Mike Daniels, Packers eager to avenge playoff loss to Cards

GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- It was only about an hour into Packers training camp, barely enough time for the players to get lathered up on a sunny 80-degree morning while nearly the rest of the NFL players had yet to even report to their respective camps.

It was, in Mike Daniels' mind, enough time to set the tone for what he, the defense and the entire team expect.

The veteran defensive end and team leader walked over to rookie nose tackle Kenny Clark, the team's first-round pick who missed most of the spring because of NFL rules that prevented him from practicing while UCLA's classes were in session. A late arrival and an inexperienced player who hasn't even turned 21 yet, Clark will nonetheless be needed to contribute in for a team that could use help in the middle of the defensive line.

Which is why Daniels started barking at him after seeing Clark absorb a hit from an offensive linemen without delivering one back.

"If he fires off, you knock his (butt) down!" Daniels yelled at Clark loud enough for most of the defensive players to take note. "I don't care if we don't have pads on! No friendly (stuff) out here!"

Maybe a glorified walk-through pace would be accepted in college. Perhaps even on one of the other 31 practice fields in the NFL. But not here. Not for a team with expectations of a title. Expectations that seem to be climbing by the day.

This is a team that considers last season's 10-6 regular season and playoff run to the Divisional Round -- an overtime away from the NFC Championship game -- to be a disappointment. Never mind Aaron Rodgers was without his top target in Jordy Nelson and that Eddie Lacy was overweight and having a self-described "bad year." Forget that Clay Matthews was playing inside instead of creating havoc on the edges like he would love to do (and will do again this season). Ignore whatever effects Mike McCarthy's giving up play calling had on the flow of the offense early in the season.

Forget all of that because no one seems to be giving the Packers a pass for any of it. Last season was, unequivocally, a disappointment for this team and this fan base.

Which is why everyone on this team and in this organization knows what the expectations are for 2016.

"This is an All-Star roster," Daniels told NFL Media in the locker room following Tuesday's practice. "That motivates you, but that also can really upset you when things don't go right because it's like, 'Man, we have some of the best players in the league. We have a bunch of All-Pros, a bunch of Pro Bowlers, bunch of fringe All-Pro, fringe Pro Bowl guys year in and year out.' The scouting they do here is amazing and then the development they do is amazing as well.

"Just getting to the NFC Championship isn't good enough. Winning the Super Bowl is what the expectations are. Here, there's such a rich history of success that, when you come here, you're supposed to win. If you don't, you really fell way short of the line."

It's not just the Packers' rich history. It's also the fact they have one of the best quarterbacks in the game in his prime right now. In this league, that will make a team a contender every single year.

Except Rodgers is coming off a year in which he posted his lowest totals in yards per game (238.8), yards per attempt (6.7) and passer rating (92.7) since he became the team's starter in 2008. Nelson's absence contributed to the offense's issues, as did the struggles of Lacy (758 yards and three touchdowns) and the running game. But Rodgers' slimming down this offseason by cutting out dairy and focusing on eating better indicates he believes his conditioning could've been better in 2015.

With Nelson back eventually (he's on the PUP list to start camp but all indications are he'll be ready well in advance of Week 1), Lacy and Rodgers in better shape, McCarthy back to calling the plays and an offseason of adjustments to the scheme that have coach and quarterback confident once again, the standards on offense are as high as ever.

"I would say Aaron's vibe and really his offseason participation and performance looks to line up for a great year," McCarthy said. "He's in great shape, this is the best shape I've seen him in. ... I would say he's ready to go, I know he's excited."

Said Rodgers, "We have a standard we've set around here. We all, myself included, came up short last year. So we've got to back to doing what we do best on offense -- being consistent and take some pressure off our defense."

True, though the defense is a big reason for optimism as well.

Matthews is back on the outside, where he recorded 13 1/2 sacks in 2010 and 13 more in 2012. Safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is coming off a 100-tackle, three-sack, two-interception season that has the coaching staff dreaming of even bigger things. Linebacker Datone Jones has dropped 15 pounds after moving from defensive end and appears motivated to set up a big payday as a free agent this offseason. And cornerback Sam Shields remains a reliable cover guy.

But for this defense and team to truly meet expectations, they're going to need contributions from the young guys. Rookie fourth-round pick Blake Martinez, who impressed the veterans with his demeanor and smarts this offseason, could push Sam Barrington for a starting jon at inside linebacker. That's the spot next to last year's fourth-round pick Jake Ryan, who will be asked to take another big step forward in his development.

And then there's Clark, who could very well wind up starting in the middle to open the season. The Packers are without B.J. Raji, who is on a "hiatus" from football and nose tackle Mike Pennelwill be suspended the first four games for a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy.

The opportunity in front of Clark, the need for him to develop immediately and the high expectations of the team as a whole are why Daniels got all over the youngster on Tuesday.

"Oh yeah, letting him know from day one, it's helmets and shells only but I don't care," Daniels said. "If they're coming out full-steam, you come out harder. That's just how it is. It's the game of football. When you set that tone, it carries through the rest of the season. There shouldn't be any drop-off."

There was a bit of drop-off in the Packers' overtime loss to the Cardinals in January. Daniels was chasing Carson Palmer as he threw across the field to Larry Fitzgerald, who weaved past Matthews and a few Green Bay defenders on his 75-yard catch-and-run that set up his game-winning touchdown.

"I'm hard on myself. I should've gotten that sack at the end of the game. I failed," said Daniels, who hesitated for a moment before chasing Palmer on a scramble. "I've been very upset about that."

Everyone around here seems upset about that game. They've carried it with them this offseason and used it as motivation. Much as folks in, say, Buffalo or Cleveland would love the chance to make the playoffs, advance to the Divisional Round, take a good team to overtime and play in an exciting game like that, the Packers see it as a black mark on their record and a game they should have won.

"That was a very good football team," Daniels said, pausing for a moment before adding: "But we're a really good football team as well so that's not excuse for us and that's why we have the continued success that we do around here."

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