The Green Bay Packers have been the same team, more or less, in the six seasons since they last won the Super Bowl.
The details have changed, but the story hasn’t. They’ve gone into each season as one of a handful of favorites to contend for the Super Bowl. They’ve made the playoffs each time. And they’ve gone as deep in the postseason as Aaron Rodgers has carried them, twice to the NFC championship, but never beyond.
With the start of training camp Thursday, is there good reason to think 2017 will be any different?
No and yes.
No in that to a large degree, the Packers will go as far as Rodgers takes them. He’s the reason they’re a perennial contender, and when they won the Super Bowl in the 2010 season he outplayed every quarterback he faced in the playoffs.
Since then, their season has ended when Rodgers hasn’t been better than his counterpart. Their defense has been too much of a liability to make up the difference. I doubt anyone thinks the Packers will transform into a premier defense in 2017, so they’ll probably again be vulnerable if Rodgers isn’t at his best when it counts most.
But is there anything to suggest this could be the Packers’ year? Sure.
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For starters, there’s the law of averages, and the Packers have the right makeup and the hunger from coming close. Tom Brady has five Super Bowl rings but at one point went 10 years between titles. Rodgers has gone six years. Also, 19 players on the Packers’ roster have lost in the NFC championship game twice in the last three years.
“At some point you’re going to get tired of it,” said free-agent addition Ricky Jean Francois. “At some point you’re going to find a way to get over the hump.”
Francois is a rarity for Ted Thompson’s Packers, a veteran who has played the majority of his career with other teams (San Francisco, Indianapolis and Washington).
The ninth-year pro has been to one Super Bowl, with the 49ers in the 2012 season. He signed with the Packers this offseason because he wanted back on a legit contender, and when he signed he was aware that the Packers have been in the playoffs every season since he entered the NFL in 2009.
“(Rodgers) has been in the league, what, 12, 13 years if I’m not mistaken?” Jean Francois said. “He’s only got one Super Bowl, and we all call him the best quarterback. You see a guy in New England with five of them. If we’re saying (Rodgers) is the best quarterback, let’s put him in position to be the best quarterback by putting multiple rings on his hand.”
Something else is different with the Packers, and it’s because Thompson changed his offseason approach. He didn’t go wild in free agency, but he was more active and strategic on the open market than he has been in a decade.
Besides signing Jean Francois (one year, $2 million) as a rotational player for the defensive line, Thompson added a veteran stopgap starter at guard (Jahri Evans for $2.425 million this year) and overhauled the tight end position with two free agents: Martellus Bennett, who’s one of the league’s all-around best at the position, and Lance Kendricks.
Bennett marks the biggest change for the Packers, not so much because he’s an upgrade from Jared Cook – though he is – but because of his super-extroverted nature. The Packers have had few if any players like him in their locker room under Thompson’s stewardship, and really in the last 25 years.
It couldn’t have been more obvious after Thursday’s first practice that Bennett alters the locker-room vibe. He’s a big man physically (6-feet-6, 275 pounds) and a big personality. He’s as outgoing as they come, displays a quick and eclectic mind (he aspires to be the next Walt Disney or Dr. Suess), and enjoys bantering with teammates, media and anyone else within earshot.
As one person described it, when Bennett enters a room you know it.
There’s always a chance that his relishing the center of attention will grate on some teammates over the long haul of a season. You can’t rule that out. But I think he’ll be good for this staid team because he already appears to have the respect of teammates as a player.
“The thing about Marty that we're learning, and I think you guys will all learn, he's always prepared,” Rodgers said Thursday. “I mean, he's ready to go.”
If that’s the case, Bennett could help loosen up the locker room during the long pressure cooker of a season. That was one of Brett Favre’s gifts, especially in his earlier years. To do that, though, Bennett will have to be the same guy when times get tough – and they always do – as he is now.
“I’m able to find fun in the monotony of the day,” Bennett said at one point during his long media session Thursday.
And at another point: “For the most part, I’m the same person every single day, so (teammates) kind of know. I usually say, ‘BYOE: Bring your own energy.’ But if you need some, come over to Marty and I can run a little off on you.”
How much those things really matter, we’ll see.
What we know is that the Packers are very much among the few teams that should think Super Bowl or bust every year. That’s life with an elite quarterback.
The odds-makers surely agree: The Packers are tied with Atlanta and Dallas for the second-best odds to win the Super Bowl (12-1, according to Bovada.lv).
It’s true that this franchise should be disappointed to have only two Super Bowl wins in 24 years with Favre and then Rodgers at quarterback. Just as the Indianapolis Colts have to feel unfulfilled with only one Super Bowl win in Peyton Manning’s 13 years at their helm.
It’s also true that Rodgers’ story is far from finished, and that Thompson made a much-needed tweak to building his roster this year. Things are the same. Things are different. Let the season show which is more true.
“We've been to the playoffs eight straight years, which is an accomplishment,” Rodgers said. “But you want more titles.”