GREEN BAY After all that has happened in the 7 1/2 months since the Green Bay Packers lost to the eventual Super Bowl-champion New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game, general manager Ted Thompson and coach Mike McCarthy are clearly looking forward to Monday night's regular-season opener against the Minnesota Vikings at Lambeau Field.
More so than they've probably looked forward to any other game, because the focus mercifully returns to football, rather than hurt feelings, fractured relationships and criticism related to Brett Favre's unretirement and subsequent trade to the New York Jets.
"It was certainly a hectic summer," Thompson said in his typically understated way. "And we got to where we got to."
And now the biggest question is where they're headed, led by new starting quarterback Aaron Rodgers. While McCarthy and Thompson's schedules didn't allow for them to be interviewed side-by-side, they were asked a number of the same questions in separate interviews in their respective offices earlier this week. An edited transcript of those conversations follows.
WSJ: [ul]Do you guys know what you're doing?[/ul]
MIKE McCARTHY: [ul]What kind of question is that?[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]Well, there is a significant number of Packers fans who don't think you do after the way the Favre saga played out. This is your chance to tell them that you do.[/ul]
MM: T[ul]he perception of what happened and reality, there's a gap there. But that's irrelevant. Every decision made by the Green Bay Packers in my time here has been made in the best interest of the football team. So whatever your opinions are on that one particular transaction and I understand it wasn't just a normal transaction there's a lot of elements that were unforeseen, unfortunate, that put us in that position. But to answer your question, yes, we know what we're doing.
I'll just say this: Given our success last year, I think it's a perfect illustration of, nobody cares about yesterday. They only care about today. For a football team and an organization to have the success that we had last season, and between our last game and now, for the attitude towards our football team to change the way it's changed is unfortunate. I can't control it. I know I was part of what went on. But I think it's a perfect illustration of our society. It's, "What have you done for me lately?" We had an extremely positive season last year, a number of our players really grew up, our team has moved forward in a number of facets, but unfortunately, some people want to keep talking about the Brett Favre situation.[/ul]
TED THOMPSON: [ul]I can understand the questions people have. But the answer to your question is yes, we do. We know what we're doing. We're trying to put together the best team we can.
WSJ: [ul]You talk about appreciating their passion and you talk about how you understand when they boo a draft pick, but you also want people to believe the Packers are in good hands.[/ul]
TT: [ul]I do. I think that's really important. Something as sensitive as what we went through, I can understand that. I wish people didn't have to go through it. I wish none of us had to go through it. But I do want them to think the Packers are in good hands. That is important. And like I've said before, when people question a personnel decision, that's OK. But I do want them to know we're good people and we're doing the best we can. If they know that, at least that's something.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]So then it bothers you that people think you're a raging egomaniac? Does that get to you? Because that's personal, not professional.[/ul]
TT: [ul]The personal part I'm OK with even. But the big picture, macro view, if they think there's some mad scientist here that doesn't care about anybody else and is only out for his own ego, then they're misinformed. We literally get up every day and pray that we do a good job that day. Because we know how important it is to people. Again, that doesn't mean everybody's going to agree with us. It'd be nice if everybody knew that that's the way we approach our jobs.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]In the grand scheme of things, does it matter what the people think? It's not everyone it's only part of the fan base that's down on you but isn't what really matters what you as an organization think and the decisions you make? Those opinions will change if you have success.[/ul]
MM: [ul]From my chair, that's all that's ever mattered. I wasn't the pretty girl when I was hired, so that was an experience we were able to overcome. Our first year was tough in some spots, but we were able to learn from that and had a successful season last year. When we met as a football team on March 17, we talked about new season, new faces, new challenges. Every season takes on a different journey. Ours has definitely been different, and we've hit a bunch of road blocks that we've had to work through as a team, and we haven't even played one game yet.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]Does it worry you all that stuff will impact the way your team performs this year?[/ul]
MM: [ul]I'm not worried about it, because it's something that's in the past. To me, it's an experience. And hopefully it's an experience we can draw from with positive results. I'm well-aware of all the negativity that flew around in that particular situation, but it was a practice in self-discipline, focus, sticking together. I think those are all solid things to learn from.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]What was it like in this office when you and Brett met that night? Obviously a lot of us would've loved to have been flies on the wall for that. And was there a point where you sat there and thought, "How on earth has it come to this?"[/ul]
MM: [ul]Oh, there were a number of times when both individuals said, "My goodness, how did it get to this?" And to quote him, "How do we get out of it?" I think it was a very honest exchange.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]Hardest thing you've ever dealt with as a coach?[/ul]
MM:[ul] It's the hardest administrative situation I've been involved with. I wouldn't say it's the hardest thing I ever dealt with. The death of (San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman) Thomas Herrion in Denver in 2005 (when McCarthy was the offensive coordinator), to me that's a hard situation. You're talking about life and death. Here, we're talking about a career path change. I don't think there's any comparison.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]You've been adamant that it's about the team stepping up, not Aaron replacing Brett. But the bottom line is that your success and failure this season is predicated on how well Rodgers plays, isn't it? If he plays well and stays healthy, you'll win; if he plays poorly or gets hurt, you'll be in trouble, right?[/ul]
MM: [ul]I'm not trying to minimize the importance of good quarterback play. But every team is not the same. At the quarterback position, we went from the most experienced to among the least. I'm aware of that. But our football team is different this year. I think our defense is going to be better, I know our special teams has a chance to be better, and I think our offense will have a chance to play at the level we played at last year. I mean, we were a damn good offense last year. And that's the standard that's been set around here, and that's the standard we'll hold the offense to this year.[/ul]
TT: [ul]It's a reflection of the team, though. I do think this is the ultimate team sport. We were 13-3 last year in the regular season, 14-4 overall, because we had a remarkably good team. They liked each other, they were accountable to each other, they depended on each other. If we have that kind of relationship amongst our team this year, I think we'll be a good team. I think we'll have a chance to win. Does that mean we'll win as many games, or we'll win more? I don't know. But it is the ultimate team sport, and if there is a weak link, the NFL will find it. If there's dissension, the NFL will find it. I was very proud of the team last year.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]Ted, you've talked before about how when you watch practice, you're not necessarily looking at footwork or fundamentals at practice. What else are you looking at?[/ul]
TT: [ul]I look at athleticism and movement and plays. I do look at the football part. But there are often times when you might think that's what I'm looking at but I'm watching a guy come back from just going through a tough period and seeing how his teammates respond to him and how he responds to them. The reason I go down on the sidelines in preseason is to get that interaction. I think from having been a player, it's not that I get any special insight, but you see the real people in those situations. Sometimes stressful, sometimes complete elation, sometimes depression. I've watched guys interact and I watch the team very closely.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]You were asked a lot of times this offseason whether Favre or Rodgers gave you a better chance to win in 2008, and you never really answered the question. Why are you so sure that this 24-year-old kid with 59 career regular-season pass attempts can do the job?[/ul]
MM: [ul]I believe in his development. I believe in the way he was brought up. I'm a big believer in people ascend to different heights based on what's beneath their feet. Aaron Rodgers has a tremendous foundation under his feet. He came up the right way in this league. He listened, he learned, he changed his body, he's in much better shape today than he was three years ago. He's taken the lessons of working behind a Hall of Fame quarterback for three years. He's really reached the point where he's really prepared for the last step, and that's to play the games. It's his time to go out and compete.[/ul]
TT: [ul]I think he's physically talented enough to play the position. I think, and I've said this before, I think him watching for three years is going to be a benefit to him. It doesn't replace experience, but I do think it's a benefit in the long run. I think he is a good teammate and I think his teammates respect him and respect his work. He wants to be a good player, and that is sometimes overlooked. And we'll see. Now, he has to play. And we've talked about all these different things leadership, being the face of the franchise but none of that really matters. As Mike has said several times, his job is to play quarterback. And that's what we're going to ask him to do.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]You didn't go into the '05 draft expecting to draft him, did you? You didn't expect him to be your proverbial "best player available," did you?[/ul]
TT: [ul]No. I did not. I did do some work leading up to that draft day because I kept hearing he was falling and I couldn't figure out why. We were at 24, and I'd heard he was going to be top 5, so we didn't spend a lot of time on him. In fact, I did some extra work to make sure we saw what we saw. We were very pleased with everything we saw. He just kept getting closer and closer and closer, and finally it was our pick and he was still there. Several picks it got to our pick, I said, "Well, if they're just going to give him to us, we're going to take him." And it just worked out that way.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]Is there one personality trait that makes you think he's better prepared for the challenge of following a legend than others who have tried and failed?[/ul]
MM: [ul]He is a high-quality person. He's a young man with a lot of character, he has a good heart, he's a good teammate, he has a very good work ethic. And, he's talented. You can't deny the fact that Aaron Rodgers is a talented quarterback. He has a lot of ability. The next step is, he has to be able to endure the grind of a season. I think he has the right personality for that. He's not a moody person, he's very level. He's never too high, never too low. And I think that's the way you have to be to survive in this league.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]What about your backup quarterbacks? They're both rookies, and you said yourself it takes time to develop them. What happens if Rodgers gets hurt and you don't have that time you have to play Matt Flynn or Brian Brohm immediately. Then what? Is there a microwave method to getting them ready to play?[/ul]
MM: [ul]Well, it's not like if Brett was still here. He wouldn't need as many reps, so you could give more to the backups. We've taken the opportunity to get that guy, Matt, ready with the resources that are there. The quarterback position being so young, we have two very good prospects, but I think the team is ready if we have to play with a younger player. There's definitely a segment of our offensive system we can run that still gives us the ability to be effective on offense. And I'm confident either one of those guys could run that particular package or portion of our system. It's one thing to play a young quarterback. But if the other two phases of defense and special teams aren't ready, then your chances go down for success. But I think we could handle that situation.[/ul]
TT: [ul]First of all, preseason play, you can't necessarily go by that. We go by the whole body of work practice and everything. And we've seen continued improvement from both those guys. We think they're going to be good players in the NFL. In 1993, it was decided at the end of training camp to go with Brett Favre, who was really a second-year player; Ty Detmer, who'd never played a down; and Mark Brunell. And people thought the world was coming to an end. I'm not saying we're going to be as good as that, because that was a great threesome, but that's just the way you have to develop players.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]So you don't think two rookie backup quarterbacks are a risk?[/ul]
MM: [ul]The risks will go down as the season goes on. We need time to get them ready. They're both developing prospects.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]Is it fair to say that when given the choice between a player with experience but a limited ceiling and an inexperienced young player with a higher ceiling, you'll opt for the latter every time?[/ul]
TT: [ul]If I felt like the net result of either player playing that year was even. If I felt the net result of the older player playing was better, I'd keep the older player. All things being equal, and I didn't know the ceiling of one player but I had kind of figured out the ceiling of the other, then I think you would choose the guy with the higher ceiling. I'm not going to sacrifice anything for the present for the future.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]Ideally, how much do you want to run the ball? When you were hired, you talked about wanting to run a lot, but as the play-caller, that hasn't happened.[/ul]
MM: [ul]I think the days of running the ball 55 percent of the time are over. The thing about running the football and playing great defense with no turnovers and excellent special teams, it keeps you in the game. You're in every single game. And if things go right, you're going to win a lot of games. But I don't know if you can win the world championship that way. That's just my opinion. Because there's always games that you have to go win. And that means being able to throw the ball effectively. We play to win. We're going to do whatever we need to do to score points. If I go into a game thinking we can run the ball 50 times and score a bunch of points, then we're going to run the ball. But if you think the best way to get into the end zone is throwing it, then you have to do that. It's hard to win 10-9 ever week.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]Does Ryan Grant have the makings of an elite NFL back?[/ul]
MM: [ul]I hope so. He has a lot going for him. We tend to forget how young he is. The guy doesn't have a lot of experience. I definitely think he's a young player that can improve, and you can't argue with the success that he's had in the short time he's been our main guy. I definitely hope so.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]It would appear you're going to be the youngest team in the league in terms of average age for the third year running. But you have some true veterans at some key positions Donald Driver at wide receiver, Al Harris and Charles Woodson at corner, and Mark Tauscher and Chad Clifton at tackle. Are there other guys on this team you view as so-called "leaders?"[/ul]
TT: [ul]It's a different kind of young though. All our so-called sophomores and juniors are a year older. Now, you have taken out two players off of last year's roster that bumped the age up, but my guess is, our median age has gotten higher. I'm not a mathematician. I like veteran players. Our two corners, I love the fact that those guys have played and understand the game and can help our young guys grow. I do think you have to continually try to upgrade the talent on your team. And I think we were in a position when we first got here in 2005 where we were a little bit heavy the other way. And I think there had to be a process. But that doesn't mean we're going to continually get younger. In a perfect world, you're going to lose some players, but you keep those core players that you want long-term and you gradually get older as you mature. You have your Barnetts and your Kampmans and your Picketts and Kabeers guys who have played, too. Veterans have always been important, and that's why we do the extensions with those guys. It's not, 'We're just going to keep Ted's guys.' That's never been the case. I know it's been portrayed as that, but that's not the way we look at it.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]Last year, you won the regular-season opener (against Philadelphia) with your special teams. This year, you're going in with a new long-snapper, in Brett Goode, who replaces what would've been a new snapper anyway in J.J. Jansen, who got hurt in the final preseason game. And by cutting Jon Ryan the week of the opener to bring in Derrick Frost, a new punter and a new holder, you made a pretty bold move. Explain to me why that's not a huge risk given the premium you guys put on special teams.[/ul]
TT: [ul]The snapper thing was unavoidable, and it was a shame, because J.J. had made our team. In terms of the punter/holder, it's not a knock against Jon Ryan. We feel like Derrick has the ability to be a more consistent, more steady player at both positions.[/ul]
MM: [ul]There's some risk involved. There's no doubt. The one position, with Goode coming in there, was a healthy issue. The other part with the punting, I think Jon Ryan's a tremendous talent. He's done a number of positive things here. But we talk about field position and kicks inside the 20-yard line and things like that, and with the inability to bring in competition because of the 80-man roster limit, people say it all the time, but this is really a reflection of it: You're really competing against everybody in the league. That was our approach. And with that, you have to trust your pro personnel board. This is something personnel felt was the right move, and we made the choice. It was a tough one, but we think it's going to improve our field position.
WSJ: [ul]Speaking of personnel, how much input do you have on that? Whether it's quarterback or punter or whatever position it is, if you're adamant about keeping someone or making a change, how much weight does your opinion carry?[/ul]
MM: [ul]I would like to think it has a strong consideration. Ted and I talk daily about our roster. I like our relationship and our ability to communicate on all fronts. He's in charge, though. He's the boss. But he told me when he interviewed me he would never shove a player down my throat and I'd have an opportunity to voice my opinion on every transaction. But at the end of the day, somebody has to make the final decision, and I think he does a good job of listening to everybody. He's not an emotional decision-maker, either. That's what I like about him. He's very even-keeled, very thorough, and he doesn't knee-jerk, which I think helps us.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]What's he like as your boss and your friend? He had a pretty rough offseason in the court of public opinion, and Favre's said some negative things about him lately again, too. What's he really like?[/ul]
MM: [ul]He's got a lot more personality than has been expressed. No. 1, he's as fine a person as I've ever been around. Very caring, strong Christian, cares about the players immensely, cares about the people in this building immensely, has a tremendous sense of responsibility to this organization, holds the importance of the Green Bay Packers in the highest regard. I don't think I could've been paired with a better person. As a first-year head coach, he was so steady with me, I never felt any pressure or disappointment. He handles the losses a hundred times better than I do. But this experience has been tough. And it's created a lot of conversation about things. To be honest with you, it's confirmed a lot of our beliefs about how this organization should be run and we feel very strongly we're doing everything in the best interest of the organization.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]How do you evaluate yourself and the job that you've done? What do you think you have done well, and what mistakes have you made?[/ul]
TT: [ul]I don't really think about that. You're so busy trying to keep the wheel turning that you don't have time for that. I don't know. I think it's best for someone else to do that. I suppose if one was to evaluate oneself, you'd be inclined to be more favorable to yourself. I think we're honest in that we go back and we evaluate each draft, each decision we make. We go back and study how we could've done it better. But in terms of big-picture, how-do-I-think-I'm-doing, I never really think in those terms.[/ul]
MM: [ul]We've improved. I take pride in that. I think our program, the way we train in-season, offseason I take a lot of pride in that. Our scheme development has moved forward. We haven't stayed stagnant. The term I hate, and we're all guilty of it, is, 'That's who we are. That's how we've always done it.' I know, but let's make sure we do it better. We've had some success. I'm very proud of the working environment we have here. I think it's important not to get a sense of being too comfortable. I want people to have confidence, but comfort can lead to laziness and complacency. Complacency is something I think can kill a successful operation.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]But can you achieve that without striking fear in the hearts of the people who work around you?[/ul]
MM: [ul]Micromanagement and fear to me are short-term solutions. I'm in disagreement with that management style. Because I think it creates emotion and direction in your people and motivation to get something done, but I think it's important for people to enjoy the environment they're in while also maintaining respect for that environment. That creates growth. Everybody has to have an opportunity to improve. You're either getting better or you're getting worse and that is so true about the NFL. You don't ever stay the same. And I think the tight environment limits that. You're always swelling up for the next game, and eventually, it always gets you and the bottom drops out on you. I think you need to hold people accountable, but you need to let them do their job. I never liked it when I had that guy who looked over my shoulder. I was never as good as I could be, working in that environment. So that's not the environment we have here.[/ul]
WSJ: [ul]You went 13-3 last year, you were an overtime interception away from the Super Bowl. You talk all the time about improving from within, but where is that improvement going to come from? There's really only two more steps you can go to improve on last year reaching the Super Bowl, and winning it.[/ul]
MM: [ul]See, winning football games is the end product, to me. I have to maintain my focus on improving the beginning of the product. I can't sit there and focus all my energy on just the win. Because there's so much work that goes on to get from the beginning to the end. That's the goal, and that's hard to do in this league, no doubt about it. I stay focused on improving the D-line, improving the parts. Maybe it's the backups, or new players. But I always stay focused on the beginning part. The end part is how many games you win. To me, that always takes care of itself. (If someone says), 'You didn't go 13-3 this year, so it's not a success,' that's really for you to judge. Success to me comes at different levels, because there's really only one successful team, and that's the one that wins the Super Bowl.[/ul]
TT: [ul]In your whole body of work as a player and as an administrator, you remember certain things. Sometimes a regular season game you just played the previous year, you may not remember any of the details. But games like that NFC Championship Game, you'll always remember. I'll always remember our win against Carolina to go to the Super Bowl in '96. I'll always remember the Denver Super Bowl loss, because it was so disappointing. The loss in San Francisco (in the playoffs) the following year, I'll always remember that. And the loss to the Giants goes amongst those. The difference between winning and losing in this league is so minute, to be on the losing side is so disheartening, you have to try to shield yourself. The important ones like that one, I don't think you ever let it go.
You play it week-to-week. You try to put yourself in position so you have a team that can compete and win week-in and week-out. Do you win 'em all? No. But if you play well, you have a chance to win. That's all you can ask for in the NFL. Every year, your schedule is different, things are topsy-turvy. I've never tried to predict seasons or how many games we're going to win. But I do think we have a good team, and I expect this team to win.[/ul]
That's some ballsy questions there.