Even with Brett Favre making new headlines by signing Tuesday with the arch-rival Minnesota Vikings, Rodgers' presence has become noticeably stronger at the Packers' training camp. He is more vocal and his teammates, especially on offense, are responding to him.
"Clearly, this is Aaron Rodgers' football team," coach Mike McCarthy said. "I think he's definitely earned that. You could see it happening during the offseason program and coming off of his performance of last season. I think he's having an excellent camp."
Rodgers, in his fifth season with the Packers and second as their starter, displays more confidence in everything he says and does on and off the field. He has thrown his share of interceptions in practice, but has mostly played well. He got his preseason off to an impressive start by leading the Packers to touchdowns on each of their first two possessions in a 17-0 victory over the Cleveland Browns last Saturday night. Rodgers completed five of 10 passes for 102 yards and a touchdown, and had a passer rating of 119.6.
It was the type of performance that reinforced the idea that he is capable of leading the Packers into playoff contention after last year's 6-10 finish.
"I think it's just a natural progression after playing 16 games last year," Rodgers said. "The respect that I've gotten from some of the older guys means a lot to me and given me a lot of confidence. I'm just looking for ways to continue to increase my leadership, and in opportunities when I have a chance to speak, speak up."
McCarthy has played a major role in helping his quarterback become a larger force within the team.
"Mike has allowed me to help run the offensive meetings," Rodgers said. "Watching film with receivers, I'm having a bigger voice and that goes a long way when they know what I'm thinking and the way I diagnose plays and watch film. The respect, I hope, of my teammates has increased. And that respect will increase as my leadership role increases as well, and I just try to make the most of it."
» The Packers' conversion from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense has done plenty to create a more aggressive tone for camp practices. It has resulted in more contact and a faster tempo because of the frequent blitzing called by new defensive coordinator Dom Capers. McCarthy also has had his players in pads more often than in any of his three previous seasons as the Packers coach. There have been a half-dozen fights during practice, compared to zero last year. Given the Packers' 6-10 record in 2008, McCarthy doesn't consider that a bad thing.
» The Packers look to have considerable depth at running back. Ryan Grant is solid as a starter, but it doesn't appear as if he'll be a one-man show. There seems to be enough other talented players at the position to allow the Packers to spread the load and not run Grant, who has had injury problems, into the ground. The most impressive of the other backs is DeShawn Wynn, a seventh-round draft pick by the Packers in 2007. In the past, there have been questions about Wynn's motivation, but he seems to have put that behind him. Kregg Lumpkin, a second-year player who was coming on strong in '08 before suffering an injury, has performed well, as has rookie free agent Tyrell Sutton.
» It's hard to tell who has the edge in the ultra-tight competition between third-year man Allen Barbre and second-year pro Breno Giacomini to replace veteran Mark Tauscher as the starting right tackle. Although Barbre was No. 1 on the depth chart through the offseason while Giacomini was sidelined after undergoing ankle surgery, Giacomini has recently made himself noticed with his performance in camp drills.
» Matt Flynn seems to be winning the No. 2 quarterback job mainly by default. He has been solid, but the real reason he is considered the second-best player at the position is because his challenger, Brian Brohm, has been awful, according to most camp observers. The Packers like Flynn's scrappiness.
A year ago, Finley caught six passes for 74 yards and a touchdown. The bulk of his playing time in 14 games came in two- and three-tight-end sets, as well as on special teams. He also made one start.
However, Finley left Texas after his sophomore season and his immaturity showed on the field. With an NFL season under his belt, he looks to have a greater understanding of how to run routes and does so with considerable explosiveness. He also shows dependable hands, which should make him someone Rodgers looks to throw to more regularly this year.
Finley isn't much of a blocker, although he does show a willingness to block (witness his crushing peel-back block last week against Cleveland). It isn't enough of a liability to prevent the Packers from looking to take full advantage of his receiving skills.
"He's a special athlete; we knew that last year," McCarthy said. "Now we just have the ability to play him with all the different personnel groups. When you look to put together game plans, winning down the middle of the field is so important. The quickest way to the post is down the middle of the field. He's a big target, he's an athletic target. He's also a guy that gives us the ability to get in a one-on-one situation on the strong side of the formation.
"I'm excited about the improvement (Finley's) showing."
» Nose tackle B.J. Raji, the first of the Packers' two players selected in the first round, missed the first two weeks of camp while his contract was being negotiated. The former Boston College standout only has had two days of practice, so it's hard to draw any meaningful assessments about his performance. However, he did report to camp at 341 pounds, about six pounds heavier than his assigned maximum weight. Raji also has learned quickly, from his encounters with Green Bay's talented offensive linemen, that he'll need to rely much more on physical skills to succeed in the NFL. "(They do) a lot of holding," he said. "But I guess nothing will change in the games unless (the officials) call it." Raji should get some playing time in Saturday night's home preseason game against the Buffalo Bills.
» Linebacker Clay Matthews, Green Bay's second first-rounder, turned plenty of heads with his performance in the early part of camp. However, after a week or so, the former USC star began having recurring problems with a hamstring injury he suffered during offseason workouts and has been sidelined ever since.
» Offensive tackle T.J. Lang, a fourth-round pick from Eastern Michigan, has performed well enough to be in the mix at right tackle, although he is unlikely to overtake Barbre or Giacomini.
|Mike Roemer / Associated Press|
|When on the field, Clay Matthews has been impressive. However, the challenge has been getting onto the field for the rookie linebacker.|
The Lambeau Field Atrium, which is attached to the east side of the stadium, remains one of the more impressive structures in the NFL.
It truly is a football fan's paradise, even if he or she doesn't have a rooting interest in the Packers (although it helps). There are neat Packer-themed restaurants and retail shops, and wonderful photos, plaques and other displays celebrating the team's rich history.
Perhaps the best part of the place, though, is that fans can mingle, drinking in all of the history while also watching one of the many flat-screen televisions hanging from various spots with (what else?) sports on the screen.
"This has been a physical camp. We've been in pads a little bit more than we have in the past. We've gone at it as a team; we've had a couple of practices that got a little heated. But I feel like it really brought our team together. I think we're a tough team. I think we're a team that enjoys physical contact." -- Linebacker Brady Poppinga
» Donald Driver, the Packers' 34-year-old wide receiver in his 11th NFL season, said he would like to play until he is 40.
» Despite being rooted in offense, McCarthy believes the key to his team's success "needs to be about defense." That, more than anything, brought about the switch to the 3-4 and the hiring of a high-profile coordinator such as Capers.
» Defensive lineman Justin Harrell is understandably discouraged about the fact that he is once again bothered by persistent lower-back problems. Harrell had two surgeries in that area that kept him out of 10 games last season, and he is sidelined in camp.
» McCarthy believes, from top to bottom, he has the most depth he has ever had on his offensive line.