GREEN BAY – Mike Daniels was just a redshirt freshman and part-time player on Iowa’s defense at the time, but the moment still made a heck of an impression on him.
It was November 2008 and Daniels’ Hawkeyes, looking to turn around a sub-.500 Big Ten record, were hosting unbeaten and third-ranked Penn State.
The late Norm Parker, then Iowa’s defensive coordinator, addressed the team before the game, and Daniels will never forget it.
“He said, ‘Close your eyes and envision yourself doing something great. Envision yourself winning this game, envision that locker room after this win,’” Daniels recalled.
“‘Really see yourself doing something amazing. Shock the world.’”
The Hawkeyes did, and Parker’s words were repeated the following year when Iowa thwarted Penn State’s revenge attempt in Happy Valley with the Nittany Lions again ranked in the top five.
Now, inspirational stories from the college days are all fine and good, but they don’t win NFL games.
The part that Daniels is drawing upon for the 2017 Packers, though, is the mental message from Parker, who passed away three years ago just as Daniels’ career was getting ready to take off.
See it to believe it.
“It’s just a matter of really seeing ourselves in the Super Bowl, envisioning it, and knowing we can get there, because we’ve gotten very close,” Daniels said.
“As you get older, you get that much more mental toughness, and a lot of wisdom comes with it. I’ve been around a couple years. I’ve been in the playoffs every year, been to two NFC Championship games, been in divisional games, and I know this team can get there, it’s just a matter of making sure we all can believe we can get there.”
A vocal defensive leader whose 22 career sacks don’t tell the story of the dirty work he does in the trenches, Daniels will play a big part in any success the Packers have.
But he likes the additional veteran leaders that have been added to the team as well, particularly with the number of Packers who won Super Bowl XLV a half dozen years ago down to just six – Aaron Rodgers, Mason Crosby, Jordy Nelson, Clay Matthews, Bryan Bulaga, and Morgan Burnett, who was on injured reserve that year.
Tight end Martellus Bennett (Patriots, 2016) and guard Jahri Evans (Saints, 2009) are Super Bowl champs. Fellow defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois cut his teeth in the NFL in Vic Fangio’s superb defense with the 49ers, which helped get them to a Super Bowl in 2012, Jean Francois’ fourth year in the league.
“They were great. Big men, tough, nasty, but they played together. They were a true team,” Daniels said of those top-ranked San Francisco defenses that helped oust the Packers from the playoffs in his first two pro seasons.
“That’s something he’s brought over here, that mentality, because he’s seen it, he’s been a part of it.”
As accountable as any player in the locker room, Daniels knows the defense is the unit that can, and must, make the bigger jump in order for the Packers to take another step. The progress of youth will tell that tale.
Within his own position group, he likes what he sees with Kenny Clark “becoming a pro,” and in a “hard, tough kid” named Dean Lowry. He also likes young players who hit, mentioning safety Kentrell Brice and linebacker Joe Thomas.
In that vein, Daniels can’t say enough about the early returns on safety and second-round draft pick Josh Jones.
“The kid just does not care. He’s coming, he’s going to bring the wood, without the pads on, so I can only imagine he’s going to play physical with the pads on,” Daniels said. “He’s about his business. He doesn’t talk, he’s not joking, he isn’t here to make friends. He’s here to play football.
“He’s here to earn a job and he’s here to prove that he belongs here, and when you get a young guy like that, that makes me work even that much harder.”
Entering his sixth NFL season, Daniels has cracked the NFL Network’s “Top 100” list two years running, with a Pro Bowl berth seemingly around the corner (he was named an alternate last year).
He’s vowing to do his part, he’s going to believe, and he’s going to direct others to do both as best he can. He sees a locker room filled with other capable leaders and willing followers, and he’s eager to see just where it’s headed.
“I think we’re making a lot of steps in the right direction,” he said.
“We have to make sure we get there. To have one of the best quarterbacks to ever play this game – and he is, he is – we’ve only been to one Super Bowl, and we have to make sure we change that.”