IRVING, Texas -- The Green Bay Packers have been the NFL's youngest team for most of coach Mike McCarthy's five-year tenure. His teams were energetic, competitive and, at times, undisciplined and rudderless.
That youth manifested itself as recently as this season. Players noted they lost their composure in an 18-penalty performance against the Chicago Bears in Week 3. Their Week 12 loss to the Atlanta Falcons was their sixth consecutive loss to come in the final 10 seconds of regulation or in overtime. Something was missing, and McCarthy was pretty sure he knew what was missing.
"Leadership was something that we needed to have more of as a football team," McCarthy said. "It's something that I have given a lot of thought to over the last couple of years and just creating those opportunities."
Yes, on the way to Super Bowl XLV, McCarthy manufactured an internal leadership structure for the team. It's difficult to measure the impact of the leaders who emerged, other than suggesting it's not entirely coincidental that the Packers have won five consecutive "elimination" games since the effort started gaining steam.
"I just think it's a fact that there has been a greater sense of urgency and resolve from the guys," said quarterback Aaron Rodgers, one of McCarthy's chief targets. "There have been guys stepping up and playing better."
McCarthy rotated team captains during the regular season, choosing a different player each week to give game-day talks. It was a tryout of sorts, and Rodgers viewed it as an important team-building exercise.
"Allowing a different guy every week to talk and call the team up has really showed us different sides of these guys that we didn't know had great leadership qualities before this," Rodgers said. "Guys like A.J. [Hawk], guys like Scott [Wells], guys like Ryan Pickett, have gotten in front of the team and said things that [were] kind of long overdue. Mike allowing those guys to talk before the games has really meant a lot to them and also to their teammates, because it's allowed us to see a different side of them."
Ultimately, the team chose six playoff captains: Rodgers, Hawk, receiver Greg Jennings, cornerback Charles Woodson, place-kicker Mason Crosby and special-teams cover man Jarrett Bush. As we discussed last week, that group has pushed Woodson to speak after games. Rodgers conducts the pregame prayer.
"Giving those men an opportunity to be in front of the team more, our leadership has definitely picked up, especially down the run," McCarthy said.
Again, leadership is a difficult asset to quantify. Did having stronger team leaders help B.J. Raji intercept a pass and return it for a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game? Did it help Rodgers reach the corner of the end zone on a 1-yard touchdown run against the Chicago Bears?
I'm not sure that leadership surfaces at any particular moment, but it almost certainly manifests over time. Cornerback Tramon Williams, for instance, clinched the wild-card playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles by correctly reading an end zone route he had seen on film. Who taught him how to cull tips from film? Woodson.
Leaders are also important for setting a game-day tone. The Packers, for instance, walked off the Georgia Dome carpet in Week 12 convinced they had allowed a victory to slip from their grasp. "We left a lot of plays on that field," Woodson said at the time.
In their playoff rematch, the Packers were determined to leave no doubt. So it was notable that when Rodgers called players together on the field just before kickoff, he said one word: "Dominate!"
All groups need both leaders and followers to work efficiently, and in that sense the Packers have made themselves a better team as a result.
"It's worked out very well." McCarthy said. "It's something I think has definitely worked. It's an opportunity for our leaders to step to the forefront and I've watched [Rodgers and Woodson] grow, particularly this last month as leaders, and our football team has responded in a very favorable way."
Note: ESPN's Ed Werder has more on Woodson's final word in the video below.