GREEN BAY – Day 1 of training camp is an animal all its own to veteran players.
It’s the start of something new that in many ways is the same old slog. It’s a reunion of teammates with everyone physically feeling great, but the body’s battles are just beginning.
Football-wise, the practice structure is familiar. The installation of the playbook is routine. There really aren’t any surprises, except what all this work is eventually going to produce.
“There’s a lot of unknowns,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers said following Thursday morning’s opening practice. “How the team is going to come together, how you’re going to start jelling on offense, defense, special teams. Personalities coming out, team chemistry. So it’s an exciting time of year.”
Some vets were trying to keep the opening-day atmosphere light and playful.
New tight end Martellus Bennett, who slept in the locker room two nights ago when he arrived in Green Bay too late to check into the St. Norbert College dorms, donned a cheesehead to meet with the media. He took questions from defensive tackle Mike Daniels posing as an NFL Network reporter while safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix looked on.
“I usually like the metaphorical cheese that goes in my pocket, but the cheese that goes on my head works as well,” Bennett said of his hat choice.
All kidding aside, it can seem overwhelming to ponder starting all over when slightly more than six months ago the Packers were taking the field at the Georgia Dome for a shot at the Super Bowl.
But veteran players have succeeded and stuck around as long as they have because they know the right mental approach to take. Now is not the time to think about how far away the team is from getting where it wants to go.
“When I feel that is when we lost at Atlanta, when you end the season, because then you realize what all you have to go through to get back to that opportunity, and that’s when it’s really daunting,” said receiver Jordy Nelson, entering his 10th season and now two years removed from ACL surgery on his knee.
“But right now, as cliché as it is, you focus one day at a time. Because if you look at the big picture, it’s going to be a long month. Training camp will be a grind.”
It’s the nature of the beast, but vets will pace themselves, knowing how to get ready for Week 1. That will begin another long haul, and how a team finishes an NFL season matters more than how it starts.
That said, Rodgers emphasized that starting 4-6 before getting hot late is not the best way of doing business. Last year, the offense didn’t hit its stride until late November and then didn’t slow down for nearly two months, but he doesn’t plan on waiting that long in 2017.
“We just have to find that a little quicker,” Rodgers said of the offensive rhythm that generally defines the Packers’ best stretches. “A lot of that has to do with just finding the right personnel group we want to run, and being able to find that consistency.
“Obviously, I have to play a little better early in the season. We finished (the regular season) the way we wanted to finish it, we just have to get that going a little sooner.”
It helps that center Corey Linsley didn’t have to begin camp on the physically unable to perform list (PUP) after missing the offseason program due to ankle surgery. Linsley practiced on Thursday, stepping in right where expected in the middle of the No. 1 offensive line.
He’ll be able to spend camp and the preseason getting in sync with the new guard to his right, free-agent signee and six-time Pro Bowler Jahri Evans, about whom no one anticipates any issues fitting in.
“He’s constantly communicating, constantly talking about this look, that look, and that’s fantastic for a guy like me looking to learn from a guy like him,” Linsley said.
As camp and the preseason progress on offense, the Packers will learn just how the depth charts at running back behind Ty Montgomery, and at receiver behind the big three of Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams, will take shape.
After that, it’s on to pursuing a ninth straight postseason appearance, which would tie the league record, and hopefully the franchise’s second championship in that span.
Rodgers is the first to admit eight straight playoff trips is “an accomplishment, but you want more titles.”
Always optimistic, Rodgers again believes the Packers are in position, but how it will play out is the biggest of the unknowns.
“I think us players have to take ownership of it and play better and finish this thing off,” Rodgers said. “We have to do our part.”
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