Packers enter opener vs. Saints with their 'hungriest' team in years
GREEN BAY - At the onset of the first week in what might become their final season together, Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams gathered their younger Green Bay Packers teammates in a meeting.
They know what is at stake better than anyone in these next 17 games, not counting what they hope will be a Super Bowl run. Rodgers is the incumbent MVP quarterback with a Hall of Fame legacy on his mind. Adams is the All-Pro receiver who demands to be paid like it, but so far has not gotten the offer he expects entering the final year of his contract, leading him Wednesday to say there is “no chance” a last-minute extension is coming before Sunday’s opener.
Both could be out of a Packers uniform next season.
First, they have work to do. They know the load must be shared. Nobody in this league can make it alone.
So as they gathered the Packers rookies, the best quarterback-receiver tandem in the NFL made clear their expectations. The Packers are all in for the 2021 season, Super Bowl or bust, because there is no guarantee they’ll have that luxury in 2022.
“This is probably the hungriest team that I’ve ever been around, honestly,” Adams said. “Just because we have been so close a number of times now. So I feel like everybody in the back of their mind, they know how reachable it is and realistic that we are to getting to that final step. We just haven’t had an opportunity to showcase what we can do in the real dance.
“Just being close a few times, it opens up everybody’s eyes and it’s like, ‘All right, we’re going to go deep into the playoffs.’”
There is no other conclusion the Packers can stomach for their 2021 season than a deep playoff run. Each mile marker this fall, starting with Sunday’s opener against the New Orleans Saints at Jacksonville, will pass with a Super Bowl in mind.
This is a team deeply wounded by the past, and not just the rift between Rodgers and general manager Brian Gutekunst that set an uncertain future. Four players inside the Packers' locker room have lost four straight NFC championship games: Rodgers, Adams, left tackle David Bakhtiari and kicker Mason Crosby. Defensive linemen Kenny Clark and Dean Lowry have lost three championship games.
Those defeats grate on those who experienced them. They are the games that make legacies -- or taint them. There might be only one last chance for Rodgers and Adams to author an alternate ending to their Packers careers.
Rodgers said the unknown of what comes after 2021 make this season feel different than those before it.
“I think we don’t feel pressure,” Rodgers said, measuring his words careful. “I’m speaking personally – I can’t speak for everybody – but the feel that I get with the energy in the locker room is not pressure, it’s focus. I really do. I think it’s the right perspective, and the right type of focus. We know we have a talented team. We know what the expectations are.”
More than anything, that was Gutekunst’s message to Rodgers this offseason when the Packers general manager was trying to entice his quarterback to return. Over and over on draft night, when Rodgers’ displeasure with the Packers and uncertainty with the team became public, Gutekunst referenced how talented the team he built was. He was talking to a Zoom full of reporters that night, but Gutekunst’s target audience was much smaller, perhaps only one person.
The heavy lifting of Gutekunst’s work is complete. It’s clear the GM likes his 53-man roster.
He isn’t the only one.
“There’s really no excuse,” Adams said. “Because we’ve got a lot of the same guys from last year. We just added on, I feel like we got better than what we were the past couple years. So there’s no excuse but to go and take care of business now.”
It’s no coincidence Rodgers and Adams pulled the Packers' rookies aside at the start of their first NFL season. For a team with Super Bowl expectations, the Packers will rely on rookies this fall. Their second- and fourth-round picks are projected to be their starting center (Josh Myers) and right guard (Royce Newman). Their third- and seventh-round picks will be their punt returner (Amari Rodgers) and kickoff returner (Kylin Hill). While first-round pick Eric Stokes is unlikely to unseat veteran Kevin King as a starting corner early this season, that could change by the postseason.
Their message apparently clicked. Myers, tabbed to replace departed All-Pro center Corey Linsley, said expectations around the Packers are no different than his college days at Ohio State. The Buckeyes are among a small handful of college football programs that enter each season with national championship expectations, amplified only by the reality those goals are attainable each year.
“The goal at the end of the day,” Myers said, “is to win the whole thing. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we’re playing this game, is to win the whole shooting match. From Day 1, they haven’t been quiet about that. It’s not a secret, that’s our goal, and it’s an attainable goal.”
The Packers' veterans, starting with Rodgers and Adams, likely won’t be quiet about those expectations until the season’s last day. Whether that’s hoisting the Lombardi Trophy or a destination that falls short, each day will carry those weighty aspirations.
There’s no guaranteeing this group will get another chance.
“We’re just focusing on accountability,” Rodgers said, “and holding each other accountable. Because regardless of what happens with any of our situations, this group will not be together in years down the line. So we’re going to enjoy this year for all it has to offer, and each other. I think that’s the right perspective to have in this situation.”