Entering the 2014 season, Mike McCarthy thinks this Green Bay Packers team is the most mature he's ever coached.
"Probably because I'm more mature, I'd like to think," said McCarthy.
But it's less about what McCarthy thinks and more about his actions.
The head coach of the Packers can worry less about the core players on the team—Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Jordy Nelson, Sam Shields, the guys he knows are going to show up on Sundays during the season—and instead focus more on getting the younger players caught up to the veterans.
"I think Mike deserves a lot of credit for that with the schedule in the offseason, the demand he puts on his coaches to get his guys prepared," said Rodgers. "We've had some good walk-through time, and then obviously our time on the field has been focused as much on the fundamentals as it has on the team periods. I think that really helps the young guys."
This 2014 Packers team is being built for immediate success. Those aforementioned core players have experienced it before, many of them members of the Super Bowl winning team in 2010. The objective is to build around them.
The Packers found out a year ago that a young team can only take them so far when injuries strike. When Matthews, Shields, Casey Hayward, Nick Perry and Johnny Jolly were all sidelined at some time or another last season, the defense was handcuffed.
Dom Capers couldn't be nearly as creative as he wanted to be when inexperienced players the likes of Andy Mulumba, Nate Palmer and Chris Banjo were forced into action.
Step 1 for the Packers in the offseason was to add some veteran leadership, accomplished by making an unexpected foray into free agency—a rare occurence under general manager Ted Thompson.
As opposed to relying on rookies, the signings of Julius Peppers and Letroy Guion gave the Packers some players that can trade a few war stories.
With that goal accomplished, the next step of preparing the rookies and other young players on the team can take place. Part of the burden falls on the coaching staff, and part of it falls on the older players.
"Our core guys are here longer than they've been last year," said McCarthy. "The Packer way has been instituted, and I think our veterans are doing a great job of acclimating our young guys. I see that going on more and more.
"I think you're seeing more player interaction as far as what goes on on the field, guys self correcting, a lot more proactive as far as sharing information: 'This is how you need to do this, this is how you need to do that.' Those are good things, and I see more of it this year."
It takes a certain type of veteran to help a rookie, to help a younger player and not feel threatened by them. But that's the team the Packers have built, one that still largely develops from within.
And the coachng staff has had to adapt.
Early in McCarthy's tenure, the offseason was different, longer. Since the league's new Collective Bargaining Agreement took effect, the coaches have had to adjust.
"The offseason is really different," said Rodgers. "When I was a rookie and a young player, we were here in early March, and we had a lot of time to get up to speed on the playbook and a ton of time studying defenses. Now these guys, when they come in, it's less time. They're working out early and they're here a little later, but I think it puts a bigger strain on them to learn the offense.
"So the demand on the coaches to get those guys prepared and the demand that they have on the players to get up to speed quickly, when those kind of match up like they have this year, then you see a team that's a little further ahead than usual."
Whether being mature translates into more wins and a deeper run into the playoffs in 2014 is the question remains unanswered.
But it's something for McCarthy to hang his hat on and feel good about. When it's June and the football season is still months away, you're supposed to feel that way.
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book "It's Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America," and editor of Cheesehead TV's "Pro Football Draft Preview." To contact Brian, email [email protected].
Photo: Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers hands off to running back John Kuhn by Jeff Hanisch—USA TODAY Sports.
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