Playoffs still in Packers’ plans
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- Contrary to popular belief across the country, Brett Favre did not go 13-3 and come within an overtime field goal of the Super Bowl last season.
The Green Bay Packers did.
Favre is gone now, traded to the New York Jets after one of the ugliest splits ever seen between a team and its star player. After shaking off the mother of all training camp distractions, the Packers expect to contend again this year.
“I think camp was pretty good,” wide receiver Greg Jennings said. “Obviously, we had some things that kind of didn’t have the attention on our team. But I think we fought through those things, and we came together as a team. And we made some strides, and that’s all you can ask for.”
Aaron Rodgers has emerged from Favre’s shadow to begin the process of proving he’s a steady, poised player -- and, quite possibly, a pretty good quarterback.
A talented defense is trying to put aside a preseason filled with injuries and inconsistency to assume the leadership role Coach Mike McCarthy has handed to them.
And don’t forget Jennings, perhaps the most dangerous member of a group of receivers that’s hard to cover and even harder to tackle. Or running back Ryan Grant, the breakout story of 2007.
Heading into what should be a heated Monday night opener against division rival Minnesota, the Packers are moving forward without No. 4.
Not that it was easy on anyone, especially Rodgers.
“I think he grew up,” McCarthy said. “I think we all grew up a little bit during that situation. I think he did a very good job of handling a challenge, handling a situation that there really wasn’t a script for and was unprecedented. I think it is definitely something he can learn from.”
The post-Favre Packers will have to make do without Favre’s experience, decisiveness and durability. They’re also free of his tendency to make big mistakes, apparent dwindling ability to play in cold weather and incessant offseason look-at-me act.
Rodgers, the Packers’ 2005 first-round draft pick, has a rocket arm and good scrambling ability. But he has been hurt twice -- normal for quarterbacks in most NFL cities, but gasp-inducing in Green Bay -- and he’s untested.
Rodgers doesn’t buy the notion that he’s injury prone and believes the Favre saga helped prepare him for life as an NFL starter.
“I’m ready for anything after that,” Rodgers said. “It’s been a difficult time the last few months as far as the attention I’ve gotten, but I think I’m ready for it. I know it’s going to be amped up once the season starts, I’m going to be scrutinized, but that’s the job of being an NFL quarterback. There’s a lot of pressure on you outside the building. Guys expect you to play well inside the locker room. I’m ready for anything that comes.”
Rodgers showed a few signs of cracking at the height of the Favre drama.
As Favre flew back to Green Bay Aug. 3 in an attempt to force the Packers to act -- an event that was covered like a space shuttle landing by local television stations -- Rodgers was booed as he took the field for a scrimmage and struggled to complete passes.
Rodgers and his teammates were noticeably distracted in practice two days later, as fans chanted for the Packers to bring Favre back. But the distraction was removed when McCarthy concluded that Favre wasn’t in the right mind-set to play for the Pack in any capacity and he was traded.
McCarthy said Rodgers managed to stay focused.
“I think it is important for him to focus on playing quarterback, and I think he has done a great job of that,” McCarthy said. “I think he has done everything right as far as his focus, how he has handled every step of the way to get through this process. I think his play has reflected that, and that is ultimately what he will be judged by.”
Rodgers and the Packers’ No. 1 offense had a solid performance in the preseason, struggling in the Packers’ second preseason game at San Francisco, but turning in a sharp performance in the third preseason game at Denver. Rodgers played only one snap in the Packers’ final preseason game against Tennessee on Thursday, throwing a 68-yard touchdown to Jennings.
“I think Aaron’s ready to play,” McCarthy said. “I felt that before the preseason started. I think he’s done all the things needed to prepare himself for this opportunity.”
But if things go according to plan for the Packers, it will be the defense that takes Favre’s place as the face of the team.
McCarthy wants to win with defense, and he appears to have the talent to do so. The Packers have a pair of veteran cornerbacks in Charles Woodson and Al Harris, a premier pass rusher in Aaron Kampman and a strong linebacking crew led by Nick Barnett.
“I think we’re going to be tough to run on, tough to pass on,” defensive tackle Ryan Pickett said. “I think we’ll be a top defense in the NFL.”
But the defense hasn’t looked particularly good in the preseason, and injuries -- a problem the Packers generally managed to steer clear of last season -- are mounting.
The Packers have been without Pickett and linebacker A.J. Hawk, and it is unclear whether either will be available for the Vikings game. Another defensive tackle, Justin Harrell, will miss at least six weeks because of an injury, and defensive tackle Johnny Jolly could face an NFL suspension because of a drug arrest.
But if the offense has to carry the load early on, there’s plenty of talent to fall back on.
Coaches are still sorting through options on the interior of their offensive line, a situation complicated by an injury to center Scott Wells.
But the Packers’ receivers led the league in making yards after the catch last season, and Grant emerged in the second half -- although he missed most of camp with a contract situation and tight hamstring.
And Rodgers appears to have earned their respect.
“I’m going to play my butt off for him because I know he’s genuine, he’s sincere, he’s a good person,” wide receiver Ruvell Martin said. “It’s taken him a long time to get to where he’s at right now. I’m just excited for him and happy for him.”