GREEN BAY — Now that every sportswriter in Wisconsin, myself included, has offered up a list of 10 questions the Green Bay Packers must get answered in training camp, it is time to come clean.
Most years, it’s a struggle to find 10 truly pressing issues with one of the NFL’s most stable franchises. This, however, is not one of those years. Were it not for space considerations, the list could easily have been expanded to 12 or 15 entries.
But if the Packers have more questions than usual about their team, you would never know it from coach Mike McCarthy’s camp-opening news conference.
“We really like our roster,” McCarthy said Friday. “I think it’s a group that can do some special things.”
That sounds like a coach who feels awfully good about his team even though it is has major personnel questions at center, tight end, wide receiver, defensive line, inside linebacker, safety and kick returner, not to mention a much-discussed-but-so-far-unseen change in defensive philosophy. Moreover, the Packers struggled through still another siege of injuries while regressing to 8-7-1 last season and clearly have fallen behind Seattle and San Francisco in the NFC.
Like all coaches, McCarthy is naturally optimistic on the eve of camp. Still, he’s not new at this. He’s entering his ninth season in Green Bay, and his enthusiasm for the upcoming season seems more genuine than manufactured. Indeed, he already has called this year’s Packers a unique team.
So why is this man smiling?
Two reasons, really. First, McCarthy believes he nailed the offseason, producing a team that is ready to hit the ground running in anticipation of the regular-season opener at Seattle on Sept. 4. Second, he thinks the depth and talent on the youthful roster will help the Packers thrive in an NFL where teams are no longer married to their 11 starters on each unit but routinely use 14 to 16 players in their rotation on offense and even more than that on defense.
“We have 89 men on our roster, and really the battles, the competition, the look for the right fit starts now,” McCarthy said. “As you look at the dynamics of how we built each and every football team, we don’t really go into the season looking for the exact number of any position, so I’m looking for a lot of competition. The depth and how we felt coming out of the offseason has given us the chance — the coaching staff — to really mold and galvanize a football team.”
McCarthy’s optimism began with what he called an excellent vibe at the conclusion of the offseason program. He said the players are “structurally and schematically” ready to start building toward the season.
The coach also has a plan for the 21 practices over the next month that will focus on keeping players healthy and, during the second half of camp, getting them in tune with significant changes — basically flip-flopping the Friday and Saturday routines — he will make in the weekly in-season schedule. Still, he insisted player evaluation will remain the No. 1 goal in camp.
“I don’t think you can ever jeopardize your personnel evaluation,” McCarthy said. “You have a block of time to make those decisions, and you don’t ever get that back. Because if you look at history, players that are released here, they usually have an opportunity somewhere else. I think you have to max out that effort.”
As for the injuries that hold back the team seemingly every year, McCarthy keeps plugging away at finding a solution. Despite the Packers’ recent tackling woes, it doesn’t sound like there will be much, if any, live tackling during camp.
“Looking back on our last two camps, the things that have gone on, the stress points in camp where injuries occur, we really haven’t started the way we’ve wanted to the last two years,” he said. “I think we have to be extremely conscious of that.”
One thing McCarthy seems enthused about is the young talent that could be poised to break out. That is especially true on defense, where McCarthy’s marching orders to coordinator Dom Capers are to simplify things so the young players can contribute more.
Meanwhile, McCarthy feels the offensive line “has a chance to be the best offensive line that we’ve had,” even with untested JC Tretter the likely starter at center, and indicated he likes the tight end group, where six players are given a chance to replace injured and potentially retired playmaker Jermichael Finley.
Despite last season’s defensive meltdown, McCarthy’s surprisingly positive assessment of his roster is warranted. The offense could be unstoppable now that quarterback Aaron Rodgers has a viable running game and, with the exception of inside linebacker, there is more talent and depth on the roster than usual.
Some of that talent is inexperienced, but if the young guys step up and the team stays relatively healthy, those 12 or 15 questions will be reduced to a manageable number very quickly.