For many fans, it's the July Lull. For many players, it's JulyFest.
No curfew. No rules. And for many, no accountability. Coaches and front offices throughout NFL Nation are collectively holding their breath until training camps engage in four weeks.
Not so in Green Bay, where Mike McCarthy and Ted Thompson are about as fearful as Chuck Norris in Provincetown. The day the Thompson-McCarthy Era began, they stressed the importance of infusing the roster with "Packer People." The strategy's simple: Stockpile good players on the field that are great people off it. Bypass the prima donas in April and sidestep potential contract disputes from March to September, off-field drama in the summer and the restless binge of Rogaine, Nyquil and excuse-making.
Yeah, it sounded corny at the time. Some silver-lining message out of a Full House episode. Vague, over-optimistic coachspeak that would never materialize. Well, today, such management is revolutionary. In his 22 months on the job, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has pulled no punches, fully exerting his executive power to punish players that do crime – as he should. Punishment now comes from the top down more than internally, with a backhand swifter than your grandmother's. The Commish does not want the NFL to dumb down into an NBA state of affairs, where arrests are footnotes instead of headlines.
Still, many players aren't getting the memo, approaching off-field life like an episode of Reno 911. Just keep tabs on Pro Football Talk's "Turd Watch." In the past 10 days, eight players have made the police report, including some big names.
-- Buffalo Bills' running back Marshawn Lynch finally plead guilty to a hit-and-run on Buffalo's bar strip in which he tagged a woman at 3:30 a.m. – after hiding behind a cowardly right-to-remain-silent cloak for a month before admitting guilt.
-- Denver's top receiver, Brandon Marshall, was arrested for misdemeanor domestic battery on March 6 – a case the NFL is currently investigating.
-- Jevon Kearse, who was reunited with Tennessee this off-season, was arrested last week on DUI allegations. Police said that Kearse had red eyes, slurred his speech, reeked of alcohol and refused to submit to a breathalyzer test.
And of course the case-in-point for Thompson's overhaul of the Green Bay Packers – Javon Walker – has been the poster boy for JulyFest 2008.
Thompson's first tough decision as G.M. was refusing to succumb to Walker's contract demands. Walker (and Drew Rosenhaus' echo) demanded a new contract after his first career 1,000-yard season and Thompson wouldn't budge. A precedent needed to be set, and a message sent. Walker tore his ACL, the Packers went 4-12 (Brett Favre's only losing season ever) and Walker's whining kicked into overdrive. So, Thompson and new head coach Mike McCarthy ridded the franchise of a cancer, shipping the disgruntled wideout to Denver for a second-round pick on Draft Day 2006. After a flurry of second-round wheelin' and dealin,' the Packers took Greg Jennings 52nd overall. "Who?" asked draft nuts. The son of a pastor. The son of a church missionary. The mentor at Big Brothers Big Sisters in Kalamazoo, Mich. The soft-spoken wide receiver (take that oxymoron!). The now-dangerous deep threat that aspires to be a minister when his playing days are through.
Yes, that Greg Jennings. Since the virtual Walker-for-Jennings swap, the winner is clear. Jennings caught seven 40-yard passes last season (third in the NFL), while racking up 920 yards and 12 touchdowns and two game-clinching bombs at Denver and Kansas City.
The sad Walker timeline is as follows:
Jan. 1, 2007: The night Denver is denied a playoff berth after an overtime field goal by San Francisco, Darrent Williams dies in Walker's arms in downtown Denver.
Jan. 6, 2007: While nearly every member of the Broncos attends Williams' funeral, Walker is spotted at a Las Vegas nightclub.
Dec. 31, 2007: The day after Denver's season ends, Walker says he's not a "good fit" with Denver.
Feb. 28, 2008: Denver cuts Walker.
March 4, 2008: Oakland caves. As part of owner Al Davis' fantasy land plot to spend millions on skill position players – the trenches be damned – the Raiders make Walker the third-highest paid wide receiver in the league. Six years, $55 million ($16 million guaranteed).
June 16, 2008: Walker's body is found on a deserted Las Vegas side street. Motionless. Unconscious. His face was blasted with scars. Jewelry was missing from his wrist, his neck and his ears. The mugging capped Walker's two-day free-for-all at Vegas nightclubs, where photos captured him spraying people with expensive bottles of champagne.
McCarthy's words immediately after the Walker trade two years ago said it all: "It was a situation that was created some time ago, and it needed to end. And it ended today. ... Those types of situations cannot occur."
Character counts. Who you hang with matters. What you do between minicamp and training camp is paramount, which is why linebacker Nick Barnett said the team better heed to McCarthy's "be safe" message after minicamp.
"They better take the (message) to heart," Barnett said. "With a team full of young guys, they probably like to go out a little bit. With recent incidents, and not just recent, like Williams in Denver, you have to keep your guard up."
The temptation to make the six-week break a six-week Mardi Gras bender is extremely high.
Players know that once training camp begins, it is straight business in the summer heat for another five weeks. McCarthy and Thompson can't make players sign sobriety wavers. And heck, my high school back in western New York made student-athletes sign a Code of Conduct and Behavior policy before every sports season, and that didn't stop our "male athlete of the year" from allegedly getting intoxicated and tossing his clothes into the fire, our all-star fullback from breaking into a building and passing out, or three players on the baseball team from smashing a reported 150 mail boxes.
It's up to the individual's themselves to be accountable and responsible. And it's up to Thompson and McCarthy to gradually cultivate such an environment, just as many of our neighboring high school coaches did.
It's not surprising that on the final day of minicamp, countless players stressed the importance of this break. From the starters to the backup's backup's backups. Barnett wants to enter this training camp in "the best shape of his life." Taj Smith is training back home in East Rutherford, N.J. with other rookies from the Giants. Johnny Quinn plans to do some fine-tuning at Michael Johnson Performance Center. Ryan Grant sternly said the team must "hold each other accountable, be safe, have fun, but be ready to go in shape" come July 28.
Blowing smoke? Simply telling the media what it wants the public to hear?
Well, that's what many skeptics thought two years ago when Thompson and McCarthy joined forces and stressed the importance of "Packer People."
Following their final minicamp practice, the Packers met at midfield to say two words in unison before the July Lull. Their supreme focus is clear.