Like Brett Favre waffling on retirement, the sense here is that Mike McCarthy has had enough.
Enough with a vanilla defense.
Enough with the zone-blocking scheme.
Enough with poor performances under adverse conditions.
All those things have held the Packers back the past three seasons. So like he did with Favre, the Packers' coach is taking a stand and changing the vibe at 1265 Lombardi Ave. Call it a hunch or see it as reality — the Packers are preparing to play a different brand of football this coming season.
It all started in January when McCarthy hired Dom Capers to coordinate the defense. It was really the first major mark McCarthy made on defense since he came to Green Bay. Until now, he had been clinging to the promise left by Jim Bates in 2005, banking on the prospects that Bates' understudy, Bob Sanders, would provide a seamless transition.
The Sanders' hiring, however, turned out to be the biggest mistake of the few that McCarthy has made in his three years. Sanders proved to be ill-suited for a defense that played much below its talent level in 2008. While McCarthy has made a strong mark on offense, orchestrating a renaissance year for Favre in 2007 and developing Aaron Rodgers, he has made little to no impact with his defense.
Capers brings not only what should be a more stout 3-4 base scheme, but he brings an attitude and direction that has been missing for the Packers' front seven. His leadership and experience give McCarthy the luxury of continuing to focus on his strength, the offense, and more specifically, the quarterbacks.
Though the Packers were relatively quiet in free agency, they made a large splash in the first round of the draft, getting mammoth defensive lineman B.J. Raji and moving up to select linebacker Clay Matthews III. Even in rookie camp without the pads on, it was evident that both have the playmaking ability and ferocity the Packers' defense has been missing.
"They're both big, physical men that have exceptional athletic ability," McCarthy said. "I think that's something that everybody will see right away. They're definitely prospects that will contribute to our football team. I don't question that."
Not to be outdone, the offense is getting a similar physical facelift, albeit a subtle one. The selection of fullback Quinn Johnson and offensive linemen T.J. Lang and Jamon Meredith in the draft, along with the signing of free agent Duke Preston, gives the Packers the size and strength they put as a second priority to versatility the past few years in trying to perfect the zone-blocking scheme.
While McCarthy insists zone-blocking principles will remain, a shakeup on the Packers' offensive line appears imminent. Expect the Packers to become more of a power running attack, even if through their subpackages. They flashed some I-formation and lead plays for running back Ryan Grant at the end of last season, a style Grant seems much more suited for. Same goes for backup Brandon Jackson, who like Grant, is not all that instinctual.
Johnson, a fifth-round pick, projects as more of a road-grader than starter Korey Hall at fullback. He is 250 pounds. Likewise, Lang (fourth round), Meredith (fifth round) and Preston (formerly of the Bills) might just provide more of a downhill style.
It would be unfair to call McCarthy's team the past three years a finesse unit, but they certainly are much closer to that description than they are to playing like, for example, the Ravens and Steelers. Anyone who saw those two teams play against each other three times last season (including the AFC Championship) can positively say the Packers are nowhere near that level. But they seem to be working toward that rough-and-tough style from top to bottom. New assistant coaches and a new strength and conditioning coach (Dave Redding) are infusing a new attitude.
"If you look at the dynamics of the defensive coaching staff, the only two coaches that have worked together before were (cornerbacks coach) Joe Whitt and (assistant head coach/inside linebackers) Winston Moss and that was here last year," began McCarthy as he assessed his new staff during the rookie camp in early May. "Now, Dom Capers coached (new safeties coach) Darren Perry and he coached (new outside linebackers coach) Kevin Greene, but you have new personalities, new people in the room, new scheme, and I really like the way it has come together. There are a lot of strong personalities in the room, which you look for, and Dom has been an excellent leader."
In the last two years, the Packers have resembled less and less the team McCarthy preached about upon his hiring in 2006. Their running game has failed to dominate, their run defense has deteriorated, their pass rush has vanished, and in bad-weather games, well, they have been equally as bad. This is not the Packers team that has come to define a prideful franchise. Maybe this year that will change. At least it appears to be headed in that direction.
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Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com