Homegrown Packers trained to embrace lofty expectations

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The question was asked weekly, as the Green Bay Packers got to 11-0 ... then 12-0 ... then 13-0.

Now, finally, Mike McCarthy can answer it.

"Would I have let them go for it? If I didn't think it was gonna jeopardize our chance to win a Super Bowl, definitely," the Packers coach said on Monday. "The football team earned that."

Seems like an old subject now, doesn't it? Since the Packers marched into Kansas City at 13-0, Tebowmania has crashed and risen; Ben Roethlisberger's bad ankle improved and worsened; and Drew Brees shattered Dan Marino's passing record -- a mark that Tom Brady also blew past.

But heed McCarthy's words, as his Packers awake from their slumber, back in a full-on game week for the first time since Christmas night. This 15-1 juggernaut is certainly not yesterday's news. As their coach said, they've earned their way here. The players were rested and paced over the last three weeks for one real reason -- their leader knew they could handle it. And now the NFL's best team is ready to achieve something else. Super Bowl repeat or bust? Well, yeah, and it's not because I'm writing it or anyone else outside the building is saying it.

"We don't make decisions based on external opinions or expectations. I've made it loud and clear -- It's about winning championships in Green Bay," McCarthy told me Monday. "Scoring titles and great regular seasons, they don't put banners on the wall for that. This place is about winning championships. Period. That's always been the expectation. We don't need people trying to help us, or not help us, in that way. That's all we've ever talked about."

The Packers -- practically anointed as the new decade's burgeoning powerhouse on the Super Bowl podium in January -- spent the first three-and-a-half months of the season under a white-hot spotlight that only got brighter with time. The target on their back never went away. And every week, for 13 weeks, they were up to the task. This team, stocked with homegrown talent, has been trained to deal with lofty expectations from the very beginning. It was part of their NFL upbringing.

"I'd go back to my first team meeting, the first topic that I talked about, back in '06, was 'We're gonna win the next world championship here and our toughest challenge will be handling success,' " McCarthy explained. "Now, you have different levels of success, and the ultimate success is winning the Super Bowl. We've done a number of things throughout the year and, any time as a coach, that's my responsibility -- any time we feel they need to be reminded of the importance of handling success, whether it's a five-game win streak or winning your division."

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Every Thursday, McCarthy has what he calls "continuing education" with his players. The idea is to reinforce the lessons the program has taught them as they've grown together. It's a different topic each week, but some things come up more than others, particularly the "handling success" one.

"We've been hitting that message consistently, really my whole time here in Green Bay, but more this year than ever, because of the successful season we've had," McCarthy said.

Suffice it to say, McCarthy's guys have learned.

That's not to say they're perfect, of course, even though they came close to 16-0. The defense, ranked fifth in 2010, finished dead last in the NFL this year and needs more from slumping stars like Tramon Williams. The running game isn't exactly conjuring memories of the Lombardi Power Sweep either, ranking 27th overall and in a three-way tie for 26th in yards per carry.

But the coach also isn't trembling while evaluating the areas where the holes lie, because -- and this is vital -- the team is honest about itself.

"It's the highest character team that I've coached in my time here," McCarthy continued. "It's a very healthy locker room that gets it; they understand the importance of being humble, what strength humility can bring to you. I think it's really helped us handle adverse situations. ... Winning 15 games, that's a pretty good evaluator. You don't see a bunch of yahoos out there bouncing off the wall every time we won a game. I think that tells you something about the type of people we have here."

This week the team was hit with a different kind of adversity -- real life adversity -- with the death of the son of Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin. When I talked to McCarthy on Monday, the situation was still unfolding. He said the team would adhere to its "family first" mantra, giving Philbin all the time and support he needs, and confirmed that there are contingency plans in place.

Whether Philbin returns by Sunday or not, McCarthy promised, "We'll be ready." In the first 13 games of the season, the Packers certainly were. And that brings us back to the coach's decision, had Green Bay won in Kansas City, to let his team keep its head down for a run at 16-0. His players knew.

"I told the team -- and it's a good lesson to learn -- they earned the right to go for the undefeated season, as long as all the elements were in line," McCarthy explained. "I wasn't going to jeopardize a Super Bowl for the undefeated season. But we didn't get that far, we didn't take care of business in Kansas City."

That's a moot point now.

"It's playoff time," McCarthy said. "We need to kick it into another gear."

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