GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- On Tuesday, I spent the day at Lambeau Field with the winner of Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
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Aaron Rodgers is the best quarterback and leader in the NFL
Sorry, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Ben Roethlisberger and anyone named Manning. Rodgers' touchdown-to-interception ratio last year (45-to-6) was out of this world. His back-shoulder throw is borderline unfair. As tight end Jermichael Finley said, "You get out of your break and the ball is there. Every single time."
Last summer when the SiriusXM radio show I host visited Packers camp, Rodgers insisted on bringing Matt Flynn to the interview to give him exposure. Rodgers did the same thing this year with Graham Harrell. That's leadership. That's being a great teammate. When I told Rodgers how impressive it was, he quipped, with a nod to his well-documented relationship with Brett Favre, "It has been a long-standing tradition in Green Bay to help the backup quarterback, and I wanted to keep it going."
Whether it is talking to a player on the practice field or in the locker room, insisting on teammates joining him for cover shoots, or the reluctance to do a press conference at a podium (where he stands out, apart from teammates), Rodgers takes his leadership role very seriously. His teammates notice and respect him.
Rodgers has the best group of receivers in the NFL
Even more than being elite, the receiving corps is deep and versatile. This group can make plays down the field, get tough yards over the middle and succeed in the red zone. Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones, Donald Driver and Randall Cobb form an unstoppable, team-oriented, relatively ego-free group. Rodgers' favorite receiver is the open one.
Jermichael Finley promises to "blow this thing out the roof"
Rodgers and Harrell smirked when I informed them of that quote from the tight end. General manager Ted Thompson said Finley has "untapped potential," which is usually not an expression you want associated with a fifth-year veteran. Thompson explained, "He can do more. It is one thing to want that. It is another to do it." Finley said he understood where his general manager was coming from. The 25-year-old believes the key is "playing the same every down."
Finley is capable of putting up Rob Gronkowski/Jimmy Graham numbers, or at least having the same presence. Injuries, and the aforementioned talent at receiver, have prevented that. While Green Bay's receivers are a humble bunch, Finley talks openly about being recognized as a top tight end. He could be an even bigger force for the Packers this year.
Cedric Benson is Mariano Rivera
Benson got emotional three weeks ago on a radio with us, breaking down, miffed that he wasn't signed. Thompson said, "He is very keen to show people he can still play." McCarthy added, "Cedric is an accomplished back and a powerful man. We can pound the football."
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Green Bay always will be a pass-first team, even as McCarthy talks about striving for balance. But with Benson, the Packers believe they can run the ball and control the clock in the second half of games.
Benson has had off-field issues, which contradicts Thompson's usually conservative approach to free agency. Thompson explained, "We've all been young or lacked maturity at one time or another. He's grown up a bit."
The defense is better
The Packers' 32nd ranking in total defense last season was inflated a bit -- Rodgers and the offense jumped out to big leads and teams threw the ball to catch up -- but a lot of that putrid ranking was earned.
The players took the blame. They know what went wrong. And they are angry.
Charles Woodson: "Last year we weren't having any fun. We didn't execute. We didn't get off the field on third down. Our energy level wasn't where it needed to be. It is different now."
Thompson drafted Nick Perry to play outside linebacker. McCarthy isn't even having Perry dabble on special teams, focusing solely on defense. That's the first time McCarthy has done that with a rookie. The head coach explained, "Nick is a powerful man who can overpower a tackle. I'm going to commit to this guy." Perry's presence will help Matthews get to the quarterback.
In the secondary, Woodson is moving to safety. It puts pressure on corners Tramon Williams, Sam Shields, Jarrett Bush and rookie Casey Hayward. I think Williams is one of the most important players on the team. Two years ago, he was a budding star. Last season, injuries derailed his progress and his play was subpar. Morgan Burnett returns at safety after injury ruined his 2011 season.
McCarthy is the right man to steer the ship
McCarthy is a big reason why Green Bay will return to championship form. His players love playing for him. He has grown as a coach, becoming more player-friendly while still being a task master and putting a keen emphasis on practice, focus and discipline. And McCarthy has a superb coaching staff that he relies on heavily.
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When we caught up with McCarthy, he was frustrated by the "roller coaster" of injuries early in the preseason, but energized by the development of his team.
The schedule is tough. The division is better. Green Bay will win the NFC North, but I don't see the Pack going 15-1. McCarthy pointed to the four games to start the season -- vs. 49ers, vs. Bears, at Seahawks, vs. Saints -- as particularly challenging. I think the Packers' opener against San Francisco will be a preview of the NFC title game. Sorry, Giants.
At the end of this season, the conversation will shift to McCarthy's place, and Rodgers' place, in NFL history.