GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The NFL lockout robbed the Green Bay Packers of some traditional pomp and circumstance normally afforded to Super Bowl champions. They have yet to visit the White House. Their ring distribution was pushed back to an anticlimactic mid-June ceremony. Some key players didn't finalize new contracts until late July.
So as they reported to training camp this past weekend, the Packers were focused on recreating the special circumstances that led to their Super Bowl XLV victory in hopes of an encore trip this season. They bid farewell to several players whose jobs were phased out by the end of 2010, but at the public behest of quarterback Aaron Rodgers and others, they brought back a number of others whose secondary contributions seemed too valuable to lose.
"That was important," Rodgers said. "I don't think you get better by robbing from the whole. We were fortunate enough to bring back some of our guys and also bring some guys back who were injured. You start off with a great amount of chemistry between the guys. It's a close-knit locker room, and guys hang out with each other, enjoy spending time together and enjoy working together.
"So we have that going for us, which I know doesn't go on for every team, and that does a lot. When you can count on the guy next to you, when you spend time with him, when you spend time after practice watching film, that's important stuff when it comes down to crunch time and winning games."
Appropriately, I spoke with Rodgers only after he wrapped up a locker room card game. Having been apart for the entire offseason, Packers players clearly were relishing the renewal of friendships and bonds forged during their championship run. Coach Mike McCarthy said the Packers' "No. 1 issue" will be handling success, and players are channeling that request toward a second Super Bowl title -- and a proper celebration afterward.
"A-Rod was able to keep some of the guys that he wants so they can still be explosive," safety Nick Collins said. "We kept some of our main people on defense so we can keep doing what we're doing. Now it's just a matter of putting it all together again."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Tight end Jermichael Finley is back (most of him): Felled last season by a Week 5 knee injury and later a postsurgical infection, the Packers tight end reported to training camp in superb shape after a long rehabilitation. He has without question trimmed his already-wiry frame and drew skepticism when he insisted he weighed in at 240 pounds.
The Packers' medical staff prescribed a gradual return to football activities, but it didn't take long for Finley to display his unique receiving skills during an individual drill. When two quarterbacks inadvertently threw him passes, Finley calmly caught one and tucked it under his arm, then caught the other.
Finley's return will prove as challenging as it is exciting and should be a focal point over the next few weeks. After his injury, the Packers refocused their offense around receiver Greg Jennings. Rodgers said it will be a "challenge" to fold in the pre- and post-injury schemes.
"You add another talented guy back to the mix like that," Rodgers said, "and it's tough to get the ball around to all of our skill guys. You've got to find a way to get everyone else involved, realizing that you might be bringing back the most talented guy to the offense.
"When [Finley] is out there, we're a different team. Defensive coordinators have a difficult job when they're trying to figure out how to cover him. It's going to be important for us to find ways to get him the ball but also to keep the other guys involved who played big roles for us last year."
2. The extents of leadership: Rodgers said in a number of interviews that he wanted the Packers to re-sign receiver James Jones and running back John Kuhn. Both returned with three-year contracts on Sunday.
But Rodgers insisted in the strongest terms possible that he never went to general manager Ted Thompson to plead either case. "That's 100 percent untrue," he said.
Asked how much he talked to Thompson or coach Mike McCarthy about the issue, Rodgers said: "Zero."
He added, "I don't get paid to do that. I get paid to play quarterback. I don't make those decisions. You look at Ted's track record. He's done an incredible job of bringing in talent. They've done an incredible job bringing in talent; they bring in the talent, I get paid to play quarterback. It's not my style to go up there and say anything to those guys."
At the same time, let's not be naive. When a Super Bowl MVP publicly calls for a reasonable personnel move, it shouldn't be surprising to see it happen.
3. Backfield rotation: I saw no evidence that the Packers plan for anything other than Ryan Grant to be their starting tailback when the season opens. There has been plenty of discussion about Grant's future after the postseason emergence of James Starks and the arrival of rookie Alex Green, but Grant worked with the first team throughout the first three days of practice and had some runs, McCarthy said, "that looked like Ryan Grant looks like in the regular season."
Starks also got some time with the first team, and that kind of rotation is fully expected to continue. The one question mark is on third downs following the free-agent departure of Brandon Jackson. Neither Grant nor Starks is known for his receiving ability. Could Green be that guy? Or is that why Rodgers wanted Kuhn back? I'm guessing it's the latter.
Under McCarthy, the Packers have a long history of shifting offensive linemen to fill vacant positions. But it was still interesting to see first-round draft pick Derek Sherrod line up at left guard with the first team for three consecutive practices.
Sherrod was drafted as a left tackle and said he had never played left guard before Saturday evening. He appeared to hold his own on a physical level, although there was no doubt that his head was swimming in the Packers' playbook.
"Once he gets it down mentally, he's going to be a damn good player," right guard Josh Sitton said. "I think he's got the confidence. He's got the talent level. I think he's going to be a good player."
If Sherrod maintains his spot, the Packers will open the season with two first-round picks and one second-rounder among their five starters. And after adding his 6-foot-5, 321-pound frame to the group, the Packers now have what McCarthy called "our biggest line in my six years here."
Since last summer, we've been hearing about the potential of defensive end Mike Neal, the Packers' second-round pick in the 2010 draft. His chiseled 294-pound frame certainly looks the part. But Neal didn't practice much during my time in Green Bay because he is still recovering from surgery this past fall to repair a torn labrum and rotator cuff in his shoulder.
I'm not in any way questioning Neal's toughness or the level of his rehabilitation. But the departure of veteran Cullen Jenkins opened the door for Neal to take the right end job and own it. Nothing can happen until he heals and strings together a few weeks of uninterrupted practice. The Packers are hoping to accelerate his return by the end of this week. For now, the Packers are using C.J. Wilson in that spot.
Rookie Randall Cobb is working at all three receiving positions as both a kickoff and punt returner and even as the backup holder. His acceleration and aggressiveness in the open field were eye-opening, at least with the team in shorts and helmets. Although much could change, McCarthy said he is giving Cobb a longer look at punt returner than at kickoffs. He is hoping Green emerges to handle the latter.
McCarthy has been complimentary of rookie tight ends D.J. Williams and Ryan Taylor. Both are athletic and have good hands. Because of Finley's return schedule and Andrew Quarless' hip flexor, Williams and Taylor both got good work with the first team. You have to wonder whether Williams, especially, will challenge Quarless' roster spot.
The Packers have shifted to a new camp schedule that features one practice a day, usually with a 7 p.m. local start. The plus for players? No two-a-days. The downside? "There are a lot more meetings," linebacker Clay Matthews said. Rodgers said, "We're in meetings all day. It's a great opportunity for young guys to get into the playbook. But it is a longer day because you're in meetings, but it's positive for the young guys." McCarthy planned this schedule before the lockout, but in the end it will help new players catch up quicker.
Matthews slimmed down with a focus on running this offseason and came to training camp determined to avoid the hamstring injuries he incurred in the Packers' previous two training camps. (Did he really need those camps? You decide.) I thought it was interesting that on the first play of team drills in full pads, Matthews stood up right tackle Bryan Bulaga and made the stop on a running play. One of the Packers' weaknesses last season was run defense on Matthews' side.
Why was Jones' return so important? Here's how Jennings put it: "We're looked at and viewed as one of the better receiving corps in the NFL. You unplug any one of those guys, that outlook kind of goes down. I don't care which one you unplug, it goes down. If we had lost James, we definitely would have had a void to fill."
McCarthy hasn't always kept three quarterbacks on his 53-man roster, but he likes what he's seen from No. 3 quarterback Graham Harrell. I like keeping the third quarterback, and frankly it's risky the way we've gone about it," McCarthy said. "If you asked me my druthers, if I could keep three quarterbacks, I would always keep three, and I would have a fourth on developmental. It's the most important position in football. ... When it was Brett [Favre] and Aaron you never blinked. But Matt [Flynn] has also now shown he is durable and a tough guy, so he's also given us that flexibility to go and carry the extra DB. But if you're asking me to assess it from a risk standpoint, I would definitely lean toward keeping a third."
I saw one padded practice in my three days with the Packers. It lasted nearly two and a half hours. McCarthy called it "sluggish," but to me it was understandable. The biggest sign that players weren't quite in their element yet: not a single fight or raised temper that I could see.
Safety Morgan Burnett (knee) has been cleared for full practice but is not yet working with the first team. To this point, at least, Charlie Peprah has maintained his starting spot. At right outside linebacker, however, the Packers rotated three players with the first team: Frank Zombo, Erik Walden and Brad Jones.