While the 29-year-old Aaron Rodgers remains as the face of the franchise, the team is undergoing a transitional time in the locker room.
"Well, No. 1, I think Donald Driver, Charles Woodson, and we'll see what happens with Greg Jennings – Greg is obviously in a business situation – but you don't replace Charles Woodson, you just don't go out and replace Donald Driver. I'm talking about the type of people they are," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy two weeks ago at the NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"Locker room culture is something – I don't want to say a moving target – but it's something that's either growing or not growing. It's important for our leaders, and particularly our young guys. Leadership's just not always designated by how many years you've been in the league or how good of a player you are. There's leadership opportunities for every man in that locker room. So, it's important for our leadership to continue to grow, for our culture, we have a very healthy culture in our locker room. It's something we play close attention to. It's part of the process here in Indianapolis – gathering as much information about the people you're going to bring into that locker room."
Over the next two months – be it through free agency or more likely the NFL Draft – the Packers will bring in a new group of players. The interview process of prospects at the Combine is just a minor step in finding new leadership.
"To have a leadership grade based on a 15-minute interview, I don't know how accurate that's going to be," said McCarthy. "So, you trust your scouts. We have an excellent personnel staff in Green Bay. I enjoy listening to our scouts talk about each player in their area. You can see the work they've put into these young men and the connection they have with the player or with the school and the support people around them. So, we feel very good about when we do select a player that we do have accurate information and that young man has an opportunity to grow in our locker room and be a leader."
According to McCarthy, the Packers have a viable list of candidates to make a jump.
"When you look at our team," he began, "Aaron Rodgers is now the longest-tenured Packer, so that's something that he's very conscious of. (He) embraces the leadership role, embraces the role being the face of the franchise, but it's not all about Aaron being more of a leader than he is today. He needs to grow just like we all do. It's all those guys, whether it's a young guy like Morgan Burnett to continue to grow. B.J. Raji's definitely a guy. Clay Matthews, he does it with his play. T.J. Lang, Josh Sitton, Bryan Bulaga when he's healthy, we have a bunch of guys that it's their opportunity. Jordy Nelson. Randall Cobb really took a big step in a leadership role as a young player last year. So, he's definitely a model and an example I would use – a young man in his second year. You don't have to wait until your fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth year to be classified as a leader. Leadership is from the top to bottom and we need to do a better job of that as a football team."
Cobb is a guy who earned almost immediate praise from his veteran receiver teammates upon coming into the league as a rookie in 2011. An all-purpose performer at Kentucky – including a stint at quarterback – Cobb was singled out multiple times in interviews over the past year by Rodgers for his smarts, maturity and value as an offensive weapon. Among one of the more talented receiving groups in the league in 2012, he led the Packers in catches (80) and receiving yards (954), not to mention being a threat out of the backfield and on special teams.
Cobb has had a lasting impact on his former teammates, too. Draft prospect Larry Warford of Kentucky, a guard projected to go in the first couple rounds, said this at the Combine about Cobb: "He was just a fiery competitor. When I think of a leader, I think of Randall. He's one of the toughest competitors I've ever seen. He doesn't like to fail. He loves to compete and I believe that's why he's good. He's so passionate that he gets guys following him and the team just follows him."
The Packers leadership changes extend to the front office, too. In January they also lost one of their top personnel aides, John Dorsey, to the general manager position in Kansas City. And since winning the Super Bowl two seasons ago, they lost Reggie McKenzie, a longtime respected personnel man, to Oakland along with Shaun Herock, a former chief member in the college scouting department.
"We've had some losses in terms of guys taking really good jobs around the league," said Packers GM Ted Thompson. "We encourage that. We foster it. It's something that (former Packers GM) Ron Wolf started back in the day. That's the reason I was able to go out to Seattle in the first place and work with Coach (Mike) Holmgren. But yeah, it's next man up. You try to train your players and you try to train your personnel staff and your coaching staff to take the next step and to be able to grow and evolve. The NFL is all about evolving. The Baltimore Ravens are world champions. They would like to hold all that together, and keep it, and go forward like the '29 and '30 Yankees or whatever that was. You can't do that in the NFL anymore. The NFL is always evolving, so you have to continue to evolve and I think our players do a good job of that. They have to do it because of injuries and things like that a little bit more abnormal than normal. And I think our personnel staff does the same thing. We've put some people in position to take on some more leadership and it's the next man up."
McCarthy is on board with Thompson's advancement philosophy. As difficult as it is to lose good coaches, he has been big on promotion and education from within. Since the Super Bowl two years ago, McCarthy moved Tom Clements from quarterbacks coach to offensive coordinator (after losing Joe Philbin to Miami) and three other offensive assistants have made position switches.
But losing Driver and Woodson – with a combined 29 years of NFL experience — in the locker room might provide the biggest challenge.
"Charles and Donald are special people and special players, so it's not trying to replace them, it's really putting the energy, the effort, the focus, the education on the individuals that are now there for that locker room to grow," said McCarthy.
"That is a lot of veteran leadership that won't be with us," added Thompson, "so you're always a little bit concerned about that. We have a strong locker room, a strong leadership foundation. In the NFL, the wheel keeps turning and that's what we're about is trying to get ready for the next game. But we feel confident about the leadership in our locker room."
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com