Defining the "Packers Way"
GREEN BAY – Before all things went to hell in Green Bay, back on Oct. 27, when Aaron Rodgers had diced up the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday Night Football; when the team was 5-2 and in first place, the popular storyline was how so many "no-name" players had kept calm and carried on.
Jarrett Boykin and Myles White caught five passes each in that game, and tight end Andrew Quarless hauled in two. Micah Hyde was back on punt returns, and he brought one back 93 yards for a touchdown. Jamari Lattimore recorded a sack.
"Next man up" was a convenient narrative, but an accurate one.
The players, though, had sort of tired of the questioning – just seven weeks into the season. For some of them, it was the second straight year of the same queries, veterans being asked about the impact of no-name street free agents, rookies or practice squad promotions.
For others, though – many, actually – it was the first time any had experienced any such thing.
And that, actually, is part of the reason doing business this way has worked so well for Packers general manager Ted Thompson, head coach Mike McCarthy and his assistants.
"Because they're young," Packers Hall of Fame wide receiver Antonio Freeman said when we talked about this topic during a taping of the Bill Michaels Huddle.
Freeman said that because the Packers is all these players know, it's all they believe and are in turn very, very coachable. There are no bad habits to break, no veterans who have their own agenda or ideas. It's why you hear the word "home grown" tossed about Green Bay as if it were a Major League Baseball franchise.
It's also why you hear that phrase used now in Seattle and Kansas City, franchises now run by Thompson disciples.
Youth is the one binding factor in defining the "Packers Way."
If anything – I know it sounds like I'm being a corporate soldier for the Packers – but our front office does a good job," linebacker A.J. Hawk said. "I have a lot of respect for what they do with the type of guys they bring in. It's true – when you see guys come in here, whether they're drafted rookies, free agents or from wherever they come in, they all seem to buy into the program and have an idea of where they want to go. They know this is such a historic place they want to play well and they want to be accountable. I think those guys really do their research upstairs when they bring people in."
Undrafted free agents like Jamari Lattimore and M.D. Jennings never heard from the organization up until it was time to be signed. Chris Banjo and Nate Palmer had meetings with coaches, but both left such gatherings not feeling one way or the other about the team's interest. Brandon Bostick was flown in for a tryout, told to change positions, then told to hit the road – only to be called back a short time later.
There are threads of similarities in all their stories, but it's all about being a "Packer" from the beginning – and growing and developing in the system.
"I totally agree with that," said Bostick, who is now on injured reserve. "They believe in their guys and they bring in people who they know that can play. When I came in I was a developmental guy. So, you try to develop your game and your skills and try to get better at your position and when you get there the coaches trust you a lot and they're able to put you out there with the whole team."
Another important element is to why this model has been successful – and why it's being copied – is because of the innate desire of each of these "no name" players.
It sounds like a cliché – but everyone in the Packers locker room sees that added heavier chip on the shoulder, and the type of play it produces.
"You can't put a stat on it," Hawk said. "You can't put anything on it – just guys coming in ready. When they get here they're ready. If they get drafted or sign as free agents, whatever, they're ready to play. I think everyone, if you're not in, you're waiting your time to get in. They stay ready. That's the kind of guys they bring in here all the time. We bring in high character guys that like to work. Games like this (against the Browns) really show that just because guys step in and guys who didn't have a bunch of game action step in and play really well."
Banjo, an undrafted rookie who has seen major snaps in the defensive backfield this season, added some more perspective to Hawks' assessment.
"I really think it goes back to just having a want-to," Banjo said. "I understand for everybody across the NFL it's a great blessing and an opportunity to be in the NFL, but with that comes a lot of responsibility. I feel like it can get real easy at times to just be complacent coming in, especially as a younger guy. Usually you're behind a guy who's played, who's had some experience, who's a veteran, and it's easy to sit back and say when my time comes – which a lot of times is going to happen. I feel like here, a lot of the younger guys are still preparing themselves as if they're the starter, getting just as much attention, paying just as much attention as a starter would or just prepare themselves just as much. I really think that just goes back to a want-to to really contribute to the team in any way you're asked."
And to contribute, you have to be coached up.
Former Packers practice squad member and running back Michael Hill, who played in two games before being signed away by Tampa Bay said when he was brought in, the Packers coaches had him break down his college offense at Missouri Western, specifically how he picked up pass blocking assignments.
Since he called out the protections in college, he was asked to do the same in Green Bay – and even managed first team reps as a fourth-string running back.
"From the top down they let you know you always need to be ready because you never know when your time's going to come," said Palmer, who has seen the field at linebacker. "As a young guy you get that mindset 'I need to be at the top of my game because you never know when it's going to come.' And they also tell you from the top down that there's a lot of late round draft picks and free agents that make the team and you pretty much need to be ready, no matter if you were the first pick or the last pick or a free agent.
"When you get told those things from day one and you get the veteran leadership that tells you (that), it kind of becomes a theme, or a mindset, that every young guy has when they come in here. I know when I heard it I was just like well, I'm going to study, study, study, study, so when my time comes I'll be ready."
No doubt McCarthy and his coaches would prefer to go through an entire season without any key starters being injured – but the fact that the Packers often fulfill their promise to developmental players with playing time (and sometimes, contracts) – and continue to win, it gives established veterans confidence in the new faces around them that they will play well.
"They get that opportunity and they make the best of it," cornerback Tramon Williams said. "We know those guys personally, so you always happy to see those guy get in and showcase what they can do. At the end of the day, if we can get the guy back that got hurt and the other guy is still playing like he is, it just makes the team better."
At the end of the season, 2013 will go down as a disappointment if the Vince Lombardi Trophy isn't hoisted by an organization that expects to do so every year. A loss Sunday in Chicago would mark just the second time in seven years the team hasn't made the playoffs, and just the sixth time in two decades. (Much of that can be hung on the fact that Aaron Rodgers missed seven weeks, a stretch where the Packers went from 5-2 and in first place in the NFC North to out of the playoffs).
But there is a "Packer Way," and it won't be changing anytime soon. History shows the team will be back to the playoffs using this model as well.
"I think it's a credit to Ted and (Director of Pro Personnel) Eliot Wolf and (Senior Personnel Executive) 'Lonzo (Alonzo Highsmith) and all those guys upstairs," guard Josh Sitton said. "They always find a way to find guys that can step in and play. They're always finding free agents that come in and when someone goes down they're ready to play. We have depth on this team and guys are able to fill in and the coaches do a great job of adjusting game plans to that. We have guys that go out there and play hard and play smart and when you do that we're going to be successful."
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