Packers enter camp with Super Bowl expectation
Mike McCarthy knows the expectation. Between working out at the YMCA and taking his son to the Manning Passing Academy this summer, he couldn't escape the buzz.
His Green Bay Packers are a trendy pick to win Super Bowl 50. The team's president and general manager made their aspirations clear during the annual shareholders meeting Tuesday. The Packers have a two-time MVP quarterback, who is one of 20 returning offensive and defense starters, and bad memories to erase after collapsing in the NFC title game seven months ago.
Anything short of a Super Bowl would be disappointing, but McCarthy said there's no pressure. A day before his team opened training camp, the Packers coach said he's approaching this season like any other.
"Really, if I did treat it any different," McCarthy said, "I would just be one super hypocrite. It's something that I know I've talked about since the first day in front of the team. The vision's clear. We have a plan. We'll work that plan. Our players believe in that plan.
"That's nice that people like your team and think you're going to win the Super Bowl. Hell, I agree with them. I think we're going to win it, too. If I don't believe that, then someone else would be standing up here."
The Packers open training camp with an 8:25 a.m. practice Thursday on Ray Nitschke Field. They'll leave behind a tumultuous offseason that started with a shocking loss in Seattle and included three player arrests.
Defensive ends Letroy Guion (three games) and Datone Jones (one) will start the season on the suspended list after drug-related incidents. Tight end Andrew Quarless is subject to punishment from the league office after being arrested July 4 for discharging a firearm in public at Miami Beach.
The offseason controversy was a change for the Packers, who had no players arrested the previous three years. McCarthy said it didn't change the way he feels about his team entering camp. His bosses share that optimism.
"We are committed to doing everything in our power, everything we can, to bring the Lombardi Trophy back where it belongs," Packers president Mark Murphy told shareholders Tuesday. "… We won Super Bowl I. I think it would be very fitting if we also won Super Bowl 50."
They'll aim for the Super Bowl with mostly the same players that fell just short in 2014.
The Packers were the only team that did not add an unrestricted free agent this offseason. General manager Ted Thompson re-signed right tackle Bryan Bulaga and receiver Randall Cobb, who would've been two of the biggest names available on the open market. But Thompson avoided the temptation of acquiring outside help.
"We had a quiet free agency season," Thompson told shareholders, "but we had a productive one."
The consistency inside the Packers locker room should translate to the field.
A year after relying on four rookies as partial or full-time starters, none are expected to start the season filling significant roles. With the exception of the secondary and inside linebacker, most snaps will be handed to players who have spent multiple years developing in the system.
McCarthy said his faith in the team's leadership hasn't wavered, even with the off-field issues.
"I feel strongly that this group," McCarthy said, "can be the strongest group of leaders that we've had in our locker room as far as the number of them. Even some of our young guys who are stepping up in Year 3 and Year 4, and so forth. So that's what you start with. That's what you buy into. That's what you push.
"I'm more focused on balancing that out and making sure the top of the roster and the bottom of the roster come together as fast as possible."
Even with their experience, there still were significant changes this offseason.
McCarthy no longer is the offense's play-caller. Without that responsibility, which he handed to associate head coach Tom Clements, he'll spread his attention much more evenly between offense, defense and special teams.
The coaching staff's transition started this spring during organized team activities. McCarthy said it'll carry into training camp.
"I thought our team did a very good job throughout the spring," McCarthy said. "I felt very confident coming out of the offseason. That's kind of another reason why I want to jump right into it (Thursday). I want to hit it and get it, and have quality shell practices — you know the first two practices are in shells — and then we really crank it up on Saturday with the pads."
McCarthy hopes the spring's momentum carries into camp, eventually leading to a strong September. The Packers know their best path through the Super Bowl goes through Lambeau Field. Earlier this offseason, quarterback Aaron Rodgers said the team wants to earn the NFC's top playoff seed, and the postseason home-field advantage that would come with it.
In the past three years, stumbling starts to the season have prevented the Packers from earning the NFC's top seed. Since 2012, the Packers are 5-6 in the month of September. They've been 28-10-1 in the season's final three months.
With an opening month that includes a trip to rival Chicago and rematch against Seattle, McCarthy said his team can't afford a slow start.
"We're well aware of what our record's been the last three or four years starting off the season," McCarthy said. "It's something that we're keeping our finger on the pulse, and make sure we're giving our guys the opportunity to come out of the gate fast."
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood.