Training camp begins today, and it's not one bit too early for coach Mike McCarthy.
Last year's 6-10 season still leaves him feeling like he had gulped down a glass of sour milk.
"We talked about that today," McCarthy said of Friday's team meeting. "I'll tell you this: I always refer to it as the lessons of 2008. It gets me up every day. It still burns my gut, and they know about it. I'm sure they are tired of hearing about it."
A seven-win fall in the standings might not have McCarthy on the hot seat, but his butt must be feeling a little warmer. The pressure is on now, after blowing up the defense with a radical shift that may or may not pay dividends this year. In the long run, the switch from the 4-3 to the 3-4 might be the best thing for the team, but this isn't a long-run profession.
The scars of Brett Favre run deep. The Packers are in the business of keeping their fans and shareholders happy, and a small but vocal percentage thinks McCarthy is a "bum" who rode the coattails of Favre to his one and only good season as coach. If this new defense doesn't hit the ground running or Aaron Rodgers takes a step back at quarterback or the Injury God liked last year's stay in Green Bay so much that he wants to stick around for another year, the drum beat of the disgruntled fans will grow louder.
"I don't view it that way," said McCarthy, who has one winning record in his four-year Green Bay resume. "I'm thankful to be here today talking to you, if you can believe that. I'm serious. I have the best job in professional sports. I'm excited to coach these guys. I'm excited about our support staff and what they have done to get us ready for this training camp. I'm just excited that I am up here in 2009 ready to go. That's the way I look at it."
Fortunately for McCarthy, his team appears closer to 13-3 than 6-10. Improve in a few critical areas, and the four-points-or-less nightmare can't possibly have a sequel. Rodgers has a full year of experience in which both quarterback and coach learned valuable lessons. Going from the 4-3 to the 3-4 is a challenge, but it's a challenge that new defensive coordinator Dom Capers has conquered successfully in just one year at recent stops in Jacksonville and Miami.
"I'm a realist, but I have a very optimistic personality," McCarthy said. "So, we're trying to win them all. To answer your question, yes, we're better than 6-10."
The talent base is deep enough that McCarthy is convinced his team will be facing some of this year's cuts at some point this season. Assuming the Packers find a replacement to right tackle Mark Tauscher, there doesn't appear to be one weak link among the starters. With the switch in schemes and the addition of first-round pick B.J. Raji, the defensive line has gone from strength to weakness and they can take advantage of their excellent depth at linebacker.
The combination of talent and hard work leaves McCarthy feeling excited about the possibilities.
"It's time to go. Our guys, I can't tell you enough about the players," he said. "Everybody has offseason program workouts, everybody has the OTAs. But it's the extra time. It's the one-on-one in the offices at night, the players building the relationship with the coaches and getting the extra work. It's an incredible commitment that they've made in the spring that allows us to go forward. I think it's going to be great to watch this offense and this defense schematically challenge each other and get ready for these preseason games."
Just how good can this team be? Is going from six wins to world champions a realistic goal? Why not? The Packers were 4-8 entering the stretch run in 2006 and wound up hosting the NFC championship game the following season.
"There is one goal in Green Bay," McCarthy said, "and that's to win the world championship. That will never change. That will never change."
So, to borrow the words of former boxing official Mills Lane, let's get it on!
"Training camp to me, if you're looking for a line, it's a line for real football," the coach said. "It's time to go play real football. The shorts, the underwear, it's off now. The pads are on. We'll have more padded work this year than we did last year. We had a very different training camp schedule last year with just the way our preseason games fell and so forth. Our snaps, our reps, this year will be the highest of my four years here. I think it's going to be a great camp."
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Bill also is giving Facebook and Twitter a try. Find him on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook.