GREEN BAY, Wis. — Aaron Rodgers said he’s at the halfway point of his NFL career.
His head coach disagrees.
“He’s in an excellent groove right now,” McCarthy told FOX Sports last week as the Packers completed their preseason. “There’s no question about it.”
Article continues below ...
The bigger question is whether the Packers have found the answers around Rodgers to bring back another Lombardi Trophy to Titletown, USA.
Rodgers isn’t the reason Green Bay has failed to duplicate its Super Bowl success since the 2010 season. A strong argument can be made that he is the NFL’s best passer. Rodgers has thrown 101 touchdown passes and just 20 interceptions the past three seasons.
To further enforce his worth, the Packers received a horrifying glimpse at what life would be like without Rodgers when he was sidelined for six games last season with a fractured collarbone.
The club went 2-4-1. When he returned, Rodgers led Green Bay into the playoffs for a fifth consecutive year by spearheading a dramatic comeback victory over Chicago in Week 17.
The Packers, though, then suffered their third straight postseason loss in either the first or second round by falling to San Francisco. Green Bay has continued to fall short primarily because of the toll taken by widespread injuries and an underwhelming defense.
McCarthy and general manager Ted Thompson have taken subsequent steps to address those issues.
There isn’t much that can be done to prevent the types of on-field ailments already suffered this preseason by nose tackle B.J. Raji (torn biceps), top backup offensive lineman Don Barclay (torn ACL) and center J.C. Tretter (fractured leg).
But in hopes of reducing a rash of soft-tissue problems like hamstring strains, McCarthy has embraced some of the sports science concepts Philadelphia Eagles head coach Chip Kelly popularized in 2013 after jumping from the college ranks.
The Packers hired a nutritionist to improve eating habits. They’ve given players monitoring devices to track practice data that can be used to prevent injuries. Green Bay will break from NFL tradition and give players Fridays off before Sunday games.
A Saturday session will be held instead with a faster tempo to prepare for kickoff.
McCarthy also made a significant change in how Green Bay practiced during the preseason with a higher number of pass-rush drills.
“There have been a lot more competitive reps this training camp than we’ve ever had between our offensive and defensive lines,” said McCarthy, who is entering his ninth season as Packers head coach. “At the end of the day, your lines speak volumes about the identity of your team. I feel like we’ve really improved in both those areas.”
Packers inside linebacker A.J. Hawk admits overall defensive improvement is needed after his unit’s slippage since Green Bay’s last Super Bowl season.
“It’s up to us to put it together because the offense is going to do their job,” Hawk told FOX Sports. “They’re going to put up points no matter what.”
Thompson aimed to better the defense by re-signing three veterans who were set to become unrestricted free agents, using a first-round draft pick on a safety (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix) and adding Julius Peppers with a three-year, $26 million contract. The Packers believe the 34-year-old Peppers — who is second among all active players in sacks with 118 — can make the transition from 4-3 end to 3-4 outside linebacker despite showing signs of decline with Chicago in 2013.
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers can remove the “embattled” adjective that often accompanies his name if Peppers and a now-healthy Clay Matthews flourish as a pass-rush tandem. Hawk said Peppers provides the outside pressure complement Green Bay has needed to draw attention away from Matthews, who missed nine games the past two seasons because of injuries.
“We feel there’s something a little different this year than there has been in the past,” Hawk said. “Just our style of play, we’ve kind of upped it in with our scheme. It allows us to attack more.”
As for the offense, McCarthy said the Packers are “finally playing the way we envisioned playing the last couple of years.” The preseason success experienced by Green Bay’s starting offense stemmed from a no-huddle attack with an equitable run-pass balance, thanks to the production provided by running back Eddie Lacy, the 2013 NFL Rookie of the Year.
McCarthy believes the Packers were hitting their stride in similar fashion last season after a Week 8 victory over Minnesota. The next game, Rodgers was driven down on his shoulder by Chicago’s Shea McClellin and the offensive momentum immediately ended.
“Everyone asks, ‘What are you doing differently this year?’” McCarthy said. “We’re really not doing anything different than last year. It’s just that Aaron was hurt.”
One thing that is different will never be seen by outsiders. That’s the chemistry between the offensive players and assistant coaches who understand the system as well as what McCarthy is seeking.
“I just think we’re tied together stronger and better now,” McCarthy said. “We have a veteran presence now in every offensive position meeting room.”
None is stronger than Rodgers. Even though he’s only 30 years old, Rodgers has spent more seasons with the Packers than any other player on the current roster.
“I’ve grown up here,” Rodgers told FOX Sports. “I’ve lived a third of my life in this city. It’s been great.”
The only thing that could make it better: Winning a second Super Bowl.