With their even-keeled leaders, the Packers could very well repeat
Doing things the Packer way has paid off for Rodgers, McCarthy in Green Bay
The quarterbacks who impressed in Week 1 of preseason; touchback analysis
Kicking snafu in Chicago explained; coin toss error not good start for Raiders
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- We'll get to the news of the weekend in a few hundred words, to touchbacks and Starcaps, to playing for now and playing for later, to Colt McCoy taking a big step and Matthew Stafford taking a healthy one, to the first week of the silly season and the panic it induces, to the team trying to figure how the coin toss works and the team trying to figure where to kick off from, and to the NFL player with a tattoo thing for Elizabeth Taylor. In due time. Oh, and reading between the lines, the NFL is not happy with the Bears Wildcatting their own kickoff spot. But more about that later.
When I think about what to lead the column with, I often think: What did I see or experience in the last few days that interested me the most? Sometimes it's obvious, sometimes not. This week, I thought of my conversation with Mike McCarthy on a bench next to the Packers' practice field Tuesday night in Green Bay. It was around 9:45. The players were gone, the fans were gone, and now it was just me and McCarthy, with a couple of PR people in the wings, on a chilly night that felt more like Oct. 9 than Aug. 9.
McCarthy was telling me a story about the Super Bowl championship banner the Packers had installed at the Hutson Center indoor practice facility, across from Lambeau Field, when no one was looking. The players were back at practice on an inclement day, working indoors at the Hutson Center, when McCarthy elbowed a couple and said, "Hey, look.'' And there it was.
Maybe it's not a big deal that the Packers didn't have a big ceremony to raise the banner or a ceremony when the fourth Lombardi Trophy was put in a case outside the locker room. And when the Packers play the opener Sept. 8 against New Orleans, there will be a simple "2010'' unveiled near the other 12 years the team won a championship. No flags, no banners. Just a year, with, as GM Ted Thompson told me, "sort of a tablecloth over it, and we'll pull that off, and then we'll play football. That's what we're supposed to do.''
The celebrations are Ted Thompson's responsibility. And so banners are going to be put up when no one is looking -- in this case, by stadium workers on a quiet day in June with no attention -- and there won't be any pomp, because in Thompson's world, this is the Packer Way. Act like you've been there before. This is what the Packers are supposed to do.
"It's funny,'' Aaron Rodgers told me. "When I was sitting in that Green Room at the draft in New York, and I was dropping, and no one would pick me, the last thing I was thinking was it was a good thing. But I'm glad I got to fall way down. I should be here. It's the place for me. The game is bigger than us. The team is more than us. It's a community team, blue-collar and understated and not at all about self-glorification. Vince Lombardi put it that way: Winning is the only thing that matters. It's about the team.''
We're in a me-first era. In most places maybe, but not in Green Bay. Not with Thompson and McCarthy and Rodgers, the leaders of this group. I have no idea if they'll repeat (a dirty word to McCarthy, who thinks every year is a new year with new players), but I do know they've created a model that every youth coach, every high school coach, every college coach and, yes, a whole lot of pro coaches would be smart to emulate. It's not just something they say in front of the minicams, and then sneak off to New York to make a commercial for Visa. It's who they are.
There's such a head-scratching lack of look-at-me in this organization. Then you see where it came from. Thompson, from the bedrock roots of Texas high school and college football. McCarthy, who learned the Pittsburgh way, who got his start in the coaching business by working at Pitt for nothing and collecting tolls at night on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to pay his rent. And Rodgers, who rose from no scholarship offers out of high school to a hardscrabble junior college to Cal to Brett Favre's caddie to the Super Bowl. I told Rodgers I remembered the Dallas Morning News story about his roots during Super Bowl week in February, and his dad, a chiropractor in California, having no shred of evidence in his office -- not a photo, trophy or framed ticket stub -- that his son was an athlete of any sort.
"We're not big public-eye people,'' Rodgers said.
When he came to Green Bay and sat for three years, he was even less of a public-eye person. Favre was The Man. And when Favre continued to waffle about whether he wanted to play or not, Rodgers said nothing. When the Packers stood behind Rodgers, he said little. When Favre came back to try to regain his job, Rodgers said nothing.
And when it was the biggest story in sports back in 2008 -- pick a side: you're for Favre or for Rodgers, and there's no middle ground -- Rodgers said precious little. Rodgers knew Thompson and McCarthy had his back, and though it was going to be tough, he could trust them to keep their word. Which they did. And in the last three years, despite the mud that landed on all of them after the Favre debacle, every one of them today looks like a genius.
Thompson for sticking to his guns, McCarthy for believing in Rodgers, and Rodgers for shutting up and just playing football. Rodgers' average season since 2008: 4,130 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, 10 interceptions. And a Super Bowl win.
Thompson, in a conference room in the team's refurbished Lambeau Field office, sipped a Diet Coke out of one of those cute tiny bottles and considered what his regime had done. It's not something he likes to do, because any time you take time to consider the past is time you spend not working on the future.
I thought back to the time I sat with Thompson in the middle of the Favre mayhem. Same voice. I thought back to Super Bowl Sunday night in Dallas, when he could have crowed but didn't. Same voice. And now. Same voice.
"Honestly,'' Thompson said, "it takes your breath away sometimes. When you win a championship in Green Bay, you're part of a very special fraternity. You're part of the men from the teams in the '20s, '30s, '40s, '60s and '90s, the men who won a title. These players now can stand alongside the great ones. When you win in this town, you become a little bit immortal. Just like those before us. That's the beauty of this place: We didn't invent it. We're just continuing it.''
Somewhere in Green Bay, maybe in the house across from Lambeau Field with the fence painted with IN COACH McCARTHY WE TRUST, pride in this franchise is at a level not seen since Vince Lombardi coached. It's a beautiful thing, a town one-80th the size of New York on top of the football world, with a chance to stay there.
Headlines of the weekend:
One of the Starcaps Four prepares to take his medicine. The league hasn't announced how it will adjudicate the case, which has been mired in legal dispute since the NFL suspended four players for testing positive for a diuretic, but the most prominent of the group, star Minnesota defensive tackle Kevin Williams, is preparing for a four-game suspension to start the 2011 season. "In my mind, I'm preparing to miss the four games,'' Williams told me at training camp. "It'd be a huge surprise if we got it 'buddied' out of the CBA, but that's what I'm hoping.''
There's a touchback controversy. Let's start with what happened in the first 15 games of the preseason, with the kickoff moved to the 35-yard-line from the 30-, which league teams voted to do for safety reasons after last spring:
Touchback percentage, 2010 regular season: 16.4 percent (416 touchbacks, 2,539 kickoffs).
Touchback percentage, 2011 preseason: 33.9 percent (43 touchbacks, 127 kickoffs in 15 games).
But the touchbacks easily could have been higher. Given that some teams wanted to see how their rookies and other young players covered kicks, not every kicker tried to boot the ball through the end zone. (In contrast to Washington's Graham Gano, 5-for-5 in touchbacks against Pittsburgh.) And the Bears teed up their first two kicks of the night at the 30, which was last year's line, thinking perhaps that the new standard wasn't a rule but merely a gentle suggestion.
League VP of officiating Carl Johnson told me he got a call from his officiating observer at Soldier Field a few minutes before the Buffalo-Chicago kickoff Saturday night, saying the Bears planned to kick off from the 30. Johnson told his man on site to tell the Bears they had to kick off from the 35. But the communication to the Chicago sideline wasn't working, Johnson said, and so the Bears weren't notified until after their second kickoff from the 30.
As Johnson told me, there is a way for teams to not kick the ball into the end zone if they choose. They can simply have their kicker boot it higher or kick it so the ball doesn't go past the goal line. But they can't choose the yard line they kick from. As Competition Committee chair Rich McKay told me: "Membership didn't vote on this because it was a game enhancement. They voted for it because of player safety.''
It'll be interesting to see if the league comes down hard on the Bears for choosing to interpret a playing rule they way they wanted to, not the way the rule is written. As far as how the rule will play when the season begins: History shows when weather gets bad late in the season, kickoffs don't travel as far. My guess is touchbacks will happen on around 40 percent of the kickoffs this year
The league uses an eighth official to try to see pass interference more clearly. Last summer, the NFL used an eighth official, the Deep Judge, in eight preseason games to cover downfield passing lanes better. This summer it's 12 games. Johnson said he hasn't made any judgments on the three games the experimental official did this weekend, but it stands to reason they're getting a better view of the jostling downfield. "We're not looking necessarily to call more penalties in the secondary,'' Johnson told me. "We're just looking to get the most accurate calls made that we can.''
It's been 33 years since the NFL added a seventh official, and when that happened, in 1978, the league was passing on about 42 percent of the offensive snaps. Now passing is about 52 percent of the game. So you could see the Competition Committee recommend the adoption of a permanent eighth official in the next couple of years. The Deep Judge now becomes one of two officials playing basically a Cover-2 behind the secondary, cutting the field in half and trying to see contact as well as they can.