This year’s Packer team appears to have plenty of veteran leadership.
During the past three seasons, the Packers have either been the youngest team in the NFL or very close to it. That will not be the case in 2009. Ted Thompson has finally done what many of us were hoping he would do last year—he has allowed the roster to begin to mature. The Packers will still be a relatively young team, but they now have a good number of experienced players. And although there is only so much that fans can know about what goes on behind the scenes, there is reason to believe that the 2009 Packers will have plenty of good leaders among their ranks.
On defense, nine out of eleven starters are returning. This is remarkable, considering that the Packers are switching to a radically different defensive scheme. Essentially, Johnny Jolly and Brady Poppinga are being replaced in the starting lineup by B.J. Raji and either Clay Matthews or Jeremy Thompson. All of the other defensive starters are a year older and a year wiser. And Jolly and Poppinga are still here. In recent years, the Packers have not often had experienced players coming off the bench.
For the most part, the veterans on the defense appear to have bought into the new scheme wholeheartedly. Charles Woodson has been especially welcoming of the switch. Nick Barnett has been itching to get back onto the field, and he will be there soon. Ryan Pickett has embraced his new role as nose tackle. The one exception has been Aaron Kampman, who has been less than enthusiastic about his position change, but he is a high character guy and is working hard to adapt, as everyone knew he would.
It helps that the new defensive coaches have many years of experience between them. Dom Capers has been in the league for about two decades, mostly as a defensive coordinator, and he has even had a couple of stints as a head coach. Defensive line coach Mike Trgovac has filled the same role for some good defenses in Philadelphia and Washington and is coming off a six-year stint as defensive coordinator in Carolina. Capers’ braininess and Trgovac’s passion complement each other well, and it doesn’t hurt to have Kevin Greene around, who himself excelled as a 3-4 OLB for years.
Like the defense, the Packer offense also appears to be in a better position this year in terms of experience. Last year, the departure of Brett Favre left a gaping hole that was impossible for first-year starter Aaron Rodgers to fill. Rodgers did better than expected, but he still needed to prove that he could be a big-time starting QB, and he tended to struggle somewhat late in games. This year, Rodgers appears fully ready for his role, and his maturity is even more apparent when compared to the man he replaced, whose decision-making powers, at least off the field, have left something to be desired.
Elsewhere on the offense, most of last year’s starters have returned. The one big loss is Mark Tauscher, who had held down the right tackle position since 2000. But Chad Clifton is back, and Darryn Colledge and Jason Spitz are each moving into their prime. Good leaders need good followers, and second-year TE Jermichael Finley now looks ready, both physically and mentally, to fit into his role in the offense. He still runs his mouth constantly, but instead of coming across as arrogant, he’s mostly just funny.
All of this optimism is tempered by the fact that the Packers finished 6-10 last year. But the memory of that disappointing season can be turned into a positive. One of the remarkable things about last season was how the team held together through it all. There was virtually no evidence of infighting or finger-pointing. Combine that with the 13-3 season that preceded it, and clearly most of these players have been through some major ups and downs together. This season, we will find out if that experience has made them stronger. I’m betting that it has.