-round pick Randall Cobb and Arkansas tight end D.J. Williams.
But, wait, speaking of tight ends, Jermichael Finley is back healthy and looking faster than ever. He may become a slot receiver. There’s no linebacker or safety who can cover Finley deep down the middle.
Then there is second-year running back James Starks, who went on a diet and came back 12 pounds stronger. Go figure.
Ryan Grant, the club’s millionaire back, is healthy and wants his job back, but Starks proved his worth in the playoffs, and McCarthy has already said he’s splitting the carries for now.
“And the kid we drafted in the third round runs with power like Marion Barber but with better feet,” a Green Bay scout said of Hawaii’s Alex Green. Green might not collect a lot of carries, but he should be the kickoff returner.
First-rounder Derek Sherrod, whose future is at tackle, is practicing at left guard, while Cobb will be a factor in the return game and probably press veteran Donald Driver or James Jones for playing time. The Packers also like young receivers Shaky Smithson, Kerry Taylor and Brett Swain.
“We won’t be the youngest team anymore in the NFL because all of our key players are another year older,” Thompson said. “But I know what you mean, we are still pretty young across the board.”
When camp opened, Thompson had 27 rookies and another 24 players with two years or less of experience. That’s 58.6 percent of the 87 players in camp.
Rodgers is 27, and defensive star Clay Matthews is 25.
“This is an organization that believes in younger players,” said cornerback Tramon Williams, who is 28.
“They do a great job of scouting, and if you can prove to the coaches that you can play, you will be on the field. They gave me a big chance after the Texans cut me, and it’s turned out pretty well for me.”
Williams may be the third-best corner in the NFL behind Nnamdi Asomugha and Darrelle Revis. Like second-year cornerback Sam Shields, Williams was signed as a free-agent. Both players came up with critical interceptions in Green Bay’s playoff victories last season.
“In all my years of coaching, I don’t recall any NFL team having two starting cornerbacks who weren’t drafted,” said defensive coordinator Dom Capers. “Every team is looking for cornerbacks and pass rushers, and we have been so fortunate in both areas with young, undrafted players.”
Yes, Matthews, the gifted speed rusher who totaled 13.5 sacks last season, is the one the “psycho defense” is built around, but the two guys who are fighting for the other rushing spot, Frank Zombo and Erik Walden, were both free-agent acquisitions last season. Any team could have signed these guys, but Green Bay did, and both produced and now own Super Bowl rings.
Zombo had nine starts last season, but Walden replaced him when he was injured in late December, and he had three sacks against the Bears late in the season, earning Defensive Player of the Week.
Those two, plus Brad Jones, are competing at right outside linebacker. If Jones loses the battle, there’s a chance he could slide inside alongside A.J. Hawk, who reworked his contract to return the Packers.
The beauty of the Packers is that all this youth on defense is led by Charles Woodson. Granted, Woody may be slowing down a bit at 34, but he will continue to be the slot defender, and Capers believes he will continue to make plays and create turnovers.
“What is great about Matthews and Woodson is that they both have great football instincts,” Capers said. “I like having both of them close to the action because they are such good tacklers and they can neutralize a lot of what the opposition wants to do. They can both change a game around. But what I really like is our depth, especially if we stay healthy this season.”
The Packers had 16 players on injured reserve last season, and that necessitated more padded practices late in the season in order to get newcomers ready to play critical games down the stretch. In fact, the Packers led the NFL with 25 padded practices during the course of a 17-week season.
And you can bet that a lot of coaches, including McCarthy, don’t know what they are going to do this season with the new CBA allowing only one padded practice a week. It will mean that coaches will struggle in preparation, especially when facing numerous injuries.
“One reason why I don’t like this new regulation on practices,” said a coaching rival of McCarthy, “is that it should be the head coach’s prerogative on how and when to have a padded practice. What if I wanted to start the season with a lot of pads and then choose to back off after a month or so? With this deal, I have no control over that.”
This Friday, the Packers will make their long-awaited trip to the White House to be feted by President Obama, and undoubtedly Woodson will have a special present for the Bears’ No. 1 fan.
Capers, who turned 61 this week, was part of the 1985 USFL champion Baltimore Stars that were honored by President Reagan.
“It will be great to visit,” Capers said, “and I know a lot of our young guys are looking forward to going.”
With McCarthy calling the plays while being more than tough enough, this also is a franchise poised to defend its title, and more than capable of making a run at a fifth Super Bowl.