Several national publications are picking the Packers to win the NFC North and advance to the Super Bowl. How do you feel the players have handled all the preseason hype thus far?
I feel they’ve handled it. This isn’t the first time we’ve been recognized as a good football team in the NFL. The reality is everybody sets a goal at the beginning of the year. Those types of conversations are really for the beginning of training camp, and frankly I feel as a team we’ve moved past that. We’re really focused on winning one game at a time, and that starts with Philadelphia. It’s nice when people say good things about you, but you have to keep it in perspective. You don’t want to create any type of distraction that takes away from your energy and your focus on what’s most important. This is a one-week-at-a-time industry. Your football team can change either way week to week, so it’s important to stay on track.
You began training camp by embracing the Super Bowl talk, rather than dismissing it. Was there a particular reason you took that approach?
I didn’t really even think of it as taking one approach or the other. I was just honest. I’ve always set goals for every team that I’ve coached, for every position that I coached when I was a position coach. That’s the goal. Our goal is to win the Super Bowl. I think every team’s goal should be to win the Super Bowl. We’ve talked about it before. Maybe people didn’t listen before, but it’s been the goal in the past, and it’s definitely the goal this year, and we feel we’ve done the things necessary leading up to this point to put us on track for that. But it really all starts in Philadelphia. Right now it’s all talk. Talk doesn’t give you anything in this league.
You noted in Sports Illustrated the amount of responsibility you’ve given Aaron Rodgers in this offense. Do you expect him to perform even better than he did in 2009, and does he have to for this team to reach its goals?
The amount of responsibility has grown with the position, and it’s really a reflection of the success of Aaron, and Brett (Favre) prior to that, that we’ve been able to grow. It’s not all just about the quarterbacks being given more responsibility. I think it’s (that) our offensive unit has grown, and we’re able to do more at the line of scrimmage. Really, the opportunity he’s given is a reflection of his progress, but it’s also the progress of everybody around him. I expect everybody to handle it, because if we’re going to do more, everybody needs to be held accountable and make sure they produce.
Can he win the league MVP award, in your opinion?
I don’t get into that. I don’t even think about it. I think if he plays to his potential and the ball bounces our way … you have to be fortunate in a 16-game season … I think all those things are possible. I’m more concerned with team success. The priority of my thought process is when the team has success, all those other individual awards fall in line. Because frankly, when you have an individual who has extreme success just as a person in a team sport, but his team is not winning, something is out of balance there. So the most important thing for our football team is to be in balance, which will give us the best opportunity to win games. When we win games, when we win championships, I hope they all win individual awards, and they’ll probably be in line for it.
You’ve never been a defensive coach in the NFL, but how much will a matchup like Jermichael Finley keep opposing coordinators up at night?
It definitely starts the conversation for your opponent on defense as far as how they’re going to play you. When you have a matchup concern, and the matchup concern has the ability to play a number of different positions and line up in different alignments, you have to be aware of that, … whether it reduces the defenses you’re going to play, or (leads you to) try to create the matchup that you have on your side of the ball (to defend) a Jermichael Finley. It’s all part of the game. Every week there’s some matchup that you’re concerned about, and it’s no different for us too. When we look at defenses, there are very good players we have to make sure we handle properly.
Fans could see how the pass protection stabilized in the second half of last season, and you’re entering this season with the same starting group that finished ‘09. Do you feel you’re better protected against injury up front this year, should that starting five not remain intact?
We have more linemen on our roster, so that’s a positive. I feel that our experience level, particularly with our starting five, is the highest it’s been in my time in Green Bay. I like the younger players that are developing behind the starting five. I think our line group is starting to look the way it’s supposed to, top to bottom. But to be honest, the best lines in pro football are the ones that play together every week. When you look at a team that’s noted for their offensive line, I think the next stat that follows that is usually consecutive starts. When you get on a roll offensively, and you’ve got the same line that’s intact for a two-year period, that usually equates to some darn good football. It’s not a cliché to say it starts up front. It’s reality.
Can Charles Woodson continue to play at his high level as he turns 34 this fall?
I think he’s definitely prepared himself for it. I think he illustrated that through the preseason. He’s a workout warrior. He does a great job taking care of his body, preparing himself for every season. Very smart, very instinctive, physical as ever. So I think he definitely has prepared himself, and we’ll definitely give him the opportunities schematically to be in that position to be that productive.
Does it concern you to have a rookie in Morgan Burnett starting on defense in such a key communication spot?
I’ve kind of gotten used to it. But Morgan has earned that opportunity. It’s something that wasn’t given to him. It was an opportunity that was obviously created a little bit with Atari Bigby’s injury situation. But he stepped in there from Day 1 and you’re seeing progress. He’s done a very good job of the way he’s applied himself, the way he’s gone about his business. He’s doing all the extra things, which is important. You normally don’t see that in a young player. But he’s earned the opportunity, and I look for him to continue to get better each week.
The struggles in pass defense down the stretch against Pittsburgh and Arizona are well-documented. Yet you’ll be starting a rookie safety and perhaps a non-drafted rookie free agent in the nickel. Are you confident the pass defense won’t suffer through some of the same pitfalls as last year?
Absolutely. You can’t go backwards when it’s convenient. You can’t go backwards and look at the past when it’s convenient to look at the positive you did last year, and it’s the same thing when it comes to the negatives. We’ve spent a lot of time evaluating, addressing all the things in our defensive scheme from last year. We’ve had time to go over it and really cut the volume down. The only thing that you can concern yourself with, relative to the past, is you probably didn’t have the opportunity to rep it as much as you’d like (in training camp) with the same players on the field, just because of some injury situations. But that’s football. It happens to every team, and sometimes it happens more to you than others. But that’s part of the game. We have done the things we feel necessary that will give us the opportunity to improve in all areas on defense, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
You’ve often said a player can make his biggest jump from Year 1 to Year 2. What does that mean, in your opinion, relative to a player like Clay Matthews?
I think it’s stating the obvious. Clay Matthews made the Pro Bowl last year, but also he was a rookie. He was a rookie player that missed most of training camp with an injury, didn’t start and play the full game initially when he came back. We kind of broke him in, and then once he hit his stride he was very productive. But I think if Clay was sitting here next to me, he would echo the sentiments that it’s going to be a lot easier for him as far as the communication, the understanding and so forth. His part of it, he’s going to feel a lot more comfortable this year than he did last year. But also on the other side of the fence, he’s probably going to see more things this year than he saw last year. Whether they’re trying to chip him, and things they’re going to try to do to him to try to stop him from being as productive. The most important thing that you always look for is to control what you can control, and he has definitely improved through the offseason from being here. He has a much better understanding of our defense today than he did last year, and he’s a lot more comfortable with the things we’re asking him to do from a technique standpoint this year. Now, his performance level will definitely demonstrate that. Statistically, those answers will come, but I think he’s definitely a better football player today than he was last year.
Last year Matthews emerged as a star on defense, Finley on offense. Three months from now, who are the players you think we might be talking about as the ascending players of 2010?
I hope there’s a bunch of them. We had 11 first-year players make our football team – six draft picks, three undrafted free agents, and two first-year roster players. They’re on our team for a reason. I’m excited about their opportunity for development. But also there’s some veteran players in front of them, too. I think that tells you where we are as a team. They may not have the opportunities that some of the younger players we’ve had here in the past, and that’s OK because I think that just tells you our depth is intact and we’re using more people. But I hope there’s a bunch of them.
Some have characterized your decision to give starting cornerback Tramon Williams the punt return job, with starting receiver Greg Jennings the backup, as a sign that you’re “gambling” and “going all in” to win in 2010. Is that an accurate assessment?
What other way is there? I don’t understand the drama around that. It’s about winning games. It’s nice when people say nice things about you, but by no means do you think you can ever walk out there, throw your newspaper articles in the middle of the field and think that’s going to equate to winning. We’re going to have to go out to Philadelphia and play very well. We’re going to have to play very well in a hostile environment against a very good football team, a team that’s had a lot of success in their recent history here. We need to put our best foot forward. You can’t play scared in this league. I don’t really like to talk about injuries, but they’re part of the game. I think I’m just stating the obvious.
You’ve mentioned you feel the team has upgraded at punter with Tim Masthay. What else will lend itself toward better special teams play?
We’ve had an opportunity to look at our special teams, just like we did on offense and defense. We were very honest, and we changed some things from a punt-protection standpoint that we think will help our punter, as far as our ability to cover. It’s also the punter’s responsibility to make sure we’re only covering 40, 45 percent of the punts as opposed to 60-plus percent like last year. That in itself will give us an opportunity to be better in that phase. Same thing on kickoff coverage. We’ve adjusted some of our techniques and schemes, because we actually did very well stopping the opponent kickoff return inside the 20, but we had five big returns that came out against us, and that really factored in our overall ranking there. Kickoff return and punt return we’re going about it a little differently. We feel like we’ve changed some things up from a fundamental standpoint to make it cleaner for our players, because our penalties were way too high. We led the league in holding penalties in our return game. We feel we’ve addressed that from a fundamental standpoint and we had to emphasize it with more time and commitment to fundamental drills in training camp, and I expect those things to show up in games. I believe anytime you have an issue, you take it, you emphasize it as many different ways as you possibly can, you break it down as finite as you can for the players, you cut your volume down, and you give the players a chance to be successful, and I feel we’ve done that on special teams.
If you were to pinpoint the top three priorities for this team to achieve what it hopes to, what would they be?
Establish your identity, play to your identity, and handle success. I think that’s going to be a common message as I go day to day with this team into the future.