Howard Green was new to the Green Bay Packers’ locker room in the fall of 2010 and like a new kid in school, didn’t quite know what to expect.
After getting cut by the New York Jets, Green was claimed on waivers by the Packers, and it didn’t take him long to observe something significant in Green Bay.
“About a week into being here, (I noticed) nobody here is worried about individuals,” Green said. “It’s all about the team. We put team first. Buy in with teammates and coaches, that’s what we have here. Since I got here, we’ve been doing things the right way. Good situation. Good locker room. The environment is good.”
Green was careful not to compare the Packers to the Jets, but then, he didn’t have to.
In Green Bay, there is a winning culture that has seeped into every corner of the locker room. It’s no coincidence the Packers are the reigning Super Bowl champions and take an NFL-best 15-1 record into the divisional round of the playoffs next weekend.
At Jets headquarters, meanwhile, there is a far different attitude. Like the Packers, the Jets have a talent-laden roster, but the comparisons end there. After qualifying for back-to-back AFC title games in 2009 and 2010, the Jets finished a disappointing 8-8 and failed to make the playoffs this season. Their on-field struggles can be directly attributed to selfishness.
That damning word came from Jets backup quarterback Greg McElroy this past week.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever been around extremely selfish individuals,” McElroy told a Birmingham, Ala., radio station. “There were people within our locker room that didn’t care whether we won or lost as long as they had good games individually. And that’s the disappointing thing. The fact that we struggled at times this year really led to a really just corrupt mindset within the locker room.”
Such a poisonous atmosphere would be unthinkable in Green Bay, where team goals are stressed. Green learned that almost immediately.
“I never felt any bad vibe, or that anybody was a selfish person,” Green said of his Packers experience. “I never had that feeling and I still don’t have that feeling. I’ve been here over a year. It’s just a great group of men.”
It’s a place where veterans pass along a winning culture to the younger players, according to Green, “so they can understand this is how it’s supposed to be done.”
Among current Packers who played for other teams, Green is not alone in his appreciation for the Packers’ philosophy.
“I think it all starts with the organization, really,” fullback John Kuhn said. “They do such a great job of keeping your eye on the prize and what the goal around here really is.
“It’s more about the team, coming together, trying to achieve something that will last for longer than money ever will or anything like that.”
Kuhn spent two years with the Pittsburgh Steelers before coming to Green Bay. He said both franchises are doing things the right way.
“I think Pittsburgh’s very similar to here,” Kuhn said. “Both places, when you come in, you can’t help but see the winning tradition. The foundation has been laid in those spots that you’re expected to win here, you’re expected to compete, you’re expected to play at a very high level, and you’re supposed to sacrifice individual achievements and accolades sometimes for the better cause of the team. I think that’s what really has these two franchises on top very often.”
The Packers have qualified for the playoffs four of the past five years. Their 36-9 record (.800 winning percentage) since the middle of the 2009 season ranks No. 1 in the NFL. Winning is expected, even if numerous starters go down with injuries like last season, or are held out to rest like last week against the Detroit Lions.
“Losing never creeps into our minds,” said safety Charlie Peprah, who played one season for the Atlanta Falcons. “So when we lose, we’re surprised, shocked and hurt. When we win — OK, that’s what we expected.”
Defensive lineman Ryan Pickett signed with the Packers as an unrestricted free agent in 2006 after playing five seasons with the St. Louis Rams. He said implementing a winning mindset involves more than flipping a switch. It takes time.
“I think we had to build it,” Pickett said. “I don’t think it was here when I got here.”
Pickett credits Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who arrived the same year he did, with creating an environment that breeds success. McCarthy’s winning formula starts with a strong work ethic.
“Man, we put a lot of work in, on and off the field,” Pickett said. “Film work, practice work. It’s not a mistake that this (success) happened. It’s how it should be.”
But it goes beyond hard work, because the NFL is loaded with coaches and players willing to put in long hours. Something else is going on that sets the Packers apart from many teams.
“Some teams can coach out of fear,” Peprah said. “If you mess up, they kind of ride you the wrong way. Here it’s all about building you up and encouraging you and trying to work on improving versus what have you done wrong. Just all that combined with the team atmosphere, all that creates a winning atmosphere.”
McCarthy seems to have struck a perfect balance.
“Running a tight ship and being a players’ coach and being flexible all at the same time,” Peprah said. “I think that balance is what sets him apart from those other teams.”
For the past two years, it has set the Packers apart from other teams in terms of results. Winning has become contagious.
“It’s a culture that Mike and (General Manager) Ted (Thompson) have brought here,” Peprah said. “It’s working well.”
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @MikeVandermause.