Leadership is a never-ending battle. There’s never truly a point where you can build up a team, a business, or a country and say to yourself, “Well, that’s done.” Otherwise, we’d be reading books about The Rise and Continued Rise of the Roman Empire.
If you’re not moving forwards, you’re going backwards. The problem that the Green Bay Packers have faced over the last seven games or so is figuring out how to keep forward when you’ve already reached the very pinnacle of achievement. The Packers won nineteen straight games over the 2010 and 2011 seasons, picking up a Lombardi Trophy along the way.
It’s a long ways away from those first baby steps taken back in 2006, with young draft picks and street free agents gently forcing out Mike Sherman’s mistakes, yet struggling themselves. Like any rebuilding project, there were plenty of successes and failures along the way. For every coup in drafting BJ Raji and Clay Matthews in the same first round, there’s an epic swing-and-miss in picking Justin Harrell and Brandon Jackson. For every pleasant surprise found out of thin air, like Sam Shields or Tom Crabtree, there’s a surprising disappointment, such as Brian Brohm or Johnny Jolly.
There were huge obstacles to be hurdles, such as the Favregate debacle and the subsequent firing line of coaching jobs at the end of the 2008 season. But in the end, the road to rebuilding the Green Bay Packers focused on bringing together a band of brothers fighting against all odds with one lofty goal: winning a Super Bowl.
There were more than enough subplots in this storyline. General Manager Ted Thompson’s then-eccentric plan of “building from within” was in need of vindication. Head Coach Mike McCarthy sought to prove he could finally get pad levels cleaned up and establish himself as the offensive guru he was brought in to be. And, of course, there was the redemption of Aaron Rodgers, the kid who had the weight of the world placed on his shoulders before he ever started a game.
With the Super Bowl win in 2010, the Packers erased many of those criticisms. Yet, at the same time, they also erased many of the chips on their shoulders that brought them together along the way. Rodgers stepped out of Favre’s shadow and was honored as the league Most Valuable Player. McCarthy was hailed as perhaps a better coach than Mike Holmgren and praised as a cultivator of quarterbacks. Ted Thompson repeated as NFL Executive of the Year.
And the Packers went into a winning streak seen very rarely in the NFL, a nineteen-game win streak that set them apart as the class of the NFL. But a stumble against the Kansas City Chiefs last season seemed to break the seal, and since that time, the Packers have now gone 3-4, including a disappointing playoff loss at home to the Giants.
If the Packers were looking for an impetus to discover a new reason to put a chip on their shoulder, they may have finally found it. Last week’s apocalypse against the Seattle Seahawks AND the replacement officials have sent the team into a distraction that has dominated the headlines for the past week. As the team fell to 1-2, the Packers leadership stepping in after the officials lockout was ended and said it was “time to move forward”.
Saying it and doing it, however, are two different things, and today’s game against the Saints may end up standing as the crossroads for a team that has struggled to find its way this season. There are three people that are critical at making this happen.
Rodgers, the reigning MVP, has had a decidedly mediocre start to the season, and by his standards, he’s been very un-Rodgers-like. The high-octane offense of last season is AWOL, and Rodgers’ new kryptonite has been not only the uncharacteristic interception, but unwarranted sacks.
In order to move this team (and this offense) forward, Aaron is going to have to go back to his roots of development. Yes, you don’t want to force interceptions like your predecessor, but you can’t counter that by constantly putting your offense into third-and-long situations when you can simply get rid of the ball.
Part of the step that Rodgers has to take is to trust his run game. There’s a point where we might wonder if Rodgers’ option to audible the play at the line of scrimmage results in fewer and fewer run plays actually making it from the sideline to the hike of the ball. It’s a natural human instinct, especially once you’ve been named the best in the business, to want to put the onus on yourself for the success of the operation.
But teams have been able to crack some of the Packers’ offensive code, playing zone defenses that have kept receivers covered for the first progression of reads while sending blitzes at the weakest links along the offensive line. Its easy to do when you know Rodgers is going back to pass 80% of the time.
One of the most important aspects of leadership is trusting those around you to play their part, not doing all the work yourself. In order for this offense to become successful again, it is going to have to reinvent itself, at least for now, as a team that will sustain long drives and control the ball. Smashing the defense enough times with Cedric Benson is a great start to putting the defense back on its heels and allowing the Packers (not just Rodgers) to dictate the game.
Woodson took the first step in redirecting this team’s distractions with a special team address on Wednesday, where he broke down the goals in three simple instructions: Don’t blame ourselves. We dictate the game. Just play football. It’s reminiscent of the speech he made prior to the Super Bowl, where he told the young upstart kids around him to play with “One heart, one mind”. That quote now adorns the inside of the Super Bowl rings.
Can Woodson’s words inspire another Super Bowl ring? It’s yet to be seen, but having Woodson step up as an emotional leader is critical for this defense. The Packers thrive on the pure, raw fury of their star linebacker, Clay Matthews III, but Woodson is the seasoned veteran who is in the swan song of his long and storied career. He should be the guy that players perk their ears up to whenever he speaks.
The Packers defense has definitely improved over the last two games, but it has always thrived on the Big Play. With Woodson now directing a young calvary of young secondary players in his new position at safety, Woodson is going to help them Just Play Football by keeping them in the right places at the right times. He also cannot make every interception himself, and by setting the example of being assignment-sure, the young players will follow and put themselves in the position to make those big plays.
It’s difficult to reel in a team that really has nothing to prove anymore. In the end, the Packers have always thrived with their backs against the wall, whether it be in a game or over the course of a season. Following Favregate, the Packers had enough righteous indignation to go around. As the class of the NFL, its a lot harder to make believe that everyone is doubting you.
The Fail Mary during Speechless in Seattle can and should be used to its fullest impact on the team. Unfortunately, the impact has the ability to be just as destructive as it could be motivational. The frustration levels are already high, even with the real officials returning. We’ve seen a few more personal foul penalties than we’d like to see already, and if a game starts going south or a few calls don’t go our way, players may decide to act out in a nonproductive way.
For that reason, the events of last Monday Night cannot be ignored or forgotten. Their impact is real and, if nothing else, the Packers will be questioned about it in every interview and presser from now until the end of the season.
It is up to McCarthy to make this a positive. And it might just be what the doctor ordered. Those feelings of being treated unfairly have to be translated into a feeling of “others doubting us”, to put that chip on their shoulder they’ve been missing for a while. When a bad call comes along, as it inevitably will, the Packers need to redouble their focus and intensity instead of losing their focus and simply resorting to frustration.
And finally, McCarthy has to take control of his offense again. He cannot defer to Rodgers on every play, simply because he is the MVP and has that control. The running game that changed the course of the game in the second half against Seattle might have been more than enough to win the game had Benson been able to get those kind of carries over four quarters.
McCarthy’s job is to establish the focus and mission for this team. It is also his job to get his players to buy into it. It is then the players’ job to execute that plan.
But it starts with leadership. And when circumstance presents you with an opportunity like it has following last Monday night’s debacle, you need to take advantage. That’s the true test of leadership.
C.D. Angeli is a feature writer for CheeseheadTV.com and co-host of Cheesehead Radio. Follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision.